Exposition Done Better

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Exposition is typically a necessity for any story; a creator has to be able to effectively convey critical information to their audience to ensure they’re all following what’s going on and how the world works. This becomes doubly important for stories that take place in fantasy or science fiction settings, where there are often major aspects of the world that differ from our own.

The tips I have can be used for many stories, genres, and mediums (sometimes with some tweaking or re-contextualizing required), but they are mostly derived from my own experiences with otherworldly fiction and more aimed at helping with those.

When creating a world that’s different from that of the audience, there are a lot of things to keep in mind. The nice thing with worlds like these, though, is that they tend to provide more storytelling tools that aren’t as widely available in more grounded fiction.

Now, a key thing to always consider first is how important the information to be conveyed is. While there’s nothing wrong with showing off once in a while, authors need to be aware of how much bloat they might be causing, or if they’re overwhelming their audience with proper nouns too early out of the gate.

But this article isn’t about pacing or importance – what works for one story may be detrimental for another – rather, this is more about interesting ways to deliver information, and/or how to make the information itself more interesting.

Frequently, exposition is simply told by one character to the main protagonists (as well as the audience). There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this; in fact, in many instances, shooting for simplicity and clarity is a better choice than doing something more complicated or time-consuming. That said, for creators looking for ways to spice that process up, I have some recommendations.

SUBTEXT

There’s always more to what the audience is learning in a given scene beyond what they’re being told directly. Frequently, there are so many aspects around the information that can help to inform audiences about the characters and/or the world. How the information is conveyed, who is providing it, why they’re telling it, and how everyone reacts to the information are just a handful of the ways creators can instill subtext into what might otherwise be dry exposition dumps.

Subtext is an incredibly important tool in any creative person’s belt. Literally EVERY aspect of a character or world can help inform their audience about more than just what’s being told if the creator in question is clever about it. This has the added benefit of reducing the amount of exposition that needs to be delivered as well, meaning authors can focus more on developing the characters.

It’s important to trust the viewers to catch on to what isn’t being said in a given scene, or how a character is over-reacting to something that to the others seems benign. People are smart and will recognize when the things a character is saying aren’t lining up in a well-told story. By building in a sort of “double-meaning” to all of the major details and moments, not only is it making the story more complex, but it helps to keep the audience engaged.

Strategically keeping viewers in the dark about certain things and turning specific key pieces of information into something to be sought out is a fantastic way to keep people hooked. Plus, it just makes things more fun.

INTERESTING WAYS TO CONVEY INFORMATION

Keeping subtext in mind, the following are some general methods to convey critical details beyond just telling them to the audience (or how to make the stuff the audience needs to be told more interesting). Note that almost all of these overlap to some degree, and can work together to further contribute to a more compelling narrative.

ENVIRONMENTAL STORYTELLING

The world the characters inhabit can do a huge part of the heavy lifting in regards to informing the audience about how everything works. Crime and mystery stories, as well as video games especially, tend to excel at this. Exploring the world in its natural state (or a scene of something that’s clearly awry) can naturally draw the viewer’s interest without explicitly explaining how the spaceships or magic floating towers work. That said, the fans who pay extra attention should be rewarded with a better understanding of the world!

SYMBOLISM/SYMBOLIC STORYTELLING

If a painting depicts a lion leaping up and seizing an eagle from the sky, what could that mean? Well, it could imply all sorts of things, but a good writer will be able to make a painting like that say something very specific in the context of their story. By including various symbols or motifs in their work that foreshadow or explain elements of the story, creators can impart information without coming out and saying it directly.

PIECEMEAL DETAILS.

The audience cannot and should not get all of the information right away. How this is achieved can take many forms, be they an in-universe story that the characters are seeking the conclusion of, magic runes that each activate one part of a character’s powers or visions of the past/future that hint at what’s to come. By spacing out when the viewers learn about these critical details, it gives them something to look forward to. The best creators will be able to provide just enough to leave everyone craving more.

ACTIONS

How a character fights, or what they do in a given situation can help elaborate on what they’re like without having to explain it outright. Showing that a character is good with swords is always going to be more interesting than just being told that. A cocky character hiding at the first sign of trouble, yet being willing to sacrifice themselves for one specific other person tells you not just about the cocky character, but their relationship with this other character without actually having to explain it. Authors should be aware of how their characters act, and how that can convey even more than what they say.

UNRELIABLE NARRATORS

Instead of just telling the audience about an event, what if they were allowed to see something through the eyes of a character that is ostensibly an enemy, or at the very least, unreliable? A writer can provide exactly the same information, but by having it come from someone they don’t trust, it encourages them to think more critically about what they’re being told. It doesn’t even just have to apply to a living character; there is a lot of real-life history written about countries that have fallen to empires written by the empires that conquered them. Adding this bit of reality to fiction provides a layer of nuisance and intrigue to what otherwise may be dull historical facts.

A SHOCKING SOURCE

Unveiling a major character, or revealing that one the audience was already familiar with knows much more than they’re letting on is sure to grab the viewer’s attention. Smart creators will use that to their advantage, giving such a character critical, interesting information to convey to the audience.

EXPOSITION THROUGH AN OUTLIER

By establishing that a character or situation is outside the agreed-upon norm of the universe, it automatically informs those taking in the media about the norm in the universe. Frequently, this will have the bonus effect of building up a character that is effectively an outsider, and their mistreatment can get the audience to care about and relate to them more.

These are just a few of the tools creative people can use in their stories to make the exposition more interesting. If there are any particularly interesting examples of ways to convey information that I haven’t accounted for, please let me know! I’d love to hear about all of the cool ways that it can be done!

In the meantime, I hope this was helpful. Thank you for reading.

Original post submitted by Gage