Exposition Wears Concrete Shoes

We’ve all read the books that are so exposition-heavy that you feel exhausted getting to the end of the chapter… if your read that long.

Yet exposition is necessary. Sometimes you need to know what came before, why a setting is significant, or just explaining how something works or the story doesn’t make sense.

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Ned would read every word of a Tom Clancy novel.

Exposition differs from description in that it’s required information that is apart from the story, but needs to be understood for the sake of the story.

There are several ways to handle exposition, and a few “rules.”

Rule 1: Give it to the reader when they need it and not before.

Rule 2: Give them only what they need to know (be strategic and be concise).

Rule 3: Make sure it IS needed. If Tesla’s intimate love a pigeon isn’t required knowledge to his invention of cell-phone technology, don’t include it in exposition (it may be included at some point for other reasons).

Rule 4: Do NOT include it in dialog unless it’s necessary. Remember, effective dialog between people includes not saying what the other person knows. “As you know, Kit, Shakespeare was a frustrated actor who had a lisp and a hunched back.” If Kit already knows it, the speaker would not be informing him of it. If Kit doesn’t know it, only include it in dialog only if Kit must know it (see below).

Rule 5: Hide it if you can.

The ways to handle exposition:

  • With a spoonful of sugar. Or saccharine. In this method, you break the exposition up into chunks, adorned with comedy or conflict. For example: You have to explain the process of mixing an explosive. Rather than just tell us in a block, your lab assistant assures you (the main character) that he knows how to do this. Problem is, he doesn’t, much to your horror and anger, you must walk him through the process. This can be funny or serious. The attention is on the characters and the process is explained almost by accident.
  • With concrete shoes. Tom Clancy is the master of this. Want to know how to build an atomic bomb? He sets aside characters and just lays it out. Most of us skip over it, engineers eat it with a spoon.
  • With a spoonful of concrete. This is a mixture of the first two. Your main character remembers/reviews/discovers the exposition. Kirk recalled the first time he’d been to this planet and suppressed a roguish grin. Risa was a pleasure planet, and they knew their business. Rita, the famed astrophysicist was a guest… I mistook her for a working girl. Rita had discovered the transwarp signature of the Curator’s race, the ancient beings who had….
    You get the idea.

You need to decide how to handle it by analyzing the pace of your story. Can it handle a block of exposition without grinding the pace to a halt? Can it be embedded and parsed slowly?

How do you handle exposition?

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