The Rebel Writer Series, Writing Techniques

Tell, Don’t Show: Properly Implementing Exposition

Tell, Don't Show_ Properly Implementing Exposition

Over and over again, new writers are told, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s great advice because all too often, new writers clog up the action of their story with summaries of places, events, and character relationships rather than properly immersing readers in the moment. I was given this advice as a fledgling writer, and I’ve written it religiously in the comments when I’m editing a writer’s debut manuscript. However, because of this rule, exposition takes on the persona of the Big Bad Wolf in writers’ minds. Some avoid it at all costs, and that can cost their stories a valuable tool. Exposition, when used well, can convey vital information to the reader in a way dialogue, description, and action-driven narrative cannot.

All rules are meant to be broken, so long as you break them with purpose. This is the first “episode” in a series of posts I’m dubbing The Rebel Writer Series. First, I’ll break down why a rule is in place, and then discuss how it can be broken to great effect.

Why “Show, Don’t Tell”?

Using descriptive language and illuminating dialogue rather than summarizing in your story is a cardinal rule for a reason. The best way to explain why is to show you.

What captures your attention more?

This:

Mira looked at Joe and wondered how he could do this. First, he’d cheated. Now, he was trying to get rid of her! She stared at the knife. She was scared. He was really going to kill her. She screamed when the knife came down.

Or This:

Mira backed into the kitchen counter, the marble cold on her palms. Trapped.

“Joe,” she said, a trembling arm outstretched as both shield and supplication. “Joe, honey… please don’t. Think about this!”

Joe took a step forward, knife raised. He shook his head, as if trying to fling her words out of his ears.

“Oh, I have thought about it,” he said, a strange grin twisting his face.

“Is this for her?” said Mira, the tears hot in her eyes. “Did she tell you to do this?”

Mira looked toward the front door, toward escape, and inched to the left.

“I’m doing this because I want to do this!” said Joe, throwing out an accusatory finger.

He took another step. The acrid smell of vodka on his breath stung Mira’s eyes. Her bladder threatened to give way, and she couldn’t pull her eyes from the five-inch blade of the knife, only inches from her now.

“That’s your problem!” said Joe, his bellow assaulting her eardrums. “You don’t think I’m capable of anything! You think you can run all over me!”

“Oh, and she’s not taking advantage of you?” said Mira, finally finding Joe’s eyes. “Joe, darling…” She tried to soften her voice. A deep breath. “You think she isn’t seeing dollar signs when she wakes up next to you. She doesn’t love you. I love you. Not that whore.”

“Don’t call her that!”

The knife slashed down.

You prefer the second one, right?

Of course you do. It drops you down into the scene rather than telling you what’s happening in the scene.

Now, disembodied like this, you might think, “No one writes like that first one. That doesn’t even read like a book.” You’d be surprised how many paragraphs like that I come across as an editor. They’re scattered all over the place in debut novels.

Still, it’s not always so drastic a difference. Sometimes, you’ll have the scene set up nicely, with good dialogue and descriptions of Mira backed up against the counter, but you’ll see unnecessary insertions of exposition. Instead of showing Mira’s fear through gestures, like her trembling arm or her tears, you’ll get, “Mira was scared.” Well, the reader can probably already guess that. Showcasing how Mira embodies that fear makes the scene come alive without stating the obvious.

What does the dialogue achieve? It reveals the affair without coming out and stating, “He cheated.” Your reader is an active participant in figuring out why Joe is weilding a knife. That dialogue also gives us a peek into Mira and Joe’s relationship, and their financial standing.

And yet it feels alive. Thanks to descriptive language, we feel the counter at Mira’s back, we smell the alcohol on Joe’s breath. It doesn’t feel like we’re being told all of this by a bystander after the fact. It feels like we’re there, living it with Mira. That’s the power of showing.

But showing doesn’t work for everything. In fact, over-showing can pull your reader out of the story.

When to Use Exposition

Exposition is, in a nutshell, explaining. In some cases, exposition is your only option to get an idea across to your reader because it must be thoroughly explained in order to make sense. As a general rule of thumb, there are four scenarios in which you want to strongly consider exposition.

1. When You’re Doing a Large Amount of World-Building

Many elements of world-building can be shown through your character’s interactions with the setting. However, some aspects of your world may need to be further explained.

Take the Harry Potter series for instance. Rowling does a wonderful job of showing rather than telling as Harry enters Hogwarts and observes all of the magic, traditions, and rules of that universe. However, sometimes, having Harry observe aspects of the wizarding world is not enough. A basic example is wizard chess. Just observing Harry and Ron play wizard chess without any explanation would be confusing. The reader needs a clear idea of what this game is and how it works because it does not exist in our world.

The paragraph of exposition begins,

Ron also started teaching Harry wizard chess. It was exactly like Muggle chess except that the figures were alive, which made it a lot like directing troops in battle. [1]

The paragraph then goes on to explain that Ron’s old battered pieces give him an advantage because the pieces trust him.

