Three Strategies for Fixing Exposition

Sat Sep 16 2017

Exposition is when a writer injects a fact—or more often a whole block of facts—into the middle of their narration in order to tell you something they think is important for you to know. For example:

Manny crept down the shadowed alley. He cradled his butterfly knife loosely in his palm, nerves jangling with anticipation of deploying the blade.

"So, you came." A man stepped into view. Pedro. "Didn't think you had it in you."

Pedro was the leader of the eastside Latin Kings, a position he'd held since 2014, after muscling in from Orlando. Pedro was tough. The toughest gang member in the Kings, and the toughest in the whole state of Florida. He could be reasonable, but was quick to anger and sadistic in his response.

"Yeah, I came." Manny flicked open his knife. "Now, are you going to tell me where my sister is?"

That middle block of facts about Pedro, that's exposition.

Now, I well understand the author's position. The writer understands how such facts fit into the larger picture, and thus they believe that if you don't have them, you're not going to fully understand or appreciate what's going on.

Alas, few things grind a reader's interest level to dust faster than exposition. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, exposition shifts your reader's thinking into "cataloging mode", which is inherently less fun than the empathy mode they're in otherwise.

What I didn't talk much about last time was what to do about it. I have three general strategies I recommend to clients for dealing with exposition. These are ways of delivering the essential understanding to the reader without shifting their brains out of "empathy mode" thinking.

1. Only give what matters

As a reader consuming the above example, ask yourself this: did you care at all what year Pedro muscled in on this branch of the Latin Kings? My guess is no. Because really, what does it matter? How does that fact affect the scene in question?

It doesn't. And that's a tough lesson for a lot of writers to learn. All those delightful facts you've invented for your characters' backstories, they rarely matter. Maybe they're important for you to know, but your readers usually don't need them.

All we really need is to know that Pedro has some kind of relevant authority in this scene, and that he's a tough, dangerous individual. Those are the important facts, because those are the ones that are relevant to Manny in this situation.

Leave everything else on the cutting-room floor.

2. Hide it in character perspective

The above example presents the facts about Pedro as straight-up narration. In third-person writing, this means the source of the information is the narrator. And since the narrator is a stand-in for the author, who literally defines truth within the context of the story, readers take the narrator's facts as unquestioningly true.

But characters, in third-person writing, are not the narrator. They are not omniscient and infallable. Characters can be wrong, and thus are not able to commit acts of exposition on us.

So if the facts you want to convey are ones your character also has, then let the character give them to us instead. This converts them from "this is something the narrator is telling me is for-sure true" into "this is something Manny believes."

Manny crept down the shadowed alley. He cradled his butterfly knife loosely in his palm, nerves jangling with anticipation of deploying the blade.

"So, you came." A man stepped into view. Pedro. "Didn't think you had it in you."

Manny took in the size of Pedro's biceps, the tats running down his arms and up his neck, and swallowed down a lump in his throat. He wondered, briefly, if it was true what he'd heard about how Pedro took over the Latin Kings. Don't make him angry, Manny thought. He knew about Pedro's anger, too.

"Yeah, I came." Manny flicked open his knife. "Now, are you going to tell me where my sister is?"

In Manny's observation of Pedro's arms and tats, in his reaction to them, we get the sense of Pedro being a tough figure. In his thoughts about Pedro's background, we learn that he's the leader of the gang. And in cautioning himself not to make Pedro angry, we infer something about how dangerous Pedro is.

Those are the things that matter, and they don't need to be spelled out as specifically as in the expositional version.

3. Hide it in actions

The final strategy is to convey your facts through actions. This is appropriate for facts that relate to people's behavior. If it's true that Pedro can be reasonable, but is quick to anger and then turns violent, then we ought to see him behave that way in various circumstances.

Circumstances such as the current scene the reader is consuming, which might continue like this:

"Yeah, I came." Manny flicked open his knife. "Now, are you going to tell me where my sister is?"

"That depends." Pedro drew his own knife and dug some dirt out from under a fingernail. He strode over to Manny, almost casually, and leaned in close. "You bring me ten grand, this time tomorrow, and I'll tell you where she is."

Manny flinched away from Pedro's sour breath. "You know I can't get that kind of money! Not that fast. Come on, don't be an asshole. Just tell me where she is."

Almost faster than Manny could blink, he found Pedro's fist knotted in the front of his shirt, Pedro's knife piercing the side of his neck, high up near the jaw. Manny's own blade, somehow, was clattering on the ground.

"Oh, I'm the asshole?" Pedro hissed, his eyes hard. "After what you did, you have the balls to call me an asshole?" Pedro carved slowly down Manny's neck as he said, "Ten grand is a bargain for letting you go, twinkie. Now you bring it to me, tomorrow, or that sweet little sister of yours can work it off."

When the knife reached Manny's collarbone, Pedro knocked his feet from under him. Manny dropped, bouncing his head off the pavement. Pedro kicked him, sharp in the ribs. "Tomorrow!"

In seeing Pedro's behavior unfold, readers can work backwards from his actions to infer the facts about his personality. Watching him do those things to Manny, readers are left with no doubt whatsoever that Pedro can be reasonable (at least by his own standards), but will turn monstrous in an instant if given any excuse.

Reveal your facts through actions instead, and you won't need any exposition at all.

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