Writing and Editing Tips Part 4: Exposition – the good, the bad and the boring.

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Despite the fact that I quite often highlight great tracts of text and write ‘EXPOSITION’ over them in bold, (actually I’m much more polite than that about it) exposition is, in fact, extremely important. Indeed, exposition is part of every narrative; without it your reader would have no idea what was going on, where anything was, or who the characters were. Used wisely, used well and given the appropriate mode in which to inform, then it does have a valid part to play in a narrative. You can probably have no better example than the bard himself. The opening scene of Shakespeare’s Othello tells us a lot about Iago and Roderigo, their relationship and their status. And all in a few lines of dialogue.

ACT I
SCENE I. Venice. A street.
Enter RODERIGO and IAGO

RODERIGO: 

Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly

That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse

As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.

IAGO:

‘Sblood, but you will not hear me:

If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me.

Without wanting to make this a lesson in Literature and language, the opening lines tell us that Roderigo is socially superior to Iago; he says, ‘Tush!’ in other words, ‘Shut up.’ He must be Iago’s superior to speak to him like this. So, with one word, the audience is put in the picture.

Shakespeare knew that ‘showing’ the audience information about his characters and the setting, through actions and speech was far more entertaining and engaging than simply ‘telling’ them that information. And ‘telling’ is the form of exposition that we have all been guilty of using (yes, all of us, without exception, if you don’t think you haven’t done it then you don’t know what it is). But we do need to let our reader in on things, so how do we go about it without ‘telling’?

Let’s take a simple example. Your protagonist, Bill, is tetchy because he didn’t get much sleep. First of all ask yourself the question ‘does it matter? Does my reader need to know this?’ If the answer is yes, then you could say this:

Bill was tetchy this morning as he hadn’t had enough sleep.

Now that’s really boring. And if you do this all the time then it’s really, really, really boring. So how can you give your reader this information without ‘telling’ them?

Use dialogue, and use action. These two things can help enormously and will bring interest, movement and life to your writing:

‘For god’s sake, woman, why is this coffee cold?’
The mug followed its contents into the sink, the clatter drowning out the cheery tones of the radio DJ.
Emily lowered the newspaper.
‘You could always make it yourself. That would be a refreshing change. Anyway, why are you so grumpy?’
Bill sat down opposite his wife and placed his head in his hands.
‘Did you not hear it?’
‘Hear what?’
‘That bloody noise from next door. All night that same scraping and bumping. Then they started screaming at each other. I didn’t get a wink of sleep.’

I know this isn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, but I hope it’s a bit more interesting than the first example. After all, here we have a scene not just a sentence. And we have also learned quite a lot – Bill likes coffee, but he expects his wife to make it (is he a sexist pig perhaps? Is there conflict in the marriage? Resentment? An impending divorce?). We also know that there are some pretty strange people living next door, who are up to all sorts of things in the night. And of course, we also know that Bill is grumpy because he didn’t get much sleep.

Exposition through dialogue can be very effective then, but do be careful. You need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know. For example,

Bill adjusted his tie in the mirror. Emily smiled and straightened it, patting him on the shoulder.
‘Don’t look so nervous. You’ll be fine.’
‘I know, but I have to make this work. I really need this job. If I don’t get it I don’t know what I’ll do. The mortgage is due next week and we’re already three months behind. They’ll be looking to repossess if we don’t pay up.’
Emily nodded.
‘I know. Then there’s the money we owe your mum. It was nice of her to pay Tarquin’s school fees for the last two months, after all they were about to kick him out. But we can’t keep relying on her. Not now she’s got all those medical bills to pay. How awful that she should break her hip falling down the stairs on her birthday.’

Now I know this is an extreme example, but lots of writers do this. Bill doesn’t need to tell Emily how far behind their mortgage payments are – she knows. And Bill knows his mother paid Tarquin’s school fees, and everything else Emily tells him. If your reader needs to know this information, find different ways to show it – have a letter arrive from the bank just as Bill leaves for his interview, or have Emily visit her mother-in-law in hospital and be told that there is no more financial help.

And remember, as with most things in writing, and indeed in life unfortunately, less is more. Don’t bog down your narrative and bore your reader with unnecessary detail. Show them what they need to know and let them put the pieces together.

Do you have any examples of exposition – good or bad – that will help other writers? Do share them here.

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be. 

Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.

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