Writing Tips
3 min read

What is exposition and how to do it well

An illustration of a scene from a novel on a laptop screen.

Exposition is a fundamental aspect of storytelling, but it's often given a bad rap – think lengthy monologues and info dumps that can make a reader's eyes glaze over. But it doesn't have to be this way. Done right, exposition can be a powerful tool in your writer's toolkit. Let's take a closer look at what it is and how to do it well.

Defining exposition

Exposition is the way you provide crucial background information about the setting, characters, and events in your story. It helps to set the stage, introduce key aspects of your world, and provide context for the action. In other words, it answers those important 'who', 'what', 'where', 'when' and 'why' questions. But how you answer them is where the real art of exposition lies.

Avoid the dreaded info dump

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it's one of the easiest traps to fall into as a writer. Delivering all the necessary background information in one go – the infamous 'info dump' – is a surefire way to lose your reader's interest. Instead, aim to sprinkle your exposition throughout the narrative, revealing details as and when they become relevant.

Show, don't tell

The golden rule of writing is particularly important when it comes to exposition. Try to convey information through action, dialogue, or sensory description, rather than flatly stating it. For example, instead of telling your reader that a character is nervous, show them biting their nails or pacing the room. This makes for a more engaging reading experience and helps to bring your story to life.

Use dialogue – but carefully

Dialogue can be a great way to deliver exposition – but it's crucial to make it sound natural. Avoid having characters tell each other things they already know for the sake of the reader. The 'As you know, Bob...' trope is a well-known example of this, and it's something to steer clear of. Instead, try to convey information in a way that's organic to the conversation.

Make exposition serve double duty

The best exposition doesn't just provide information – it also contributes to character development or advances the plot. For example, a character's personal history could be revealed through a memory or flashback that also adds depth to their personality and motivations.

Trust your reader

Last, but not least, remember to trust your reader. It can be tempting to over-explain, but readers often enjoy piecing together information and making their own inferences. So, give them some credit and let them do a bit of the detective work.

In short, good exposition is all about balance. It's crucial to provide enough information to understand the story, but not so much that it overwhelms or bores the reader. So, the next time you're tackling exposition, remember these tips – and show your readers what you're made of!