How to Make Exposition Less Boring
By Lena Hoppe
Copyright © 2009 by Lena Hoppe, All Rights Reserved
I'm sure I'm
not the only one who, as a reader, feels somewhat weary when faced with
several pages of historical background, political explanations or
geographical descriptions. Similarly, it can be very tedious to write
such stretches of background information. Getting to that point in a
novel, I sometimes end up procrastinating for days - not because I don't
know what to write, but because it seems so very boring. And if it is
boring to write, it will most likely be boring to read, too.
Of course there are different reading tastes and writing styles, but for
those who tend to feel as daunted as I do when faced with writing
exposition, here are my seven suggestions to make exposition less
1) Pick your moments
Don't begin your story with long descriptions of the past three decades
of wars and feuds in your fantasy realm. I have put books down because I
couldn't get myself to care about those wars in a place that I knew
nothing about. Introduce your characters first and make your reader feel
for them before you place them in the big picture.
However, don't wait until the very end either. The things that need
explaining will pile up and you will be stuck with huge amounts of
exposition that are hard to digest when your readers should be swept up
in the climax of the story.
2) Lay the groundwork
To avoid having too much exposition at the same time, lay the groundwork
early on. Slip in little hints and details whenever you can. If you know
you will need to explain political developments and campaigns or delve
into the war-torn history of a region of your world, make sure your
readers are already familiar with the most important names and events.
They could be referred to in every-day conversations. Make up
expressions and proverbs that tell your reader something about these
leaders, tyrants or battles. If you set things up well, you won't have
as much to explain when you get to the "Sit down and I'll tell you what
it's all about" moment.
If there is still a lot to explain, don't try to get it all over with in
one huge Tolkienesque Council-of-Elrond scene. Consider having different
parts of your exposition told by different characters and in different
situations. You could even have your exposition be split up by a sudden
explosion or the frequent interruptions of a child demanding playmates,
chocolate and assistance in battling monsters underneath its bed.
If you spread your exposition over several scenes, your readers will be
faced with digestible chunks, rather than a long section that the less
patient reader might be tempted to skip.
3) Keep to the essential
As tempting as it may be to show off your richly developed fantasy world
with its centuries of history and intricate cultural nuances or the hard
work you put into the research for your historical novel - don't tell
the reader everything you know. Most likely they won't need (or want) to
know all the details of the past two or three centuries of the spice
trade or what all the months and days are called in each of your eight
carefully constructed languages.
Instead, sit down and make a list of things that are actually necessary
in order to follow your plot. Only put in the things that add to your
story and leave out what is merely burdening it with unnecessary
information. You can always save those bits for a sequel!
4) Be realistic
If your exposition comes from the mouths and minds of your characters,
be sure that those characters are likely to know what they are talking
about. In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, Hermione Granger was a
good character for exposition because she was an avid reader. Whatever
she knew, as a reader you could believe that she might have read it
somewhere. Think about your characters and their personalities. If you
set one up as a history enthusiast or the daughter of a spymaster or a
known gossiper, your readers will buy it if they end up explaining
things that others don't know about.
Also keep in mind that people rarely tell each other what they already
know. Don't have your characters have conversations about things that
are old news to them for the reader's benefit. Instead, consider
introducing a character who is an outsider and needs to be told - just
like the reader.
5) Be creative
Instead of just telling your reader what she needs to know, find other
ways of slipping in all the necessary information.
For example, instead of describing the current political events in the
country, let your characters have debates on different opinions
pertaining to the political situation. Their arguing can lead to a
deeper understanding of the situation as well as add to the relationship
between the characters.
Instead of simply narrating recent events, have a herald walk past the
open window of the inn where your characters are about to have lunch,
announcing the most recent news. You can either let it go uncommented -
purely for the reader's information - or add immediate the reactions of
your characters and perhaps have it lead directly to whatever happens
If you need to define a concept - be it religious, scientific or
philosophical - that everyone in your story is familiar with, have a
character browse through books in a library and come across such a
definition. Don't quote entire pages; just sneak in a sentence here and
a title there.
6) Change focus
If you do have to have a scene in which a large amount of exposition
takes place, say a scene in which one character explains events that
none of the others have witnessed, shift the focus away from the
exposition and towards something more interesting.
Perhaps your character is really nervous about speaking in front of a
large audience. Make the scene about his sweaty palms and his stumbling
over words, rather than the contents of the speech. Or the character
delivering exposition despises the person they talk to and speak in a
poking, prodding, hurtful way, taking every chance they can get to point
out the other character's ignorance or inferiority. Or perhaps you can
use the scene to show sexual tension between two characters.
7) Show, don't tell
This should go without saying, but is well worth reminding oneself of
every now and then. If you can explain some of your exposition by
showing something that happens, rather than simply giving an account of
the events, do so. Perhaps you need less exposition than you think.
In a nutshell, don't be scared of exposition. If you are a little bit
creative, you can use it to advance your character development or add
depth to a scene, while at the same time telling your readers all they
need to know.