Monday Motivation: If you must use exposition…

 In Monday Motivation, Tips for Writers

I often rail on about exposition – the explainy part of any story. But it clearly has a place. Take the opening lines of a story about a gory manhunt:

John surveyed the terrain ahead of him. He could see the subtle signs of his quarry’s passing. It was time to bring the hunt to its predictable conclusion…

The perspective character here wouldn’t be thinking of his own name. It’s a tiny instance of explanation, right? Rather than seek for ways to introduce a character’s name into the narrative naturally, we simply use it. Strict adherence to the policy of avoiding exposition at all costs would have us think of him as “him” – since that is the way he thinks of himself, if, that is, he thinks of himself at all. But readers like handles, and John is the handle of this character.

In the normal course of events, we try to avoid the more blatant varieties of exposition, disguising them as flashes of memory and observation. Want to give a description of a pub? Well, have your character return to it after a long absence, and this is what might result:

They’d carpeted over the cigarette burns that had pocked the old wooden floor. The mirrors behind the bar had been replaced, he noticed. He missed the fancy lettering that had once advertised the virtues of Black Sheep. The bar-counter had been sanded and varnished. The barman behind it, with his smooth cheeks and his too-ready smile was new, too. But he could still detect, beneath all the new gentility, the old smell of cigarette smoke and piss. All the scrubbing and painting and carpeting and flashing teeth in the world couldn’t erase that reassuring fact.

There’s a lot of information packed into that paragraph. But it’s nicely camouflaged.

But what if you need to give your readers a dollop of exposition that you simply can’t dress up in this way? It happens. You need to sketch in the history of a place, or the demographics of a neighbourhood. Well, I’ve been reading a book that does this without apology, and without jarring the delicate sensibilities of the discerning reader. Read this first, then I’ll tell you why I think it works:

“The tallest building outside the capital, Beetham Tower had been one of several skyscrapers planned for the city. The idea was to expand further and further upward, each structure a few metres taller than the last, like some great, dull-metal graph, charting endless growth. Developers had decided they could make millions by mortgaging small, overpriced rooms to single men and women, our only commodity. But their heads had been in the clouds. When the economy came crashing down around them, the owners, investors and builders lost everything. The male suicide rate rose slightly and everyone else carried on.”

It feels to begin with like an execrable info-dump. True, a thread of cynicism runs through it. But it’s when you get to the mordant, deadpan last line that you recognize the protagonist’s voice, and you realize that he might well have had the thoughts that coalesced here in this little piece of sociological analysis.

The lesson? If you absolutely need, for the sake of story, to give your readers a plateful of information, then give it a little edge of something: cynicism is good, and so is enthusiasm, or doubt. It adds a little “voice” to the exposition that takes us back to the character.

By the way, the passage comes from a book called Sirens by Joseph Knox, a hot new British writer of very dark noir fiction.

Happy writing,


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  • Carolyn

    Aha! Very helpful Richard. Thank you

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