Fact: when executed poorly, exposition is a boat anchor tied to the story’s balls. It drags everything down. The plot cannot move. The plot grows fat and dies. Crows eat its eyes. Possums breed in dead bowels.
Fact: exposition remains necessary to convey information in storytelling.
Fact: exposition must be handled by a deft touch for it not to bog down your narrative ball-sack.
Fact: pterodactyls are really quite cool.
Okay, that last one maybe isn’t relevant, but it remains fact just the same. All I’m trying to say is, you want to write a story, you’re going to have to deal with exposition in some form, and this list is about that. I present to you, 25 ways to twist exposition to your will, turning it into a dancing gimp that will serve you…
…and serve the audience.
1. The Meaning Of Show, Don’t Tell
Like most easily-digestible protein-nuggets of writing advice, Show-Don’t-Tell is one that ends up confusing. After all, what we do is called storytelling, and then in the next breath we’re chided for telling and not showing. And yet, the advice remains true just the same. Exposition is often the biggest customer in terms of telling-above-showing, and it reeks of amateur hour karaoke. Here’s an example: consider the difference of you telling me “John is an assassin,” and you showing me the act of John stalking and killing a dude on the job. The former is dull: a narrative name-tag, a Facebook profile. The latter is engaging: action and example. This is the key to exposition always, always, always: stop telling, start showing.
2. Get In Late, Get Out Early
Leave yourself no room for exposition. Start the story as late into the plot as you can; extract yourself at first opportunity. You can’t eat ice cream that ain’t in the freezer. And by “ice cream” I mean “dead stripper.”
3. Imagine The Audience Is Sitting There, Staring At You
Everybody tells stories, and everybody’s had that moment where they start to lose the audience sitting in front of them. “C’mon,” they’ll say, making some kind of impatient gesture because, uhh, hello, the season finale of The Bachelor is on? You greedy asshole? God forbid you don’t get your reality TV fix, you mongrels. … uhh, sorry. Point is, when that happens you gotta ramp it up. You gotta get to the point. Imagine when writing your story — script, novel, short fiction, whatever — that the audience is sitting there, making that gesture. Even better: imagine them slapping billy clubs against their open palms. In other words: cut the shit and hurry it up. A guy’s got things to do. Like bury that “ice cream” in the Mojave desert.
4. Binge And Purge
Fuck it. Write a zero draft with as much exposition as you can fit in your fool mouth. Vomit forth great globs of word sauce ’til it hardens. On subsequent drafts, chop and whittle any exposition to a toothpick point.
5. Lock Up The Backstory In Its Own Plexiglass Enclosure
Open up a separate document from script or manuscript. Lock it away in its own cage. When parts need to come out and play, let them. Gas the rest with a nerve agent. Cover it with dirt.
6. Learn To Spot Expository Fol-de-rol
You can’t cure exposition unless you know how to spot it. Learn what it is. Learn to mark its footprints, its scat-tracks. Two characters talking about shit they should already know? One character descending into a bizarre, out-of-place soliloquy? Giant cinder block paragraphs that fall from the sky and crush the audience beneath them? Identify exposition where it lives, fucks, and eats. Then prepare the orbital laser.
7. Fold Exposition Into Action, Like Ingredients Into Delicate Batter
Dramatic action is — a-duh — action infused with drama, like vodka infused with elderberries and/or the screams of my enemies. As action unfolds, it reveals data you want the audience to have. Instead of putting forth a scene where characters plan a heist, get right to the heist — the heist reveals the plan. That’s not to say you can’t make a heist-planning scene evocative and with its own dramatic action and tension, but only serves to show that action needn’t be — and perhaps shouldn’t be — separate from exposition.
8. I Would Listen To That Guy Read The Phone Book
Listen, if you have to institute exposition to convey critical information, then you at least should do it with style, putting it in a voice that is not only readable, but compelling. I would read a fucking diner menu were it written by a writer with a great voice (say, Joe Lansdale) — so, if you’re going to take time out to foist information upon a reader’s head, then at least make it snappy.
9. Talk It Out, You Nattering Chatterkitties
Chatterkitty almost sounds like an Indian curry dish, doesn’t it? “I’ll take two samosas, and one vegetable chatterkitty. Medium spice, please.” Anyway, point is, characters can reveal backstory through dialogue — but it has to be done right. Like I said, two characters sharing data they should already know is a clear sign, as are long-winded monologues. An info-dump is still a steaming pile whether it comes from your ass or the mouth of a character. Characters shouldn’t ever give up great heaps of information — they should resist it. Revelation should be done with tension; a villain doesn’t want to give up his plan but must under torture.
10. The World Reveals Its Own Backstory
A war-torn city. A shattered hill-top. A modern megalopolis. A garden protected by angels. The details of setting show the wounds and scars of history. Environment reveals exposition.
11. Artifacts As Artifice
Further, the world offers up artifacts — newspapers, blogs, e-mails, epitaphs, relics, holo-discs, etc. — that convey expository detail. Characters can find these and learn them at the same time as the audience.
12. The Audience Is On A “Need-To-Know” Basis
Whenever you encounter the urge to info-dump, pause. Take a deep breath. Then ask: what does the audience need to know? Like, what information here is so bloody critical that without it the story loses its way, like an old person in a shopping mall? Separate “need” from “want” — I don’t care what details you want the audience to have. Determine only what is required to move forward. Everything else gets the knife.
13. Out With The Info-Dump, In With The Info-Bullet
Limit exposition to between one and three sentences per page. And lean sentences, too — don’t think you can get away with an overturned bucket of commas and dependent clauses poured over your word count. I can smell your chicanery the way a shark smells baby-farts. (Isn’t that what they smell? I might be getting that wrong. Wait, it’s blood? Blood? Are you sure? I think it’s baby-farts. I’ve heard it both ways.)
