Ernest Hemingway once said: “Prose is architecture, not interior design.” Exposition, used badly, can become the overdone interior design of a story which makes the difference between its success and failure.
What is exposition? When does just enough backstory tip over into the often rendered critique of “too much exposition?” The information, and opinion, on this topic is endless, but there are a few streamlined rules to follow if the issue of exposition keeps presenting a problem in your writing.
Exposition should be a literary device used to introduce vital background information about events, settings, and characters of a story. Sometimes known as backstory, exposition, in most cases, is a necessity that the reader cannot do without if there is to be a complete connection made to the characters and their situations. When thinking of the proper use of exposition, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight general rules for good short story writing comes to mind: “Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.” If the introduction of past events cannot tie into at least one of these two factors, it might not be an asset to the overall story. It is always important for a writer to critique the role of exposition in his or her story.
What should exposition avoid doing? According to John Gardner, there should never be a large block of fact dissemination at the beginning of a storyline. Garner says, in the Art of Fiction, “the writer must slip in exposition as he can, the only limit being that by the time we reach the peak of the Fichtean curve there should be no more exposition to be presented.” So, a writer should be brutal in editing out large sections of narrative that doles out backstory, even if it seems necessary. While writers painstakingly research their way towards an intimate knowledge of their characters and effectiveness of plot, readers don’t need to be privy to every detail. They do not want to read endless recounts of a main character’s diet or to do list or be distracted with a play-by-play chronology of the protagonist’s life from birth. These things are important in the writer’s development of the story but should remain absent from the reader’s experience of it. Exposition should occur almost imperceptibly, supplementing the plot in delicate and conservative strokes, while guiding the reader to a better understanding of character and plot, keeping the present conflict in the foreground.
Elaborating further on exposition, Gardner also advised “no important information in the exposition should be irrelevant to the action that ensues. And here…what the reader learns in the exposition must be shown through dramatic events told.” Even an important life event from the past can kill the forward action of a story if it is not directly related to the present plot, or if it is relayed rather than introduced in scene.
The tale of little Bobby’s favorite childhood dog Spot, as endearing as it may be, can only be an effective use of exposition if the story is actually about Bobby and Bobby’s present conflict springs somehow from his relationship with Spot. To make matters even more difficult, the writer can’t just tell us about Spot. Spot must be presented in efficient hand-picked scenes or events from the past that either tie into Bobby’s present conflict or push the story’s action forward.
Having noted these general rules for the proper use of exposition, it is important to admit that there are always exceptions. As Vonnegut also noted, “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules…Great writers tend to do that.”
Still, even great exceptions like O’Connor first had to learn the rules, and apply them well, before they could understand how to effectively break them.
How do you handle exposition in your writing? Share your own experience and tips in the comments.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Random House, 1983
Morell, Jessica Page. Between the Lines. Chicago: Writer’s Digest Books, 2006