Exposition. “The part of a play or work of fiction in which the background to the main conflict is introduced.” Getting the proper information your reader needs to know about what went down before the central conflict of the story can be tricky. Here are some tips to help you write better exposition.
1. Exposition should be necessary to the story. Ask yourself if the reader needs to know this information. Does this information contribute to the present conflict/plot in any way or tell the reader anything about the characters that is important to know for the plot of this story? As the writer, it’s nice to have a detailed backstory and to really know your characters inside and out. But you don’t need to directly use all of that information.
2. Know when to show, know when to tell. “Show, don’t tell” is one of the first things you hear in any creative writing class. This is generally good advice. Saying “she was afraid of heights” may not be as effective as describing the way her hands start shaking or the nausea she felt as she looked down on the tiny people and tiny cars in the city below. Sometimes, though, it’s okay to keep things simple, like when you are introducing a new character. It’s often better to say something like “My best friend, Tara, walked towards me looking like she was about to burst with excitement” than to go on a three paragraph description about your protagonist’s friendship with Tara before getting to whatever exciting thing she has to say that’s going to move the plot forward.
3. When you use dialogue to reveal exposition, make sure it sounds natural. Dialogue can be a great way to get exposition in there. You can describe your protagonist as being sullen and miserable and not tell us why and then have a character say, “I heard about your divorce.” This informs the reader about the divorce as well. Make sure, though, that the dialogue is something the character would actually say. For example, no one would say, “Mom, this new house is so much better than our old house in San Francisco where we lived next door to Danny, who used to bully me and say mean things.” Mom already knows they used to live in San Francisco, and she probably already knows that Danny lived next door and was a bully.
4. Avoid the exposition dump. For the most part, it’s better to sprinkle important information throughout the story and keep the plot moving forward than it is to take a break from the plot and explain things for three or four paragraphs or even whole pages. (You have a little more wiggle room with this in thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian where the reader expects a certain amount of explanation. If Dr. House didn’t explain what actually happened with the patient at the end of the episode, we probably wouldn’t figure it out based on all of the clues unless we are also geniuses.) If you write flashbacks, there should be some action, conflict, or drama within the flashback, which can serve as a mini-story within the story.
5. Cut where possible. While writing the first draft, you will probably put in too much exposition. Even the most advanced writers do that, especially the ones who don’t outline. If you are still just figuring out the story and the characters as you are writing the first draft, there may be some extra information that’s not entirely necessary. As you are revising, go through and cut as much as you can. Action, conflict, and drama are always better than lengthy explanations. Give the reader the information they need as they need it, but otherwise, get back to the actual story.