Is Exposition Really That Bad?
If you’ve been around literary critics or writers who love to read about writing techniques, you’ll most likely have heard of the term “exposition”. No doubt, it probably confused you a little bit. It certainly baffled me when I first heard about it. It can be thrown around as this awful thing that can taint a story when all it really seems to mean is explaining elements of your story to the audience or reader. What the hell could possibly be so terrible about telling the audience what’s going on?
You may have heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”, which seems to go against what you’ve seen written in some of your favourite books. Nevertheless, when people hear this piece of advice, they pounce on their stories and remove all adverbs with extra malice and ruthlessness, thinking this is the best way to “cut all the crap”. In fact, many a friend of mine has overused that little phrase when they’re fresh out of a creative writing class, which leads to frustrating conversations when they ask me to have a look at their work. “Show, don’t tell” is something you will hear people say when they’re desperately trying to prevent new, budding writers from getting their narrator to explain things which can be shown through the dialogue, setting or general encounters. It’s almost like letting the audience figure out a thing or two themselves, instead of overexplaining and spoonfeeding. However, people often go from one extreme to the other as soon as they hear that it’s better to show.
So, I’m here to tell you why exposition is not your enemy, but rather something that can be great in moderation. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you’ll be armed with the weapons to create a story that makes sense and is enjoyable to read.
The invaluable website, Literary Devices, describes exposition as “a literary device used to introduce background information about events, settings, characters, or other elements of a work to the audience or readers”. Basically, every time you explain something in a story, it becomes exposition, and without it, nothing would make sense. So there. Basically, you can’t avoid exposition without creating a mess of post-modernist, experimental garbage that ends up making no sense and being there just to not make sense. So let me ask you an important question before we go on: do you want to create garbage? If you answered “yes” to that question, good luck. You clearly have different priorities, so I can’t help you. Have fun with your mess. If you answered “no”, please stick around!
No doubt your next question would be “so why do people hate exposition so much?” Of course, that is an entirely reasonable and intelligent question to ask.
One of my best sources of awful exposition is anime. I feel like I need to say that I absolutely adore anime, and I know that a lot of people will probably argue that I’m generalising too much, but as a medium, anime of all genres have a lot of things in common. Unrealistic and forced exposition is one of those things. Due to the strict deadlines and high turnout rates of the anime and manga industries in Japan, anime is full of writers who cut corners and save time by using ridiculous and forced internal monologues loaded with information that no sane person would think to themselves in a normal situation. When I say this, I don’t mean episode recaps. I mean exposition supposedly “hidden” within the main body of the episode that doesn’t feel natural. My friends and I joke about awful anime exposition all the time, and it often looks something like this:
“He’s supposed to be my friend. Why is he so mean to me when we’re at work? Oh yeah. It’s because he owns the company. He’s been my boss for five years now.”
Who in their right mind would think that? Who would forget that they work at their friend’s company, even for a second? Seriously?! He’s been your boss for five years, and you still need to ask yourself why he’s mean? Why would you be telling yourself that he’s been your boss for five years? You know that. You just told yourself! It’s almost like the character knows that they’re being watched by an audience and they’re saying it just for the audience’s benefit. If your audience is asking “who talks like that” about your exposition, you’ve probably done it all wrong.
All of you anime fans out there will know what I mean when I say that some characters will stop in the middle of a fight to explain the name of their move and give intimate details of their powers. It’s so unnatural and unrealistic, but we buy into it because why not? If this happened in a non-anime setting, we would probably point it out frequently and spend time complaining about it a lot more. Maybe that’s a comment on how we don’t hold anime to the same standards as, say, films and books. Maybe that’s something we need to work on. I think I might write a post about that at some other stage, but my point at the moment is simply that bad exposition in anime really does exist, but we just ignore it. If you’re using anime as a reference when creating a story, make sure that you’re aware of this.
Basically, the problem that people often have with exposition is that it detracts from the main story by forcing people to abandon all suspension of disbelief (their ability to buy into a story and imagine, when engaging with it, that it’s real). It seems artificial and forced when the narrator needs to remove themselves from the action to give convoluted explanations of what’s happening, what will happen or what happened before. It’s not how we learn things in real life, so how can we feel like we’re part of the story when we’re spoon-fed information like babies? A book isn’t a school class. If there’s a class in the story, fair enough. That’s a natural, albeit clunky, way for us to find out the information that the writer needs us to know. There are plenty of ways for us to discover what we need to know without having it shoved down our throats, so it just seems like lazy or incompetent writing when someone feels that they need to add in artificial explanations. If characters randomly give us the information overload, we can often find ourselves asking how in-character they’re acting and who talks like that anyway. Just don’t do it.
Contrastingly, My Hero Academia is perfect for understanding the good way to have exposition in your story. As well as using visuals as much as possible when giving the audience information on how the characters are feeling, exposition that seems unnatural at first is used to heighten characters and their distinctive personalities. This is, in particular, with regards to Tomura Shigaraki in the USJ arc of Season One.
