Exposition, the Broccoli of Storytelling

In a couple of week I will be presenting to a paying audience the wonders of Writing Dialogue in fiction and creative nonfiction. This is how it’s being marketed to possible students-customers:

Novelist Amy Bloom said, “Dialogue is not conversation. It is conversation’s greatest hits.” In this class, we will explore the ways in which dialogue can be harnessed to add light and shade to your storytelling, lend depth to your characters, and push your story along. We will also cover the use (and misuse) of dialogue tags, how to make your characters talk past one another, the wonders of the action “beat,” and the beauty of proper punctuation in dialogue. Be prepared to spend a portion of this class on in-class writing exercises that will help your dialogue find its rhythm.

While I haven’t yet prepared the lesson in full, I did present a kind of mini-version to a couple dozen .students at Vanderbilt University this past August, to results that mostly met my personal satisfaction.

Speaking of presentations and teaching and stuff, this past Saturday I went back and dusted off my 2020 “Worldbuilding in Fiction” lecture/slide show for a writing group here in Nashville called RPL Writes. (RPL stands for Richland Park Library.) I figured it was no less topical today than it was 14 months ago, particularly since I feel like I’ve been seeing a whole bunch of other lectures on the concept of worldbuilding lately. I’m not saying I came up with the idea or anything—N.K. Jemisin’s 2019 presentation at WIRED25 remains in my mind the trailblazer and gold standard when it comes to talking about this stuff, plus she’s got the career to back herself up—but still I’d like to think I was perhaps a scooch ahead of the curve.

But I digress. While talking with the RPL Writes writers about worldbuilding, I sensed a restlessness halfway through, and soon after a question arose: How to deal with exposition?

The Unwieldiness of Narrative Exposition

Exposition almost always presents a problem in fiction writing, but when it comes to fiction that offers to the reader a new world, whether it’s a world with dragons and magic spells or a literal new world, a planet with its own people and physical laws and substances and frequencies, exposition presents an incessant, highly unwieldy problem. How to show readers the ways in which, say, the legal system operates in your newly created world (or “conworld” as some might call it) without making them feel like they’re on the receiving end of an “info dump”?

Narrative exposition is the broccoli of storytelling, and what I mean by this is that it is no one’s favorite part of the “meal” of the reading experience. Yet it has to be addressed and acknowledged and accommodated for, or else your reader is going to be in the dark as to why things are the way they are.

It’s not like I’ve never thought about exposition and its relationship to worldbuilding, but I was caught off guard. Of course up-and-coming writers want to know how to make their narrative exposition feel seamless and smooth, an organic part of the story that enriches the plot without slowing everything down. And so, struggling to come up with anything intelligent to say, I posited that dialogue was one way to make the exposition do down easier.

I even launched into what I like to call my “You just don’t get it, do you?” theory, which states: When a screenwriter has a bunch of exposition to communicate to the audience in any given scene, “You just don’t get it, do you?” acts as a kind of compositional bridge between the first bite of exposition and the second. This screenwriter’s dirty little secret is in fact so popular, so widespread, that funny people on Youtube have even put together a surprisingly long montage of many of the times it’s been used in Hollywood movies:

That’s all well and good, one person said, but have you got any suggestions aside from clumsy showbiz cliches?

I can’t remember what I said or what happened after that. I must’ve blacked out. And yet somehow I survived long enough to be faced with a different version of the same question toward the end of my presentation, and this time I responded with a slightly smarter idea, and that is this:

Exposition should never be just exposition

If you find yourself writing a scene and nothing is happening other than one character explaining (expositing) the dry, boring mechanics of something in order to help your plot run smoother, you’re not doing anything wrong. You just need to add something, a little piece of action, or even just the anticipation of action, so that the reader is willing to continue reading.

Continuing the broccoli metaphor, this is the equivalent of adding a hunk of Velveeta, making for a slightly less distasteful experience. Velveeta-smothered broccoli still might not be anyone’s favorite part of the meal—though it may be!—but it is much more likely to be finished.

Hurry Up

Another possible way around/way through exposition is to “hurry it up” as much as possible. If you can first edit your exposition down to its most important points and express those points in as directly as possible, then place those points in the mouth of a character who is racing against a kind of clock—let’s say that character only has two minutes before they’re taken away to prison, or maybe the antagonist, whose secret serves as the heart of the exposition, has gotten up to use the bathroom—then you can quite easily make your expositing character tell the main character something like, “Now listen to me closely. We don’t have much time.” And then they can launch into your lean ‘n mean exposition points.

I didn’t think to share this one with the RPL Writes writers at the time, but I wish I had. In fact, I kind of wish I had a whole presentation about exposition and how to write it elegantly. Maybe one day I will.