Exposition is an important, but often ill-used part of writing. Internal monologue, as it is also called, gives the reader an idea of what the character is thinking. Too much of this (or rather, too much of the wrong sort of this) and your reader will start to skim – or just put the book down.
Often, a character will think about an event in the past; mull over it. To avoid making the passage tedious, ensure that there is something new in there. Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, says that by repeating the information that the reader already has does not increase the impact, but rather lowers the tension. And as you know, tension is the staple of good fiction. You cannot avoid letting a character think about the past – it is supposed to happen. But to keep the tension – or even heighten it – you have to let the character see something new. A new angle, a new question. Something he hadn’t thought of before (especially something that creates conflict). For example, say someone walked into Billy so hard he fell to the ground, then just walked away. When Billy thinks about this later, instead of letting him think about what had happened, rather make him realise that the person had grabbed his wallet.
When you turn to internal monologue, tension can be achieved by creating conflict within the character. By conflicting two emotions – often directly opposite – you create a tension inside the person as he struggles to deal with the problem. Using exposition, you create a conversation in that person’s head, mulling over the possibilities of both options. Say Billy, in my previous example, sees the guy who took his wallet in an alleyway. Firstly, Billy wants to get his wallet back, but secondly, his fear of the man – a burly guy – drives him away. In him is a struggle for dominance where he tries to decide what to do. By introducing something new – say Billy remembers that inside his wallet is the only photo he has of his deceased mother – you can tilt the scales to one end and force action.
Now Billy approaches this guy, his heart pounding like a blacksmith hammer. He somehow gathers up the courage to ask the guy to give his wallet back. The guy steps back and brandishes a knife. Now Billy is scared out of his wits and his conflict is back. However, he won’t be thinking hours of exposition in the face of danger. His mind will work quickly and his actions will show us the product of his thoughts. Exposition should only be in pauses between action – except if the narrator is an older I – and not when the action is happening.
Exposition is telling. Action is showing. It is two sides of the same coin – your character. You need both of these two to flesh your character and make him real. Contrary to popular belief, fiction does indeed tell – but only in the right places.
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