** Spoiler Zone: if you don’t want spoilers, please skip this part **
When Shigaraki reveals the true nature of Nomu’s powers to All Might and the others at the USJ, I didn’t bat an eyelid, personally. As a fan of anime, I was very used to characters who tell their enemies about all of the tricks they have up their sleeves, exposing practically everything except the exact instructions on how to defeat them. It seemed to be one of those common tropes used to give the audience a better understanding of how the powers work in the show, while also providing the animation budget with a little break between powerful explosions. However, not only does All Might comment, thanking Shigaraki for telling him how to defeat Nomu, but later on, they use his naivete and willingness to expose his strengths as a way to assess his immaturity, resorting to calling him a “man-child” and coming to the conclusion that he lacks experience.
The fact that they turned their use of exposition on its head was refreshing in a way. Not only did it provide the audience with the information we needed, but it actually gave us a lot more than we realised on face-value: we were given a brief but vital insight into the nature of Shigaraki. The sharper of us viewers quickly caught onto the fact that Shigaraki was not like many other anime villains. He would be growing and learning alongside the other characters, including Izuku.
** Spoiler Zone over! **
As well as this, the show uses the nature of its characters with mastery. Just as with Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, the creators have given us a character (Izuku) whose enthusiasm and willingness to learn allows the audience to get to grips with the story’s intricacies in terms we understand. He’s also seen lovably muttering throughout the story, which is useful to us as readers, but, unlike with most anime, is commented on frequently by the other characters. The good qualities of both Hermione and Izuku are believable within the story, and they’re also useful for people tuning into their lives from the outside, like us. This isn’t, however, the only example of how characters can be used to provide information to the audience. The “audience surrogate” trope is one that is frequently used because it’s just so damn useful. Take Harry Potter and Skulduggery Pleasant, for example. Harry and Valkyrie have been thrown into a world that they didn’t even know existed, let alone understand. They’re forced to ask the questions that we as an audience want to ask, which makes it perfectly acceptable that we find out all about the world through their own confusion and inquisitiveness.
Make sure that you stay on the correct side of exposition. The last thing you want to encourage is lazy readers. Trust me: they exist. As an English Literature enthusiast, these kind of readers are my worst nightmare. They feed off the intricate but factual details in a story not because they are in love with world-building and want to understand everything better (readers like these are gold), but rather because they don’t want to think for themselves. These are the kinds of people who will complain when a story is purposefully ambiguous, or trash a game like Bloodborne because it requires its readers to come to conclusions about the lore off their own back. They just don’t want to have to put the work in to understand the story that they’re given. They want you to tell them absolutely everything and leave nothing to the imagination or to close reading. If you overload your story with spoonfeeding and over-explanation, you’ll be mainly left with readers who won’t want to let you create a piece of art. You’ll be left with a bible-sized mess of boring drivel that takes a lot of words to say absolutely nothing at all, all because you spent too much time explaining the little details. Sometimes a simply-explained action and/or reaction can say a lot more about a person than four pages of long-winded back-story.
So what can we do to avoid bad exposition? How do we give our audience the information they need without making it feel wrong, forced or unnecessary? Well, I have a few methods and tips for you to try:
This is a method I already mentioned before and is particularly useful if you’re creating an underground fantasy world hidden somewhere among elements of the ordinary life we’re used to. The term means exactly what you’d expect: a character filling in for the audience’s questions and confusions. Introducing a main character who is just as clueless as we are can be thrilling! It makes the audience feel like they too can get involved in the action if they could just find their Hogwarts acceptance letter or run at the wall between platforms nine and ten. It is perfectly acceptable for them to simply ask questions because we would ask the same questions in that situation. Another good example of this is using a child as your narrator, as in To Kill a Mockingbird. It can be quite refreshing because young children don’t have the same hang-ups as we do. They aren’t afraid to ask the questions that we would be too embarrassed to ask. We are able to see the world from a completely new different angle, and perhaps discover that we notice different things about the world than they do. This device definitely has its merits!
That friend who I ended up having frustrating discussions with after his creative writing class? Yeah, he didn’t just give up all his adverbs. He gave up his own personal and beautiful style: one that actually employed excellent examples of exposition (when used sparingly, of course). It taught me one of the sophisticated methods of adding details to a story, so I’m going to share it with you. Weave the exposition points into the descriptions from time to time. Instead of telling the reader exactly what you want them to know about that house that is rumoured to be haunted, describe the atmosphere, the run-down appearance and maybe some of the graffiti that some kids vandalised the property with. Then, focus for a minute on those kids. Maybe call them brave for entering the premises. Maybe tell the audience where the graffiti stops. Say that this is how far they dared to enter. When you give enough well-planned and deliberate information, you can actually save yourself from having to state the obvious: that the house is haunted. If readers can’t get there all by themselves and need you to hold their hand, it’s probably because they’re those lazy readers I loathe. You might even explicitly say that it’s haunted using the descriptions without saying too much: “it had that haunted vibe to it. The creaky floorboards and rickety stairs seemed to have a mind of their own”. I just came up with that now, but it certainly works to tell the audience what you wanted them to know!
