One of the first pieces of advice most writers have beaten into them is “Show don’t tell.” The reason this advice is hammered home so hard is because it is, in fact, good advice. The story is almost always better when you show something, rather than when you tell it. It immerses the reader more in the world, the stories, and the characters who are living in it. Later, I’ll go over what this really means, because it’s been a tough lesson to learn.
However, there are exceptions to this rule.
Somethings, to show the reader how a magic system would work, it would require pages and pages and endless pages of description that would stall the plot. Sometimes, for a mystery to unfold properly, you need to tell the readers about the murder victim’s history as opposed to writing an entire book from their point of view. Sometimes, you just must tell the reader something.
Figuring out when to show and when to tell is a subject for a later post. Today, however, we’re going to talk about the do’s and don’ts of exposition – and we’re going to imagine we’ve invented the concept of McDonald’s and are trying to explain it to a reader who has never heard of fast food. In this scenario, we are not planning on dwelling on McDonald’s – you could show a reader how a McDonald’s works by setting a scene there, but if it’s not a big element of the story, it would grind the plot to the halt. Instead, the goal is to introduce the reader to the concept for worldbuilding without dwelling on it too much.
Have a character tell another character.
This is one of the most popular forms of exposition, and for good reason – it happens to usually be one of the best. People explain things to each other all the time in real life, and people need things explained about as frequently.
So, how’s this work? In its simplest form, Character A explains how something works to Character B. Let’s give Character and Character B names going forward in this post – they are, in deference to the cryptology nerds, Alice and Bob.
Alice sighed. “How have you never heard of McDonald’s?”
“Look, I’m new to this place, okay?” Bob said, clenching his fists. “Can you just explain it?”
“Calm down, I didn’t mean it as an insult. It’s just…they’re everywhere.” Alice rolled her eyes and pointed down the street. “Do you see that big yellow M?”
Bob did, although it wasn’t like most M’s he’s seen. The tops of the M were rounded, making them look like a pair of golden arches. “Yeah, I do.”
“That’s a McDonald’s. They serve food that’s not great for you, but it’s cheap and quick and warm, so it gets the job done. Mostly hamburgers and some chicken. There’s one on pretty much every street in America.”
“I don’t feel like sitting around waiting for a water,” Bob said.
“No waiters, so you’re in luck there,” Alice responded. “You go to the counter and order it from the underpaid high schooler behind the register.”
Short, simple, and to the point. If you know what hamburgers and chicken are, you have a basic idea of how this restaurant works now. Obviously, in this instance, Bob has never heard of McDonald’s. That’s the big thing that needed for this method of exposition to work. Let’s say both characters have heard of McDonald’s. This is what the characters would be saying:
“We should get McDonald’s,” Alice said.
“I think that’s a great idea. As you know,” Bob said, “McDonald’s is a restaurant that serves beef and chicken. You can get food quickly by going to the counter, and it’s cheap, although it’s also of low quality both in overall enjoyment and in terms of health benefits. Its primary logo is a big golden M.”
“Yes, I do know that. There’s one on almost every street in America, after all.” Alice said.
No human being talks this way, unless they’re a complete jerk. If you’re trying to have a character be a condescending asshole, you can get away with a bit of exposition in this format, but I wouldn’t suggest it. It sounds like dialogue from a low budget advertisement at best. At worst, it completely breaks the reader’s immersion.
If you can’t explain something in dialogue, the next option is…
Have a character think about it.
This is less organic than the above option. Sometimes, if there’s no logical way to work the exposition into dialogue, it can be worked into a character’s internal monologue. This has the advantage of being a bit more organic than our final option, but still does break immersion some. Here’s the way it would work in a third person story:
“Do you want to go to McDonald’s?” Bob asked.
Alice considered. I like McDonald’s – cheap and quick, and no fussing about with waiters…although to be fair, it’s not particularly healthy. On the other hand, I’m not really feeling like chicken or hamburger right now. “I’ll pass,” she said.
As the example demonstrates, this one’s a bit of an immersion breaker. If someone asks you if you want to go get McDonald’s, you don’t think hard about the nature of McDonald’s. I also had to leave out the Golden Arches in the above example, because there’s absolutely no reason for Alice to think about it without it sounding horribly stilted. However, it can work when needed. It’s probably best to show the reader the logo later if it’s important.
This does get a bit easier if the narration is in first person, since everything is in the character’s thought and voice.
“Do you want to go to McDonald’s?” Bob asked.
I wasn’t sure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as American as the next gal, and I like McDonald’s. Nothing beats the combination of cheap and quick, especially since the minimal interaction with the cashier is way less annoying than a waiter looming over you. I almost agreed, then caught myself. The problem was, it’s not particularly healthy, and I wasn’t feeling like chicken or hamburger. Now sushi – I would have killed a man for sushi right then. “I’ll pass,” I said.
See, the difference between the two is first person narration is not required to follow normal human thought patterns. Read a first person novel and imagine if someone’s internal monologue really worked like that. They’d go crazy in short order. Ideally, first person narration should sound like someone telling a story to someone else, and in that context, a bit of exposition is needed.
Of course, sometimes you can’t work the exposition into someone’s internal thoughts, and if you’re writing third person, you’re going to have to…
Have the narrator tell the reader.
This one is trickier to do well, because it’s less organic. Most of us don’t wander around life with a giant voice in the clouds telling us things we need to know – and if you do, I really want to meet you. I have some things I want to discuss with the omnipotent narrator of the universe.
When you’re doing this, you want to give only the essential information. Too much is going to just bog the reader down, and grind everything to a complete halt. Here’s a way to do this:
Bob wanted to meet Alice at McDonald’s, a restaurant that served cheap, fatty food and was mostly known for being quick. She wasn’t interested though. She wanted something nicer, something fancier.
A single sentence. I left out the golden arches and the chicken and beef and the lack of waiters because unless one of those details is extremely important, there’s no reason to go into it. If Alice had been a vegetarian, then it might be worth mentioning the type of meat they serve. If Bob liked it because he’s a misanthrope who wants to limit his interaction with people, then the lack of waiters would be worth noting.
Here’s what you should never do:
Bob wanted to meet Alice at McDonald’s, a restaurant known for serving chicken and hamburgers. It wasn’t the healthiest food in the world, and in fact had been investigated for heavy use of Trans Fats in their food. Their logo was the Golden Arches, a stylized M painted yellow. It was established in 1955 and has since grown to cover every street in America. Their main mascot was a red-haired clown known Ronald…
And on and on and on. Epic fantasy can be particularly bad about this, going on for pages about tiny details because the writer wants to show off their worldbuilding chops. The thing is, if the above explanation had gone on for pages, by the time we discover Alice wasn’t interested in McDonald’s we would have forgotten why Bob wanted to meet there on the first place – assuming we hadn’t already closed the book and moved onto something more interesting, like reading the Encyclopedia or watching paint dry.
And there you have it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have the strangest craving for cheap fatty food.
Have your own thoughts on exposition? Let me know in the comments below!