Writers are usually much better at spotting, and mocking, exposition in the work of other writers. In their own work, sections of disguised address to the reader (a.k.a. info-dump) are simply jobs that have to be done, one way or the other.
It is a truth of writing that sometimes the ugly way is the only way. But that’s no excuse.
Some of Shakespeare’s plays begin with real clunkers.
I don’t want to quote from any particular play, because I don’t want you to get fussed about interpreting it. So, I have made up my own couple of opening lines.
Act One, Scene One: The drawbridge of a fine castle in Venice/Padua/Bohemia
Lord #1: I hear the King has late arriv’d from France.
Lord #2: Methought he bided yet another week.
Now, if you are in an Elizabethan castle where the King is away, it is quiet, rooms are shut up, the kitchens gently tick over, flags don’t fly.
If you are in a castle – or even on the drawbridge of a castle – where the servants have been alerted to the King’s return, the entire place is in a huge panic, rooms are being aired, game is being brought in to the pantry, flags fly.
Are we supposed to believe that Lord #2 has been resident in the castle all this time and has failed to notice all the preparations for the King’s return? Or that Lord #1, with the royal flag flying above his very head, feels that it is necessary to inform Lord #2 that the King is back?
It’s like a man, soaked by a downpour, telling another man, equally wet, ‘I think it might possibly rain today.’
Who are Lord #1 and Lord #2 addressing?
The audience, of course. Shakespeare (my made-up Shakespeare) is taking Route One to informing the audience of the overall situation: the King is in, okay?
THAT I HAVE SHOT MINE ARROW O’ER THE HOUSE
When you are writing dialogue, you should imagine each word being an arrow, fired towards the person who will learn most from what’s being said.
If that arrow, instead of flying across to another fictional person, heads vertically out of the page and hits the reader – cut the line.
If a series of arrows fly upwards, sentence after useful and informative sentence, cut the scene, start again with something that doesn’t need to happen but that seems like it might.
(I will admit, some genres are more tolerant of exposition than others. Maybe you’re writing in one of those. Even so, cut first; replace if you can see no better option)
Exposition is like a news report, laying out the facts of the situation so far as they are currently known.
Exposition says, This is how the world is.
Who knows how the world is?
Here’s a fact: It is far easier to include exposition unobtrusively in a third person omniscient story than in a first person story – particularly if the first person voice that’s being used sticks very close to the character in the moment.
THIS NOVEL CHANGED WHAT I SEE ON CREATIVE WRITING COURSES
Literary Aside: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a brilliant example of a point of view novel, one that makes a virtue out of the difficulty of going from first person present tense to any kind of statement This is how the world is.
Katniss Everdene spends most of the trilogy in ignorance both of what is happening elsewhere in Panem, and also in ignorance of her own central importance to those events. She is a revolutionary leader who doesn’t know there is a revolution going on. Change The Hunger Games into a third person omniscient novel, and Katniss becomes a comic character. She does most of what she does right by mistake, not in any full knowledge of the wider consequences.
If you watch the film, you will see that the writers and director decided they couldn’t do the whole thing through Catniss’ eyes. And so we get behind-the-curtain scenes (of exposition) with President Snow which mainly go like this, Ha ha ha, evil plot, evil plot against Katniss. In the books, we only see the consequences of the plotting – and it therefore comes as a complete surprise.
Another round of Hunger Games? You’re fucking kidding me.
Exercise: Rewrite the not-Shakespeare scene, in prose, to convey the information that the King has returned to the castle, but do it in a way that completely avoids exposition. No need for more than a couple of lines.
Explanation: What does Lord #1 need to say to Lord #2 about the King’s return, and the disturbance it has caused, that Lord #1 has an emotional reason for saying and that Lord #2 does not already know.
A definition: If expositional dialogue is useful information, non-expositional dialogue is apparently useless attitude.
Exposition says, This is how the world is; non-exposition says, My bit of the world looks and sounds and smells and feels like this to me, and it makes me feel…
Often, when the writer is getting them to do exposition, people will speak with an authority they don’t have. Their tone will go from informal to formal. The effect, if done badly, will be unintentionally comic.
See: Basil Exposition in the Mike Myers’ movie Austin Powers.
His first line is, ‘Hello, Austin. I’m Basil Exposition…’ This itself is exposition. How can Austin not already know who Basil is? Look at the direction the arrow is flying in. Straight towards you, the viewer.
One further thing, people who have known one another for a long time, as friends or colleagues, tend to develop shorthand or offhand ways of referring to things.
It’s quite possible that one person within a long-lasting marriage might say to the other, ‘Can you fetch me the thingummy from behind the whatsit?’ They might say this, and immediately be 100% understood.
Similarly, if technicians are using a piece of equipment like the Hadron Large Particle Collider, they do not – when they’re speaking to one another – bother to come out with all those gnarly syllables every time. They make up a nickname that works in the mouth, and they stick to it. The Zinger, the Ringer, Haddy – I don’t know what it is… Maybe you do.
Exercise: Go back to your story-start. Insert four lines of non-expositional dialogue somewhere in it – even if it seems completely useless right now. Put in something the main goal of which is to suggest the people had lives before the story started.
See you soon.