Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Adventures In Exposition

Exposition is the bane of every writer, no matter what form of storytelling you’re engaged in.  That’s because exposition – factual information your reader or viewer needs in order to comprehend a story development, yet in and of itself is devoid of emotional content – can be pretty boring.  Think of the technobabble in Star Trek.  Or any time a character in a story starts a statement with the words, “As you know, Skippy….”  Handled improperly, exposition can come off like a dry and unengaging lesson in a textbook, and cause your reader to put down your work for something more interesting.

Now, I personally don’t think all exposition is necessarily toxic.  Sometimes learning factual information can be interesting – we wouldn’t have the genre of science fiction at all if this weren’t true.  But in general when dealing with exposition, it’s best to be aware that you’re getting into treacherous territory.
So how to deal with this thorny problem?  Let’s look at a few different ways to tackle it:

Turn exposition into ammunition.

The classic (and best) approach is to give your exposition an emotional charge.  For instance, rather than have a character merely recite the facts that need to be explained, have two or more characters get into an argument, each using the expositional facts to bolster their side of the debate.  One of my favorite examples of this comes early in the movie “Aliens,” where Ellen Ripley defends the actions she took in the first movie, before an inquest hearing.  The scene is engaging because Ripley is fighting to defend her honor and alert the world to the danger out there.  But at the same time, anyone who hasn’t watched the original “Alien” is caught up on everything they need to know to understand the sequel.

Conflict is inherently interesting, so using exposition in this way keeps the reader engaged.  But what if a big shouting match is all wrong for the scene you need to create?  There are times I’ll be watching a TV show or movie when an argument seems to come out of nowhere, and I often suspect it’s because the writer felt there was no other way to get the exposition out, or make the scene interesting.  But it doesn’t always feel natural or “organic” when conflict comes out of left field.
Given the kind of writing I do, I’m always looking for new ways to handle exposition.  These next two techniques are ones I didn’t learn in any book or classroom, but from watching and reading the works of talented storytellers.

Turn exposition into gratification.

Instead of having the exposition be something the reader has to suffer through, make it something they demand to know.  I found an example of this recently in George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons” [minor spoilers ahead].  A chapter about the character Tyrion centers on his interactions with some mysterious characters who are traveling with him on the same ship; it ends with Tyrion discovering that one of the strangers is royalty.  But Martin doesn’t reveal all the information Tyrion knows at that point – we don’t get to learn who the stranger is specifically, or why people are going to such great lengths to keep him concealed.  Those specific details are saved for several chapters down the line, by which time we’re eager to have that mystery solved, and are actually craving the paragraphs of exposition that will explain everything.

For larger scale examples of this technique, look at movies like “The Matrix” or “Inception,” where we’re treated to fictional universes that work according to rules we don’t initially understand, but fascinate us with their possibilities.  By not telling us those rules up front, we’re dying to know what they are by the time we get to the expositional lectures by Morpheus and Cobb.

Turn exposition into titillation.
I first really noticed this technique watching HBO series like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones,” when I realized how often topless women (usually nameless extras) appeared on both shows, and how their appearance usually coincided with the need to get out some bit of exposition.  The rationale is easy enough to understand – if you’re worried about boring the viewers, give them something a little prurient to keep them from changing the channel.
But what if you don’t want to go the soft-core porn route with your own work?  Well, there are different kinds of porn.  Food porn, for one – “A Dance With Dragons” is replete with it.  Martin delights in describing sumptuous meals in great detail, and of course meals are frequently when his characters hold lengthy expositional discussions.  Here’s an example, from a chapter in which Tyrion is traveling with a powerful benefactor:
“They nibbled on spiced sausage that morning, washed down with a dark smokeberry brown.  Jellied eels and Dornish reds filled their afternoon.  Come evening there were sliced hams, boiled eggs, and roasted larks stuffed with garlic and onions, with pale ales and Myrish fire wines to help their digestion.” 
In this same chapter there are mentions of blackberries in cream, roasted chestnuts, garlic snails, and even more food items.  The effect is to hold the reader’s attention through the exposition, by appealing to their gustatory cravings: “I wonder what a stuffed lark would taste like?  Would I enjoy drinking Myrish fire wine?”

I’d bet this technique could be used with anything people tend to fetishize – guns, cars, whatever.  But as versatile as it may be, I also think it’s probably the riskiest way to deal with exposition.  I sometimes get tired of all the paragraphs about food in Martin’s prose, and there have been articles in The New York Times criticizing how needlessly HBO shows off female flesh. 

Perhaps the best use of this technique would be to find a way to make it simultaneously reveal character: In Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke,” for example, there’s a scene where two criminals try to convince a comedian to pull off a heist dressed up as the Red Hood.  As they detail their plans, the panels in the graphic novel focus on the shrimp or crawfish they’re breaking apart and eating, complete with sound effects (“SCRIT”… “KLITCH”… “RISP”… “CLEC”… “GRIK”).  The cracking of the shellfish symbolizes the way the comedian is cracking mentally at that point – he’s on his way to becoming the villainous Joker.  As a result what could have been an unremarkable scene becomes a standout one.
So there you have it: three different ways to deal with exposition.  See which of these works best for you, next time you need to break that info dump down into something that’ll be palatable to your audience.  And if you know of any other techniques, let me know… I’m always looking for new ways to deal with this particular bugaboo.



  1. Good post. Well thought out with some clear examples. I'll be bookmarking this one for revisions and new writing I have coming up.


  2. Thanks, Chris! Glad to hear some of this is helpful. Expositional scenes often give me headaches, so I figured others might be in the same boat...