Blending descriptive material into a story
| Exposition is the descriptive material that sets a tone to a piece of writing and introduces the background, the characters, and other facts. Exposition is better used in non-fiction, but the need for it can be crucial to the success of a story also.
Exposition in fiction contains necessary elements like time, setting, and background for the story. More than the exposition alone, what is inside it or the information in it is what helps the plot to take off.
A century ago, many novels included long expository pages. Authors like Henry James used long expository passages and narratives without dialogue. In contrast, what is demanded from fiction writers of today is continuous energy. Readers expect their interests held on every sentence and section of a story.
In a recent book review, an experienced reviewer said, "Too much exposition mars first half of an otherwise engaging read." In the stage play Urine Town, a girl is stopped from telling too much, since "Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition."
Expositions are sometimes called info dumps, especially if they are offered in extended mind-numbing paragraphs. Most readers skip them and read the story's action and dialogue, or they drop reading the story altogether.
Still, some narration and exposition can be very important to the modern-day story, as in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Could Dan Brown have entered his narrative passages in an easier-to-swallow form? Possibly, but then he would have to write three or four books instead of one, and his readers would not be able to grasp the significance of the backstory in The Da Vinci Code.
Most of the time, what is written as exposition can be incorporated into the story's action and dialogue. When exposition becomes awkward by delaying the action in the present and it doesn't advance the plot and yet the information in it is important to introduce a scene or paint a picture, it is better if it is kept confined to a few sentences.
Let's say a sunset is important to explain a certain mood. A writer may write as exposition: As the sun set, the pale blue sky turned into a grey threatening smoke. The fire of the sun, raging against departure, left the entire horizon in its reddish hue while the rest of the world was getting immersed in shadows. The birds flew back to their nests and all was quiet.
Or the writer might incorporate the same exposition into the action of the story as: Simone hurried inside the house when the sun set, turning the pale blue sky into a grey threatening smoke.
"Hi, Peter," she called as she rushed through the living room to close an open window. The world was getting immersed in shadows while the sun raged against retreat and left a reddish hue on the horizon. "Where did you disappear, Peter?" Simone called out loud. The birds had flown back to their nests and all was quiet, but where was Peter?
Interior monologue is another way to blend the exposition into the story. Using the same exposition, the writer may use the interior monologue as: Simone made a tent with her fingertips and gazed at the setting sun that had already turned the sky into a grey threatening smoke. Did Peter need to disappear, too? On the horizon the sun was raging against retreat leaving the entire horizon in its reddish hue. Peter had shown no rage whatsoever. Soon the birds would flow back to their nests and all would be quiet, but she would continue missing Peter.
Another method of putting exposition into a story is by way of one character lecturing another one, as Sherlock Holmes did when he explained his mode of crime solving, starting with, "Elementary, my dear Watson..." In some brusquely written work, villains make speeches about their actions and plans to helpless victims. Maybe because of that, these speeches are called idiot lectures.
Whether exposition is blended into the action of the story or is used alone, the trick is to incorporate it wisely inside the story and not bore the reader with long tedious passages.