Exposition in a story: when is it okay?
Updated: Apr 22
This post discusses:
exposition in fiction, especially in science fiction and fantasy writing
contextual distance, a new concept for understanding the need for exposition
exposition across genres and the purposes it serves
Exposition in science fiction and fantasy stories
Science fiction and fantasy authors create new imaginary worlds. These need some explaining to the reader. While worldbuilding is best when it's sprinkled in, it's common for authors to drop into infodumping or other forms of exposition in their stories.
Books rooted in the real world often require a lot of explaining too. Unless the reader has intimate knowledge of the same social worlds and groups as the writer, then there is usually a lot to explain, or at least pass over, so that the reader understands how things work in a novel setting.
In short, describing a new fantasy world with new rules and logics involves lots of explaining.
As does describing the real world in a novel way that assumes nothing.
If you write a thriller set in 1990s Manchester for people familiar with the UK context of that time, you can pass over many details. You don’t need to explain who Oasis are, for example. If a novel is set in the 2040s, then the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), as in Ready Player One, needs to be explained in detail.
This is because the contextual distance between the reader and the text is large. When this distance is large, fiction writers often rely on exposition in their stories to deal with it.
When writing fiction, you can overcome this contextual distance in various ways. Instead of infodumping extended descriptions of how things work in that setting, characters can comment and reflect on it through dialogue or their actions.
For example, suppose your novel is set in an underground cave world just beneath a forest floor in which tree roots are sacred to the cave dwellers and should not be touched. If someone from the surface navigates this world, they could trip over a root or reach out to touch one, and elicit a strong emotional response from a cave dweller.
This would be a much more dynamic and engaged way of conveying a worldbuilding detail rather than the cave dweller simply reciting this fact, or it being worked into a summary of how that world works.
Exposition in a story: genre considerations
Sometimes exposition in a story is okay though. Different genres can handle different amounts of it. For example, literary fiction is more driven by characters and less by external things happening to the characters. This focus on interior worlds lends itself well to more exposition than, say, a fast-paced thriller. Within genre fiction, slow-paced stories can cope with a bit more exposition (compare a cosy mystery with a thriller, for instance), and science fiction and fantasy regularly include more exposition than other genres.
Stories written from an omniscient point of view often include more exposition from the omniscient narrator too.
And so, rather than shouting out ‘show, don’t tell’, I prefer to emphasize getting the balance between showing and telling right, in the context of a story and an imagined audience.
What uses does exposition serve in a story?
Here, I’ve used Beth Hill’s division (pp. 195–203) here from her excellent book The Magic of Fiction, which I recommend as a toolbox to dip in and out of when writing fiction or creative non-fiction.
Fiction uses exposition …
1) To reveal backstory
You know those tv shows where something happens to a character and then we zoom back to a scene from their childhood or similar? In fiction, you can achieve this using exposition. You can use a framing device to do this (e.g. “Three summers ago …” / “Back when I was in the army …” and a change in tense). There are other subtle ways that you can handle this kind of exposition (especially in film), e.g. through a dialogue and discussion with a therapist.
2) To fill in characters and readers
You can use exposition to convey other information about characters: a physical description, a description of their life situation etc. Sometimes, a narrator will provide contextual information about the world, (other) characters, or events.
3) As a scene transition
In genre fiction, you want to keep the reader focused and immersed in the story. You can use exposition to transition forward to the next scene after, say, a boring hour. This often applies to where a third-person limited narration briefly becomes quasi-omniscient (by zooming out).
4) To say what happened offstage
Here, you fill the readers in on important events that weren’t experienced directly. Instead of immersing the reader in a scene, you summarise and relay to the reader what happened elsewhere.
5) As description
In SFF, these are the notorious ‘infodumps’. I used to work as a cultural anthropologist and this was REALLY common in descriptions of culture as well. There could be pages of descriptions of rituals, details of the historical context etc., in short, the kind of stuff that science fiction and fantasy authors love to write when worldbuilding.
So is exposition in a story something to be avoided?
Exposition isn’t bad by itself – it’s necessary. If you find yourself bored when reading excessively long descriptions of contexts, however, then fear not – there is another way.
For more on this topic, I highly recommend these resources:
The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Words into Story (Beth Hill)
From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read (Kristen Ghodsee)
Why Is Context Important in Writing? 4 Types of Context, Explained
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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!
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