By Mike Klaassen
Terms such as “information dump” and “expository dialogue” are reminders that exposition is the ugly duckling of fiction-writing modes. No other mode is treated with such disdain and caution.
- Robert Kernen, in Building Better Plots, writes that “[Exposition] can . . . be the quickest way to kill a plot’s momentum and get your story bogged down in detail.”[i]
- According to Ansen Dibell in Plot, “Exposition involves breaking away from ongoing action to give information . . . telling rather than showing.”[ii]
- Janet Evanovich, in How I Write, notes that “One of the potential problems with exposition is that it can become tedious and uninteresting, and the reader tends to skip over it.”[iii]
If exposition carries such a burden, why do fiction-writers use it at all? As explained by Ansen Dibell, “Well-handled exposition gives perspective, dimension, and needed context that help events in the foreground make sense.”[iv] Furthermore, states Robert Kernen “[Exposition] can be one of the most effective ways of creating and increasing the drama in your story.”[v]
As with many terms in writing, the word exposition means different things to different people. In fiction-writing, exposition is the mode for conveying information, which may be in various forms: facts, explanation, opinion.
Not all writers and writing coaches agree as to where exposition fits in the scheme of writing modes. Certainly, exposition may be considered a subset of narration, but so may any or all the other fiction-writing modes. And direct narration is only one of several methods that may be used to deliver exposition. Sometimes exposition is referred to as a form of summary, and a case may be made for that. But failure to recognize exposition as a distinct fiction-writing mode:
- Downplays the unique role exposition plays in fiction
- Diminishes the likelihood that exposition will be fully analyzed and understood by students of fiction
- Reduces the likelihood that exposition will be utilized skillfully and to its full potential
Some how-to books about writing fiction imply that exposition is predominantly used at the beginning of a story. But exposition may be found anywhere in a story, and it may affect all five of the elements of fiction.[vi] Exposition may be used to develop characters, enhance plot, establish setting, and to suggest one or more of a story’s themes. And, of course, how exposition is presented is part of each author’s unique writing style.
Exposition may be delivered by either of three techniques: direct narration, through characters, or by expository devices. Each of these delivery techniques has advantages and disadvantages and each requires skillful presentation for effective use. As observed by Ansen Dibell, “The first, most important part of handling exposition is realizing that it’s going to need handling.”[vii]
Other issues involving exposition include quantity, selection of information, timing, exposition in scenes, exposition in sequels, and disguised exposition, each of which are discussed in an article nearby.
Misuse and abuse of exposition in fiction has earned it a reputation akin to an ugly duckling. But with appropriate respect, care, and craft, conscientious fiction-writers can transform exposition into something graceful and elegant.
Mike Klaassen is the author of Fiction-Writing Modes: Eleven Essential Tools for Bringing Your Story to Life, which is available for order at traditional and online bookstores. You may “Look Inside” the book at Amazon.com.
This article was published by Helium.com on December 1, 2008. Copyright 2008 and 2022 Michael John Klaassen. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this article with others.
[i] Kernan, Robert. Building Better Plots. 57. ISBN: 9780898799033.
[ii] Dibell, Ansen. Plot. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1988, 43. ISBN: 9780898793031.
[iii] Evanovich, Janet. How I Write. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2006, 47. ISBN: 9780312354282.
[iv] Dibell, 44.
[v] Kernan, 57.
[vi] Klaassen, Fiction-Writing Modes, 4.
[vii] Dibell, 49.