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The exposition is the part of the story where the setting and characters are introduced, and the conflict is introduced or explained. When you’re writing a novel, it’s important to give readers a reason to keep reading. The best way to do that is to keep the exposition interesting, and use it to create a world that readers want to learn more about. Use these steps to make sure that your exposition is engaging and sets up your story for success.
- 1 Start before the beginning
- 2 Outline the best possible way to connect to the reader
- 3 Use devices
- 4 Limit exposition to necessary details
- 5 Go for the big moment
- 6 Pick your inciting incident
- 7 Be ready to pose new questions
- 8 Give hints about your character’s motives and emotions
- 9 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Start before the beginning
The first moment of a story isn’t where most authors choose to start — that’s probably part of why it’s called the exposition. But before you start the story proper, you have to make sure the reader knows who to root for, and why. Do this by introducing the world where the story is set, the roles of the characters, and the source of the conflict. In The Lord of the Rings series, Tolkien spends about 200 pages in a relatively uneventful section called The Shire, using the opportunity to explain the setting and the personalities and motivations of the main characters.
If the genre you’re writing in has literary tradition, you’ll want to follow it. In romance, readers expect an information dump of setting and characters at the beginning, while spy fiction has plot-centric prologues. Use the differences in genre expectation to grab your reader’s attention. Either begin the story with something exciting, or end it — using the nonlinear narrative to begin a story at a seemingly random point would work especially well in genre fiction, where readers have behavioral expectations.
Outline the best possible way to connect to the reader
Focus in and outline a few different ways to introduce your characters. Remember, you don’t need to write the copy of the first magazine they see, but neither should you skip straight to a scene where your heroes are already trying to defeat the evil wizard who murdered their parents. Have some middle steps. Then, prioritize those steps — which do you need to include? Which does your audience need to know to understand your events, and which do you find you skim over? Edit your list to fit these parameters.
Keep in mind that while most stories need an introduction, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that every story needs to open in the middle of a firefight. Sometimes a few casual lines of exposition will suffice. You’ll also need an introduction to worldbuilding, and you will probably want to explain a few of the devices your characters will use. Make this list, too, and prioritise it. Organize the information you’ve prioritised in the order needed to connect with readers. If this means moving a scene around, don’t stress about it too much.
Now use this information to write a first draft of the exposition. Don’t stop at your first draft — you need to go through each of the exposition sections you’ve outlined, editing, revising, and reorganizing things. If you need to add a section, that’s okay — go ahead. But if you find that you need to take a section away, make sure you’ve done everything else. Usually, the scenes that show, not tell, are the ones that you need to put out there. Show the action, the people, the world. Leave the plain telling to whispers between characters, or to the aftermath of unspeakable events. Just remember to be sure the reader understands every detail he needs to.
Every writer has a different opinion on whether exposition is necessary in a story. Some feel that it’s unnecessary if you drop your readers right into the middle of immediate action. Others dislike exposition because, since the plot and character backgrounds are already established, there’s no need to rehash what you’ve already told readers. But regardless of which side of the exposition coin you’re on, one thing that every writer agrees on is that you want to hook your readers in the first couple of pages, to ensure that they follow you through to the rest of your story.
Make your exposition part of the hook. Point out to readers at the beginning that what they’re reading is exposition — using narrative tools like an omniscient narrator, a character speaking, or an informative section heading to announce your intention. Make the section short, and then return quickly to showing your characters in action. This is also a good time to make a flashforward, if you need to — you can talk about upcoming action and key plot points, and paint a brief outline of the rest of your story. The best part is you can do it directly, without hiding behind any delicate narrative devices, and your readers will feel as though they were involved in the creation of your story from the very start.
Limit exposition to necessary details
One of the goals of exposition is to make a story seem bigger and more important than the actual word count would indicate. However, it’s the size of the world as opposed to the twists and turns of your plot that serves this purpose. The first duty of early exposition is to introduce the story world, characters, culture, and setting.
However, not everything needs to be introduced in the first chapter. A novel begins at a specific time and place, and it’s often useful to have the characters directly address what the action is about. But do that too early, and you risk your audience getting bored and moving on to something else, and, paradoxically, overcomplicating things.
The second duty of exposition is to lay the groundwork for future action. This exposition should nearly happen offscreen, in background conversations, or flashbacks that allow subsequent plot points to seem important. Exposition in the second and third chapters is often about character development, and it’s critical that you get all your significant backstory in before the first conflict.
The main purpose of exposition is to allow you to world-build, but don’t get too lively with the map you draw too early. Limit your exposition to allow yourself to construct a big picture, and sprinkle your exposition scenes strategically throughout your first draft. Do not show all your exposition cards at once.
There’s a bit of a paradox with exposition, because if you don’t include enough of it, you risk leaving readers guessing about what’s going on. On the other hand, if you include too much, you risk your story ending up bogged down under details. How do you avoid this? There are three key tools for keeping your exposition directly in front of, and moving things forward — those are actions, dialogue, and characters’ thoughts.