14. Tantric Storytelling (Or, “Nnnggh, Think About Baseball”)
Sting taught us all about Tantric sex, wherein you contain your orgasm in some kind of lust-caked mental hell-prison until you release it eight hours later, amplifying your delight. I am afraid of doing this as I fear it will send a hardened shiv of semen into my cerebral cortex. Regardless, it’s a good lesson for using exposition in storytelling: resist it as long as you can. You think, “Ohh, the audience really needs details right here,” but stave off that inclination. Do not pop your narrative cookies. Contain the exposition and reveal it late in the game until it can be restrained no longer.
15. Writus Interruptus, (Or, “Narrative Blue-Balls”)
Another way to sex up your man(uscript): use exposition to break tension. You’re amping up the suspense, you’re ratcheting action, it’s all escalation escalation escalation, and then — wham. You pull back from the action, and give a pause with a scene of exposition. Not so much where it overwhelms and frustrates, but enough where it creates that sense of narrative blue balls where you sharpen the audience’s need.
16. Exposition As The Answer To A Question
Exposition can serve as explanation. It’s all in the arrangement. If you present a question in the reader’s mind — “How exactly did Doctor Super-Claw lose his eye? And why does Satrap Fuck-Fang the Splendid want to kill him? Shit, there’s gotta be a good story there.” Indeed. Make them want the exposition so that, when you give it, it answers questions they already possess.
17. The Character As Exposition-Hungry Detail-Junkie
If the character needs the exposition for her arc and the plot to move forward, then the audience needs it — and thereby, it becomes more rewarding. Just assume the character is like the Space Sphere from Portal 2. The character needs the tricksy backstory, precious. We needs it. It’s also good if the character risks something to get at these details, thus revealing how critical it is and how it has earned a place in the narrative. “I had to fight my way through an infinity of ninjas to get you this information, sir.”
18. Exposition As Story Within A Story
Frame exposition not merely as details, not purely as data, but as a story. A micro-story within the larger narrative that abides by all those same rules: beginning, middle, end, tension, conflict, character.
19. The Flashback Flashbang
Exposition doesn’t need to be dry and dull as a saltine cracker in a dead lizard’s vagina — turn backstory into a scene by invoking the Ancient Pagan Law of Flashback. Fuck having the character recite details as if off a menu. Force her to relive it in flashback form. Don’t talk about the moment when she was thrown out of an air-lock by her mad Space King father. Time travel to that moment. Let us all see it as it happens.
20. Time-Travel Back In Time, And Kill The Expository Hitler
Another form of time travel — go back into your own story and rip out the need for exposition. Originally it’s all like, “Way back in the year of Fourteen-Splangly-Doo, in the Year of Dog’s Butler, the Dolphin Council of Krang suffered a cataclysmic failure to rule when they couldn’t agree on blippity-bloppity-snood…” Hell with that. Gut that history. If you need it, bring it to the foreground. Have it be happening right now. That way, it’s active, it’s present, and characters are discovering it at roughly the same rate as the audience.
21. Prove Your Motherfucking Thesis
Exposition is easier to swallow when it has a declarative purpose: in effect, a thesis sentence. Opening a page of text or some dialogue with, “The city hasn’t been the same since the unicorns took over,” gives you the opportunity to describe what that means. The audience is prepared to receive that information and, thus, the exposition fulfills the promise of its premise. Bonus points: violent conquistador unicorns.
22. Crack Open The Character’s Head
Like I’ve said before, the character is the vehicle for the story. They’re our way through; we ride them as monkeys on their backs. (Or, if you’ve read ZOO CITY, like Sloth on the back of Zinzi December.) What the character knows, we can know, too — and so you as the narrator are free to crack open the character’s skull like a coconut, allowing the audience access to the fragrant water within. The character’s perspective on information is still expository, but it’s tinted and warped through the lens of their experience, which means the exposition does double-duty. It both grants us details we need and also offers us a longer look at the character.
23. Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This
A nice, trippy, totally fucked-up way of revealing backstory is through usage of dreams and visions. I did this in BLACKBIRDS and it was a fun way for me to convey creepy exposition without blurting it out like a kid high on the sugar from 14 bowls of Fruity Pebbles. Fun to write and, ideally, fun to read.
24. Exposition As Multi-Tool
Again, if you have to have to have to use exposition, make sure it sings for its supper and does more than just convey raw data. Let it communicate character, convey theme, move the plot forward (and backward), engage description, utilize compelling language, establish mood, and so on. The more work it does, the more it earns its place in your story.
25. Do Away With It Entirely
Go back through your work and find all the backstory, highlight all the info-dumps, and kill ’em. Just fucking murder it. Let stuff just hang out without any explanation — you’d be surprised how much of it will fly. Look to film in particular to see how many details are never explained and, further, how little that matters. That scene in DIE HARD where the two Aryan brothers are racing against each other to cut through… I dunno, “phone pipes?” I don’t know what they fuck they’re even doing there. Or why it’s a race. When you saw the first STAR WARS, did the film stop and explain what the hell the Clone Wars were? No! (And if only it had stayed that way.) Most of the things you think need to be explained don’t. They just don’t. So, fuck exposition right in its ear. If you go back through a subsequent draft and say, “Okay, I need a little something-something here,” fine, consult the rest of this list and see how you can make it your bitch.
Because if exposition is on the menu, then by god, you better know how to serve it right and make it tasty.
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Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?
Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY
And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING