Why Show Don't Tell Advice is Holding You Back: Part 6

Updated: Jan 6

Narrative Type Part 3: Exposition

Series A Contents:

  1. Introduction to the Levels of 'Show

  2. POV

  3. Components of Narrative Storytelling

  4. Narrative Type Part 1: Dialogue

  5. Narrative Type Part 2: Dramatic Action

  6. Narrative Type Part 3: Exposition

  7. Pacing & Rhythm

  8. Literary Devices

  9. Word Choice

I chose an image of a baby for this post.


Because exposition is much like someone you don't know going on at length about their baby that you have never seen. I know that mom. Hell, I am that mom. I get it, my kids are the cutest and best people ever created.

Oh! You will never believe what the baby did the other day.....

No. It's ok. I could feel you cringe in my soul.

You get it.

Your readers get that exact same sinking feeling from your exposition.

Now. When I talk about exposition, I mean the technical definition of exposition. The comprehensive description or explanation of an idea or theory.

We are going to separate exposition here from description and narrative action.

I want you to keep this in mind because when some people talk about exposition, they mean narrative—or the writing that simply isn't dialogue. We are going to get more specific here.

Here is an example of exposition in fiction.

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away....

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy....."

Yes. That was the opening of Star Wars Episode IV. (Take note of the serious narrative summary going on there.)

The advice in this post is very straight forward.

Exposition is needed sometimes. I won't even say needed, but it is often stylistically brilliant. Though never in huge chunks that go on for pages. You are writing a story (if you're not you are in the wrong place), any pertinent information should be told through the framework of that story.

So how can we keep our readers from going the way of Barney here?

Let's dig deeper.

Exposition and Immediate Scene

Exposition is not very well suited for immediate scene. There are other ways to get information across to the reader without using it at all (see Narrative Types 1 & 2). However, if you must, it can be done.

Stories written in a 1st person POV are perhaps the most accommodating of exposition. That is because generally, 1st person is a deeper POV and therefore any exposition will take on a feeling of internal dialogue.

I have a short story in the upcoming SF anthology from Foul Fantasy Fiction, written under my pen name Turi T. Armstrong. The story includes heaps of exposition and no dialogue at all except one important speech near the end. But because it is written in 1st person, I was able to make it 99% immediate scene. It was possible because the story is highly stylized, and written casually as if spoken. I imagined an old man telling his story to a young stranger in a pub. Another important aspect that makes this story work is the format itself. Anything longer than a short story, it would be impossible to write in this style and keep my reader. Well .... at least impossible for me...

Here is an excerpt to help you get an idea of what I am talking about.

At that moment, we all deserved to die.
Every last one of us. The machine may have destroyed her body, but it was man that killed her.
For a long time, all I could see was her face when I closed my eyes. She wasn’t a dynamic image; I didn’t get to recall Joyce like some men remember their darlings, all slow-motion smiles and spins, flashes of the sweet little moments through a sparkling fog of romantic maudlin. No, the image I was left with was the look on her face when that thing whittled her down to fit into the cavity in its middle. That compartment taking the place of a stomach. Its titanium plates dripped with her blood. And when I’d managed to sever a cable from its pelvic joint with a shovel, her blood streamed into it, and it sparked.
I remembered that.

(Shameless Plug: If you want to read more and other great science-fiction short stories, make sure you preorder The Beginning & End of All Things: Stories of Man, coming out November 17, 2020)

....anyway....if I'd chosen another POV, the whole story would become narrative summary, but because 1st person keeps the narrator and reader close it stays immediate. Not because the events are happening "on stage" before our eyes but because the story is being told on stage by the narrator.

I want to talk in-depth about Narrators in another post, as soon as I do I will be sure to link it here.

The second best type of stories for exposition are omniscient POVs, but again only if you have a distinct narrator, or if it is written for an audience with a tolerance for it (like historical fiction readers or cozy mystery readers who really want you to describe the tea and cakes your characters are eating).

Like everything about writing, you can do whatever you want, and there are no definite rules. I would just like you to keep conscious of the decisions you are making. Understand that exposition will most likely take your reader out of the immediate scene and into narrative summary. It will also greatly affect the pacing of any scene you add it to.

Watch that your exposition in immediate scene does not become preachy or author opinionated. When you write exposition, ask yourself if it is your characters who hold that point of view or you? Often, authors can find themselves alienating their readers with passages that suddenly (and unnecessarily) become political or moral yardsticking that criticizes others' way of life.

Exposition in Narrative Summary

Exposition almost always becomes narrative summary by default like the Star Wars quote above. It's just a natural use of it.

In most amateur writing, narrative summary and exposition are indistinguishable from each other. However, if you have been building your levels of show, you will be able to see the nuances and use them to your advantage.

Basic narrative summary is always exposition, though we have already discussed how you can skew it towards (or turn it into) immediate scene through dialogue and dramatic action. Exposition however, is not automatically narrative summary. It can be, but it can also be used as a tool for adding rhythm, emotion, and even subtle poetry.

The following passage taken from Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes is one I use often as an example of rhythm, but it is also an example of deliberately crafted exposition.

Beck hunched his shoulders and stared at the fire. Not much more’n a tangle of blackened sticks, a few embers in the flame, whipped, and snatched, and torn about, helpless in the wind. Burned out. Almost as burned out as he was. He’d clutched at that dream of being a hero so long that now it was naught but ashes he didn’t know what he wanted. He sat there under fading stars named for great men, great battles and great deeds, and didn’t know who he was.

Here is another example. This one is a short line of narrative summary (off the top of my head, mind you).

The wall was erected by one million slaves.

As far as exposition goes, this is seriously lacking in style. Now, assuming that this line holds no significance to the plot as a whole, I would consider it a throwaway line. If I came across this in a manuscript it would get cut. It would be an unimportant detail that your readers would never remember and adds no meaning or emotion to the text.

Just as the narrative type discussions before, your exposition should be wearing multiple hats. It should summarize, or describe a detail or idea but also create a tone/image and make the reader feel something.

The above example could instead read...

Slaves labored day and night, stacking stones that took a hundred men to lift, held in place by a mortar of lime and the dead. In the last thousand years, their specter screams have only grown louder as lengthening cracks invite the harsh sea breeze in to whistle through.

...suddenly we have a much clearer picture of not only the physical wall but also the emotions of our POV characters, historical background, tone of the scene, and possibly more.

Exposition in Description

You know what?

I'm hard-pressed to find any worthy piece of advice here. Maybe just try not to describe anything through long chunks of exposition. Unless you can, and it fits, or you want to....I mean who am I, right?

With any line of description you should be asking yourself:

Am I adding to the image/tone/emotion of the story?

If I remove the passage, will it make a difference?

Is every word/sentence/paragraph working as hard as it can?

In Conclusion...

...I don't expect every author to comb through their manuscripts and check that every word is perfect.

But, even if you find one or two important sections per scene or chapter and make sure those areas are really pulling their weight, your manuscript will be greatly improved.

I'll leave this one here today. Let you go back to your work in progress and start picking it apart.

Next time, a very short word on pacing and rhythm as it applies to Show vs. Tell.


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