Exposition is something that writers of fiction ponder but readers of fiction mostly don’t. And for good reason.
Exposition – which is when the writer tells you information about the story instead of revealing it through character, dialogue, or situation – is part of the mechanics of most conventionally plotted fiction. Unless you are the fiction-writing equivalent of a “gear-head” you probably don’t care.
Since I am a writing gear-head, I do care. I enjoy spotting the tried-and-true techniques, such as the “conveniently overheard” conversation or the diary “accidentally” left open, when I am reading a book.
In particular, I like looking for the subspecies of fictional characters who have evolved specifically to deliver exposition. You know these types. They are…
• The inquisitive side-kick (“My God, Holmes! How did you figure that out?”) and
• The bookish know-it-all (“Honestly, Harry, have you even opened Hogwarts: A History?”) and
• The chatty super-villain (“I will throw you in this tank full of robot sharks, Mr. Bond, after I explain what’s been going on for the last 220 pages.”)
One of the things that makes these characters fun is that they disguise their function – which is to let the writer take short-cuts or untangle a plot he’s hopelessly tangled – by having that function be consistent with their personalities.
These characters are, in effect, a way for writers to “cheat” and get away with it. Which I don’t think is a bad thing, particularly when the exposition keeps the story moving forward.
Exposition becomes a problem when it is overused. (An example from literature is Persuasion, which I discussed in a recent post about Jane Austen.)
The reason this is a problem is that when exposition is handled clumsily, it disengages the reader from the story.
Instead of being a conversation between the author and reader, in which both participate, the novel becomes a dull lecture in which the writer talks and the reader listens. Or more likely — a lecture during which the reader closes the book and opens another.