The Writer's Writing Guide: Exposition

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Exposition is the background material a reader needs to know for the story to move forward. In "Little Red Riding Hood," we need to know that our main character is a girl on her way to visit her ill grandmother, who lives in the woods. We also need to know that this girl is young and innocent, and so might be given to speaking to strangers, such as cunning wolves, who are hanging out in the woods. In the story of Adam and Eve, we need to know that our main characters are a man and a woman who live in a garden, that they are the first man and woman who ever lived, and that they have been told not to touch the fruit of a certain tree. In the Dickens story "A Christmas Carol," we need to know that our main character Scrooge is a callous, penny-pinching boss, a man old enough to be set in his ways, and that it is Christmas time. Once this background information is established for each of these three stories, they can proceed.

In every story, every writer must face the technical dilemma of how to deliver the exposition. It can be done explicitly, in a very direct fashion:

I am a thirty-five-year-old plumber, a single man with a passion for peanuts, police scanners, and women with freckles on their cheeks. I live in the house where I was born, a gray cottage right next to the Susquehanna River in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where the aluminum siding still shows the flood line from that hurricane in '72, and sometimes, when I show up to fix a leaky faucet, and people find out where I live, they ask if that's what made me want to tinker with pipes. I tell them yeah, I lost my pet dog and right leg and brother in that flood, which is true, but that's not why I work with water. I work with it because I like to feel important, and what's more important that making things unclog and quit dripping and flush. Not even arresting DWI's can hold a candle to that.

In this example, the exposition is very direct, very up front. We know the narrator is a man, we know his age, we know he has a disability, we know his profession. The reader doesn't have to think to put anything together.

Exposition can also be done indirectly. With indirect exposition, the writer gives the reader the data in subtle but clear ways, thereby allowing the reader to be a partner when it comes to laying the foundation of the story. For instance, the narrator of Mona Simpson's story "Lawns" begins by telling us: "I steal. I've stolen books and money and even letters. Letters are great. I can't tell you the feeling walking down the street with 20 dollars in my purse, stolen earrings in my pocket." With this opening, we learn about the narrator's obsession with theft but, equally important, we learn the narrator's gender. This is done indirectly, by referring to the narrator's purse and the desire for stolen earrings. At the beginning of the next paragraph, we find out a little more: "I work in the mailroom of my dormitory, Saturday mornings." Again, we are learning about the narrator in terms of what she does — but we are also learning that she is living in a place that has dorms, which means she is either in a boarding school or a college. This gives us a rough sense of the narrator's age, which becomes more specific when we learn, on the second page, that she is being tracked by the university cops.

Indirect exposition is essentially a form of compression. It is a sweet way of delivering the necessary medicine of background information. It allows the writer to slip the facts to the reader without the reader even being aware of it happening.

This is important, because one of the potential pitfalls of exposition is that it might be dull. After all, if exposition is delivered directly, it might feel as if it is a block of who, what, when, and where which breaks the flow of a story, or, if it begins the story, delays the action. The result is that the reader might find this block of text to be no more than, well, a block of text. And that, in turn, might feel as if it is a boring impediment, and as a result the reader might stop reading.

Let's face it: it isn't nearly as interesting to read facts as it is to see them in use. So we aren't told that Scrooge is a heartless miser, but instead find out indirectly, when we see him treat Bob Cratchit gruffly, focusing not on the holiday but on the need to keep the heat off to save a penny. Thus, the indirect exposition allows us to put the facts together for ourselves, and feel as if we are sharing the writer's perspective on the world. Plus, we read ahead without being bored.

How is indirect exposition delivered? The approaches are infinite, of course, but I have noticed three basic categories:

1. With single words or single concepts, such as "dormitory" being used to communicate that the character is college-age, or "purse" to show that she is female. Other examples might include a reference to the Golden Gate Bridge to indicate that the story is in San Francisco; references to Poligrip, arthritis, and Social Security checks to show that a character is elderly; the mention of a character wearing a ski cap and using a snow shovel to show that he is in a wintry climate. This approach to indirect exposition tends to be used most effectively when delivering the most simple kinds of information: the character's sex, age, race, size, profession; the setting; the time of year.