Not only does this explanation help dissolve confusion, but it also saves time. We don’t need to see Ron say, “Hey, Harry, you want to play a game of wizard chess?” and then have Harry say, “Wizard chess? What’s that?” Ron would then have to give a long explanation in dialogue, and we’d have to see Harry try commanding his troops and have them talk back to him. Wizard chess is a great bit of world-building, but it is not essential to the plot, and thus we don’t need to spend multiple paragraphs watching Harry interact with it.

Hermione is a great example of using dialogue for exposition. She is constantly explaining aspects of the wizarding world to Harry, and even Ron. If you have a main character who is new to your world, just like the reader, having that protagonist ask other characters what’s going on is a great way to cleverly insert exposition. This works for any genre, not just fantasy. Is your protagonist the new cop at the precinct? Same thing. Just don’t go crazy and give everyone huge monologues. Show when you can.

2. A Transition to the Main Action

In each scene in a novel, there is a main course of action taking place. Every scene should drive the plot in some way. However, extra information and events are often necessary to make a scene whole. As a writer, you want to focus on that main action with descriptive language and dialogue, and then any other secondary information can be conveyed through exposition.

The most common occurrence of this is when you move to a different place or day between scenes. Sticking with Harry Potter, let’s have an example.

Rowling uses this transition to move the reader from the Quidditch field to the Charms classroom:

On Halloween morning they woke to the delicious smell of baking pumpkin wafting through the corridors. Even better, Professor Flitwick announced in Charms that he thought they were ready to start making objects fly, something they had all been dying to try since they’d seen him make Neville’s toad zoom around the classroom. [2]

The main action of this scene is in watching the children try out the Wingardium Leviosa spell, but Rowling needs to put the reader in context first. The above lines are exposition, but they are still fun and descriptive. We don’t see the boys getting up in their dormitory, stretching and saying good morning. We don’t get Flitwick’s dialogue announcing the start of the lesson. We aren’t plopped into a flashback scene where Flitwick makes Trevor fly. None of that is the point, so it is told rather than shown. But these explanatory lines of what’s going on and why the kids are excited for this lesson still brings the scene to life.

Exposition does not have to be boring. Writers often think of exposition as a cop out or poor writing, but that’s because the only exposition that ever gets pointed out is the bad kind. Exposition is everywhere in good stories.

3. Important Internal Information

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the ability to easily dive inside the head of a character. Doing so can strengthen character arcs, give readers a better feel for the character’s personality, and uncover secrets or emotions that the character is keeping to his or herself.

For instance, in my novel, Arcamira, one of the characters (Melanie) has been turned into a vampire against her will, and her daughter, Tilly, is held captive. In one scene, I inserted these lines of exposition:

If not for Tilly, Melanie would have attempted suicide. She wouldn’t really be killing herself, would she? She was already dead, and by destroying the shell she now lived in, she could save the lives of others. But if she was gone, Thetis and the others would have no need for Tilly. The thought was moot anyway. Constantly surrounded by the flock, the lengths it took to kill a vampire were too great to achieve undetected. […] She saw no point in running. As Thetis had said just before he’d taken her humanity, where could she go? What could she do?

Melanie has no one to confide in, so having her express these sentiments in dialogue was not possible. I also didn’t want to include direct thoughts. Sometimes, a character’s thoughts are put into dialogue form and then italicized, like, “What am I going to do? she thought.” That works well for short sentiments, but when hashing out complex ideas like those Melanie is experiencing, most people don’t have full-blown internal dialogues with themselves. It wouldn’t read naturally. So, I turned to exposition to give the reader a glimpse into Melanie’s state of mind.

4. Background Information

Not all background information is vital enough to be put into flashback. That is reserved for previous events that contain lots of action and have a significant effect on the direction of the plot. And it’s not always natural for characters to tell a background story through dialogue. Sometimes you just need to quickly remind your readers about something they learned in a previous book. In all those instances, you must rely on exposition.

In Cassandra Clare’s Lord of Shadows [Small Spoiler Alert], she uses exposition to remind the readers of the fact that Julian Blackthorn is his uncle’s secret caretaker:

For years, since he was twelve years old, Julian had borne alone the knowledge that his uncle Arthur was mad, his mind shattered during his imprisonment in the Seelie Court. [3]

A prime example of using exposition to quickly fill readers in on background information that is pertinent but not essential enough to show in flashback is this line from Harry Potter:

Neville had never been on a broomstick in his life, because his grandmother had never let him near one. [4]

Short and sweet. We now know something new about Neville, but we didn’t have to jump back in time to a scene where Neville’s grandmother tells him he’s not allowed on a broom.

Don’t Fear Exposition

Exposition isn’t evil. It isn’t a crutch. Yes, it is notoriously overused, but it is also essential to good writing. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t bog your readers down with so much showing that they feel like they’re swimming through pages of adjectives and boring, unnecessary dialogue. Exposition fills in the gaps between action, description, and dialogue, and you can’t write a story without it. So embrace it, and use its power well.

[1] Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, pg. 199

[2] Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, pg. 170

[3] Lord of Shadows, pg. 38

[4] Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, pg. 144

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