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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 boring.

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 next.

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.