2. With an embedded moment. This means that a visual example is used to communicate background information. The example can be of a specific moment, or of habitual time, as in the beginning of Joyce Carol Oates' story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" "Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors, or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right." (That example actually begins with direct exposition, and then slips into indirect.) This approach to indirect exposition tends to be most effective for giving the reader a sense of the character's personality. In effect, the writer is providing the reader with evidence to support what she has already stated, and is then using that evidence to take the reader even further into the character. Thus, in the Oates example, we don't only see that, as Oates has already told us, the character is nervous and giggling, but we also learn, through the embedded moment, that the character is vain and insecure.

3. With voice. This works both in first and third person. An example of the latter is in Raymond Carver's story "Cathedral," which begins: "This blind man, an old friend of my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife's relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-laws'. Arrangements were made." The paragraph goes on, but right away we know that the narrator is detached from this visit — because, when he was telling us about it, he used passive voice: "Arrangements were made." (If you don't know your grammar well enough to recognize passive from active voice, you need to spend a day with a grammar book to get up to speed.) It is therefore clear to us through the character's voice that he has a bad attitude about this visit. This gives us two things: the character's attitude, and a clue as to the nature of the story's initial conflict (a blind man is visiting, and the narrator is not into it). All done through the voice. The voice also shows, by the syntax in the opening sentence, that the character is a colloquial and perhaps working class guy: "This blind man, an old friend of my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night." A more educated speaker would not have used the "he" after the second comma. That one grammatical choice reveals that the character is less than formal in his speech, and hence gives us a sense of who he is and how he lives his life.

An example in the third person is in Katherine Anne Porter's story "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall." It begins: "She flicked her wrist neatly out of Doctor Harry's pudgy careful fingers and pulled the sheet up to her chin. The brat ought to be in knee breeches. Doctoring around the country with spectacles on his nose! 'Get along now, take your school books and go. There's nothing wrong with me.'" Again, the voice gives us the character's attitude and a clue to the nature of the story's initial conflict (an older woman is in bed sick, and refuses to accept that she is in ill health). This time, the voice also, through word choice, gives us the background that the person we're focusing on is: a woman ("she"), an older woman ("brat," "knee breeches," "take your school books and go"), and in bed ("pulled the sheet up to her chin").

Voice may use only indirect exposition, as it does in the Porter example, or it may blend direct and indirect exposition, as it does in the Carver example. It is therefore one of the most powerful tools a writer has for delivering exposition.

So why not use indirect exposition all the time? Certainly, the more you use indirect exposition, the less you have to worry about the reader getting waylaid by information instead of being drawn along by the story. But there are three considerations which lead writers to use, or not use, indirect exposition:

1. It must be unequivocal. The reader must never have to pause to think: Is the character pregnant, or just fat? Is that reference to the character's wrist meant to tell me that she's wearing a bracelet, or that she once tried to open her veins with a knife? Am I seeing the Statue of Liberty because I'm in New York, or in New Jersey? Indirect exposition works only if it is unambiguous. The reader can't stumble and wonder, not even for a second.

2. It takes more time to write than direct exposition. Which means that the writer must think about it harder, finding ways to revise so that a paragraph of information is distilled into a sentence, or a sentence into a word, and then to weave that newly compressed information into the story in an inconspicuous but specific and effective way. That means understanding just how much a reader can absorb, and when. Which almost means becoming something of an audience psychologist.

3. It might take more space to switch all your exposition from direct to indirect. Sometimes the quickest way to communicate it is to be very direct — but, at the same time, creative. Such an approach begins the story "Life By Moonlight," by Justin Cronin: "Friday, 9:31 p.m., a humid night in fall: Mary Olson Burke, age 31 — pregnant, pregnant, pregnant — pauses in the paint-rollers-brushes-drop clothes aisle of the Home Depot in King of Prussia and knows that her water has broken." The unusual nature of the opening, with its staccato, script-like listing of when, where, and who, captivates us without giving us time to be bored. In addition, once Cronin has gotten that exposition quickly out of the way, he enters a scene in the second half of the sentence, whisking us away from the exposition and launching us right into his story. The exposition zips by without our having a chance to realize it has happened.

