How to Use Exposition in Creative Writing
Usually showing is better than telling. (To understand the difference, see the article How to “Show Don’t Tell” in Creative Writing.) However, sometimes you need to tell to move the story forward. There will be bits of information such as backstory and the passage of time your reader needs to know, but they don’t need or want in scene with every nuance of every detail described. That’s when you need to use exposition.
Exposition vs. Description
Often the terms exposition and description are used interchangeably to refer to the part of a story that isn’t dialogue. The terms are not synonyms. Description is when you show the reader what’s happening in the current scene. Exposition is when you tell the reader what happened between the previous scene and the next one. Exposition is summary.
Use Exposition for Quick Backstory
One of the areas exposition can be particularly impactful is when revealing backstory. Many authors I work with try to cram as much backstory into their piece as possible because they did character sketches and histories and think those should be read. Your reader doesn’t care where your main character went to catch frogs when they were four. You reader only cares about the backstory that is pertinent to this moment in your current story. That’s where exposition comes in.
If you have a scene where a character’s pants fall down in front of the person he’s trying to impress, you might need a line of backstory to explain why he’s not wearing a belt like:
As Jeb walked up the stairs with the heavy box, his pants slowly slipped from his hips. He still sported a few scars from his dad’s belt buckle and refused to wear the deadly strips of fake leather.
Sometimes all your story needs is one line of exposition backstory, instead of a full flashback showing how your character was abused as a child. The reader doesn’t need the details of the character’s past; all they need is to understand why Jeb wasn’t wearing a belt.
Using exposition to reveal backstory avoids bogging your story down with unnecessary scenes or killing your pace to stop and spend multiple paragraphs on irrelevant details from your character’s past. Exposition used in this way should be quick, brief, and relevant to the current situation.
Reveal the Passage of Time
One crucial place exposition should be used is to reveal the passage of time. How boring would stories, books, and movies be if we had to watch every hour of every day in which the story took place? Exposition lines like “Three days later, Kara returned to school” keep your story moving and readers engaged.
Exposition is a great tool to get your characters and readers from A to B quickly. It skips the boring bits where nothing happens and speeds up your pace. Your readers don’t want to see every moment of your character’s journey to work or through the forest. They also don’t want a step-by-step account of how your character went from a novice to an expert in some skill. Instead, summarize these events through exposition like a movie montage.
Exposition allows you to state time has passed instead of showing that time passing. It summarizes the pieces of your characters’ lives that don’t impact the story, reveal something important about those characters, or move the plot forward.
Clear Information Delivery
Exposition can also be used to deliver information clearly and directly. Instead of writing a convoluted description of an affair, maybe all you need is for your character to look back and forth between his brother and husband. Then in a single line of exposition say “They slept together.”
Sometimes a short, direct revelation can have greater impact than pages of description. This is especially true when the line of exposition is used in the middle of a scene. Switching from showing to telling for one line tells the reader that line is important and they need to pay attention to it.
Repeat information in particular is often better in exposition. If your reader saw your character get asked out by their crush in scene, they don’t need or want the play-by-play your character gives their best friends. Instead, summarize the enamored character’s monologue with “I told them exactly how it happened” then return to the scene with description and dialogue. Use exposition to avoid too much repetition.
An Editor’s Advice on Using Exposition
Exposition is an excellent tool for summarizing parts of your story, but it should be used sparingly. Remember why people read: to escape, to be entertained, and to learn. All three of these core reasons people read are often better served through descriptive showing than telling. Exposition is the most powerful when it is somewhat unexpected, brief, and contrasts a descriptive passage or scene.
Show don’t tell is a general rule; not a hard and fast one. This means in most situations, showing and description are more effective than telling and exposition. However, there will be times when summary will better serve your story. Use exposition for quick backstory, the passage of time, and delivering direct information to Ignite Your Ink.
When do you use exposition instead of description and why? Share your preferences in the comments below. For more advice from an editor and ways to improve your writing, subscribe to Ignited Ink Writing.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.