Be Careful With Dialogue
This is one of those times where I’m going to tell you that there’s not much that I can do to help you understand. I’ve seen terrible dialogue, and I’ve seen masterful dialogue, the latter particularly in Skulduggery Pleasant. All I can say is you need to ask yourself when the people around you would actually tell you explicitly what information you need, outside of a school setting. Life is about learning for yourself, so most of the time you’ll find that you’re left to discover things on your own. Sometimes you might ask multiple people for the information you seek and most people won’t know much or won’t want to tell you, so they don’t go into details. Then you find yourself having to piece together all the little points you’ve gathered on your own. It’s rare for you to find someone who just so happens to be an expert in the field you’re looking for without serious, painstaking research on your part. When you do, you definitely make a point to comment on it. That’s exactly how it should be in your story. Most people aren’t just going to turn up, say things in a way you understand perfectly and then run off into the sunset. Finding out what you need to know can be a seriously long process. Remember that when you write dialogue: give everyone motivations and personalities, and think about the story from their point of view. That way, you’ll quickly discover that exposition through dialogue isn’t as easy as getting from A to B. Everyone’s points A and B are different, and so you need to make sure you’re aware of confusion, ambiguity and frustration in speech. It’s realistic and part of life. Use it to your advantage to be as true as possible!
Make it About Gathering Information
This is probably trickier to get your head around, so let me ask you another question: when was the last time you read a book where the protagonist knew exactly how to defeat the villain, save the world, or answer the complex questions immediately? I’ve never read a book like that, but it must be damn boring. Remember that a lot of the story’s narrative comes from a lack of understanding and use it to your advantage! Don’t tell the audience things they don’t need to know! Let the characters find out when you need them to know it. If you have a convoluted creation story, treat it like science: each new discovery is slow but groundbreaking. If everyone knows this but the audience, either use this to your advantage or move to the next point.
A Story Within a Story
When I say “use this sparingly”, I mean SPARINGLY. Using this one too much will get you stuck in a rut of confusing stories. If you’re going to use it, make a clear distinction when it starts and ends and try not to give the information away too freely. If your characters are too willing to distribute all they know, especially when this can sometimes involve really sensitive stuff for the character, it can seem disingenuous and false. You can, however, use an audience surrogate’s or child’s questions, or another appropriate time to jump into a bedtime story, flashback or make your characters take a peruse around a library.
If everyone knows something but the audience, don’t make them too specific about it. I mean, if you know a little tidbit of information in real life, and everyone else around you knows it too, you’re not going to explicitly come out and say it all the time. You work under the assumption that your companions already know what you’re talking about and so you talk about the information instead of saying it outright. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. I read a particularly bad Episode Featured story recently in which the protagonist doesn’t swear. Her lifelong best friend at one point says something along the lines of “oh yeah, you don’t swear”. That seems artificial because this friend knows that already and it’s weird for her to repeat it like the protagonist doesn’t know that about herself. Instead, it would have made sense if the friend said something along the lines of “I’m going to get you to swear one day” or “[place word here] isn’t that bad. It’s barely even a swear word”. They’d be talking about the fact that she doesn’t swear without actually saying she doesn’t swear. Or if someone was discovered to be a murderer before the beginning of the story, instead of having characters who know already that she’s a murderer say it explicitly, have them be ambiguous by talking about the discovery. Have your characters say something like “poor man. Can you believe she only got two years? The judge was a joke” or “they seemed so happy together! I guess you can’t ever know what goes on behind closed doors” instead of just “I can’t believe so-and-so murdered her husband!” Ambiguity always seems more natural!
Comment on the Information Source!
As with My Hero Academia, if there’s a character who does just give out information with no regards to how this would affect them or others, make a point of commenting on it. Have others mark them as having a big mouth, or being spiteful. Have them be someone who gathers information and distributes it for a price. Have them labelled as naive, or a gossip, or the wise old man you can go to. Make it clear that coincidences are crazy and, well, coincidental. Have characters talk about luck. This is what happens when we discover something easily and quickly.
I hope this will help! Just all in all, make sure that your exposition makes sense, is natural and reflects how information is revealed in real life and you’ll be fine. Read dialogue out to yourself and ensure that you can say it naturally. Treat information like the precious and rare commodity that it can be in a life-or-death situation and happy writing!
There are plenty of other examples of both good and bad exposition. If you can think of any, please leave them in the comments!
Great advice. Thanks for taking the time to address this topic thoroughly.
Thank you! Exposition is a tricky subject, so I hope I portrayed it appropriately
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