Okay, so you understand the difference between direct and indirect exposition, and why you might choose one over the other. But where should you put the exposition in a story, regardless of which kind it is? It seems obvious that it needs to go at the opening of a story, but is that always true?

Apprentice writers, not being sure of how to handle exposition, often feel they need to cram in all their background ASAP in their stories. Thus, the reader needs to wade through an opening paragraph, or page, or entire first chapter that is devoted to straight data. The result is inevitably several unnecessary sentences, paragraphs, or even scenes of information that move us into the piece very slowly. (This accounts for why apprentice writers sometimes have boring openings — they can't figure out another way to spoonfeed the exposition to the reader besides having the character wake up thinking about his life.) Whether you use direct or indirect exposition, you need to recognize that it doesn't all have to come up front. Certainly, the more deftly you deliver the exposition, the easier it is for the reader to swallow, but the better your timing is in the delivery, the stronger your story becomes overall.

It's important to remember that there is primary and secondary exposition. Primary exposition is the stuff that we must have right up front. That includes the basics: the characters' sexes, general ages, relationships to each other; the setting; and what's going on in this particular place in the story. This is the material we need to read into the second paragraph or into the second page; it's what we must have to get oriented.

But there is also secondary exposition: material we need for other things to unfold through the story. For instance, we might need to know up front that Scrooge is an older man and an unfeeling skinflint, but we don't need to know immediately that he is single, since his failed romance isn't important to the opening of the story. It is important later on, and so we need to know before then that he is, indeed, single, but we don't need to learn that in the first paragraph. Or, back to the Mona Simpson story "Lawns." It is important that we know up front that the character is a college-age girl, and that she is obsessed with stealing. It is not yet important to know that she has a disconcerting relationship with her father. That becomes important, and so should be prepared for in advance, but it is not essential that it appear on the first page. In the Joyce Carol Oates story, the secondary exposition is that Connie is a virgin and fantasizes about kind, sexy men, and so is vulnerable to manly guys. In the Raymond Carver story, the secondary exposition is that the narrator is ill-matched with his wife, who is a poet while he is an unambitious pot-smoking couch potato. In the Katherine Anne Porter story, the secondary exposition is that, years ago, Granny Weatherall lost a child and was jilted at the altar. All of this secondary exposition is crucial to the playing out of each story, but none of it needs to be revealed at the get-go.

Be sparing in the exposition you deliver in your opening. The reader needs to know enough to move forward, but not too much, or she will feel weighted down with information, little of which she'll retain, and risk not getting swept along by the story. Remember that you can always give us some material later on — but that the basics need to come immediately.

But how can you know which material can be delayed? Think about it this way: in fairy tales, usually all the exposition comes up front. That is because such stories are simple tales with simple characters who are all surface. They tend to have no secrets from each other — or from themselves. Secondary exposition, therefore, is the stuff that we, as complex characters in our own lives, keep close to our vests: the more difficult facts, the information we'd prefer others didn't know — perhaps even ourselves. Perhaps these are the facts that reveal we are in a less-than-perfect marriage, or are being sexually abused by our fathers, or have lived for decades with the pain of romantic humiliation. Primary exposition is the face we put to the world, the way most people see us. If it includes secret material — say, for instance, the fact that we are obsessed with stealing — we can still bring ourselves to fess up, because that secret isn't our biggest secret. Our biggest secret we withhold until later; until our secondary exposition. Secondary exposition, then, is the hidden history of our selves, the facts that we might admit only to our closest friends.

As a result, the process of exposition should unfold on the page much as it does in society. First, let the reader shake hands with your characters, see them the way everyone sees them, or as they wish to be seen, and get to know them enough to recognize them on the street. Then, after some degree of familiarity has been established, have your characters slip into a more intimate mode. This way readers can glide into the story — and explore the depths of your characters — without being so overwhelmed that they can feel no sympathy. Thus, you can reduce the risk that readers will react like a new acquaintance at a party to whom you have just revealed your most embarrassing personal truths. Instead of running off, readers will stick with you, absorbed and oriented, caring about every character from your first to your final sentence.

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