It’s natural to want to have a character holding a soliloquy, describing the exposition of your story — but don’t do this too early. Having your characters instead talking and questioning each other allows the exposition to be delivered, but also prime the action for future action. Dialogue is also good for exposition, because you can have your characters discussing current events and other details, and then you can add in information for the reader through the structure of their scenes — all of this in an accessible way, through the structure of conversation and its own characteristics. And while characters’ thoughts are a great way to insert exposition, they can feel a little literary in a story that needs to stay focused on action to be continually compelling.
Go for the big moment
One of the keys of using exposition well is to pull your readers into your story quickly and cleanly. There are many ways to do this. You can begin with action — You may have fallen asleep on the subway, but the woman across from you points to the gunman standing in front of the door and shouts… However, beginning with action has its risks, because first person action can risk being overly complex. you might also make characters work right away, showing right away who they are and what their ambitions and personality are — that could drag on for a page or two.
You can begin with thoughts and feelings. You may wonder where you are, where you came from, what has happened in the last five minutes, and why you felt like running? While beginning a story with exposition isn’t exactly considered bad form, it is good to try something different from time to time. it’s the way screenwriters film blockbusters start. First, the screenwriter and director take time building tension, making sure the viewers are invested in what is going to happen next, and then they start with a rough-cut sequence in media res that snaps the viewers attention.
Pick your inciting incident
Every novel, short story, and even movie has an inciting incident, but not every author knows how to utilize it correctly. The inciting incident is an event or occurrence in the protagonist’s life — even if the protagonist is unaware of it — that acts as a catalyst for the events in the novel. The inciting incident typically takes place at the beginning of the story, but it can also come in the middle or the end. The inciting incident can be a dramatic event, or even a simple, innocuous comment. The key is that it’s integral to the story, and that once it takes place, the protagonist can’t return to the life he or she had before it.
The inciting incident of How To To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee starts before the book even begins, in the years leading up to when the story is supposed to have taken place. As the story goes on, you learn about Boo Radley, who would be the eventual cause of the inciting incident without the book ever having said anything about him before that, other than the mysterious ‘Boo Radley’s’ name that is whispered around the town of Maycomb, and threatened to whoever dares think otherwise. That little bit of foreshadowing turns into one of the biggest “Aha!” moments of the book, and the inciting incident — while much smaller — becomes the core of the protagonist’s journey.
Be ready to pose new questions
Your story should always have information withheld from the reader. It should also make them ask questions they need answered. Never tell everything and settle into a dull middle section of exposition. Take the time to create thought-provoking or intriguing questions for the reader, and then make them wait until the end of the story to receive answers. The moment you start explaining things, you’re opening the door to the dreaded “info-dump.” Don’t explain anything until you’re ready to move on to a new phase of the story.Your readers will hate you if you do it too early, and if you wait too long, they might begin to lose interest.
Avoid this by making sure your story is always in motion. The best way to do this, other than to keep things in motion in the plot and character-driven parts of the story, is by leading the reader in directions they don’t expect. Remember — the answers will often be surprising, but if you aren’t redirecting the story along the way in ways that surprise them, they may not keep reading to figure them out.
At the same time, make sure the questions you ask the reader drive them deeper into the story. The best kind makes them want to turn the page to find out more, pressing on as much by their own curiosity as anything else. If your questions are leading to conclusions your readers can see coming, then they’re not going to be as interested unless there’s a significant “aha” element. Then make sure your answers are the ones your readers will want to find out. Make sure they’re not just something that’s bound to happen to all of the characters eventually, be they good things or bad. Remember, in case you’ve forgotten, that your story is about your reader’s expectations. Whatever you do, don’t give them exactly what they expect.
Give hints about your character’s motives and emotions
Exposition is about revealing — it’s the first part of a story where the reader and the character learn things about the core elements of a plot or a setting. In literary works, exposition is commonly used to bring information about plot, setting, character, and theme into the reader’s consciousness, so they can better understand the larger action of the story. There are several different types of exposition that authors can use to accomplish this, but for most kinds of narratives, the most common exposition is exposition that gives hints to what lies within the minds and emotions of the characters in a story. The thought processes and self-talk in your characters’ minds can be very attractive to readers. This type of exposition can create considerable interest in the characters and the story. Readers are likely to wonder about the character’s motivations, thoughts, or internal struggles that create the conflicts in the story, and will want to keep reading until they discover more.
To accomplish exposition through your character’s thoughts, explore the issue from their point of view. Oftentimes the power of thoughts as exposition is dependent on how emotionally striking they are. By using point of view, you allow readers access to the character’s deeply felt attitudes and emotions. Character emotions should always reflect or affect reactions to what’s going on in the story. Realism often demands that you provide the reader with character reactions to actions, objects, or events within the scene, as well as thoughts and feelings before and after the events. Some useful techniques are to have a character’s mind wander, have a memory of something that happened just before, note the action or object and then later have the character react, or have a character think about what should be or could’ve been.
The core idea is that expositions aren’t always about introducing characters and establishing the setting of a story. Instead, you can use the exposition to get at the heart of the human condition. Use your setting and your characters to tell a story that lets your readers immediately connect with what the book is about, and remember the first line of the book you read that made you want to read the rest of it — chances are, it started with the exposition. If that connection can be made, you’re already ahead of the game. Now, that’s how you write the exposition.
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