Friday, April 22, 2011

Working with Exposition

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.

Feel free to leave a comment.


  1. What Maass says makes sense, but he seems to only consider a very specific form of exposition. The main problem with it as used by most writers is info dump, as in:
    Jack waited for the bus. Usually there was one along every 15 minutes and it was a 30 minute journey to work.

    The stuff about the bus schedule is exposition, but it isn't internal monologue the way Maass describes it.

    The info may be important for the reader to know so later events make sense, but it is delivered in a matter of fact way that doesn't have any tension in it.

    Finding ways to slip these details in without being too obvious can be tricky, and turning it into internal monologue is one way (The schedule said once every 15 minutes but that was a joke. And then there the half hour with his nose in somebody's armpit to look forward to) but it isn't the only way. Dialogue is another.

    Moody Writing

  2. I see what you mean - though the bus example can create tension since Jack might be late for work and the bus is supposed to arrive. But I can think of times when it won't be possible to add tension to something.
    I guess if you can use tension or conflict, do. Else, just try to make it interesting.
    Thanks for you input.

  3. The point Maass is trying to make (I think) is that it's always possible to put in tension, even if it's at a micro level. It's just not that easy to always see how. Having read his book I think he gets the concept across well, but not how to do it (made my brain hurt reading it).

    My understanding (FWIW) was that adding doubt or concern or insecurity can add tension, even if it's very slight. So instead of saying "I'm goint to the store" a character might say "I'm going to try to get to the store before it closes" and even though nothing else changes (he gets to the store fine) the questioning tone is enough to raise tension. I think.

    Moody Writing

  4. Well put. I agree entirely.
    Thanks again for stopping by.