Friday, October 2, 2015

Writing Basics: What Should Be in Your Exposition?

If you are the planning type of person, you probably had your major plot points and six stages of plot drafted out before you even began writing. If that is who you are, awesome! However, many of us (including me) do not fall into the category of the well-prepared writer. Put in different terms, some of us are architects and some of us are gardeners when it comes to writing.

Whichever camp you fall into, you are going to need to start your story with an exposition.

What is an exposition, and what should you include in it?

I really want to dive into the meat of an exposition, so if you want a quick definition of "exposition", check out this previous post on the stages of plot.

Now, let's discuss what you should be including in your exposition.

The exposition is the best place to introduce readers to your characters and the foundation of the world you have created. Many people believe that the exposition is a dying literary device, claiming that it is better for stories to start in the middle of the action. I will have a post on this later (en media res), but for now, let me say this:

I personally find both the gentle and the quick exposition interesting to read. So before we go any further, understand that both methods (the fast and the slow) of starting a story are perfectly acceptable. The most important thing is making sure that you like each part of your story.

Here are three things you should consider including in your exposition:

1. The Setting

You want to establish a basic feel for the setting of your story. Have some fun here! Be lavish with your descriptions (though avoid purple prose), and be certain to show your reader what the environment of your world looks like. Does your story take place on the moon? If so, you better believe readers want to see craters and moondust (or the super cool lunar colony where everyone lives). If your story takes place in the Wild West, throw in some details people expect to see -- horses, saloons, the hot sun, a tumbleweed or two -- and, if you want bonus points with readers, include some descriptions that make your setting read as fresh and new. Readers love nothing more than a well-crafted setting that feels bright, shiny, and new.

2. The Characters

Don't think that you have to have a bullet list with all of your characters' names in bold. That is not what I mean here. When I say that you need to focus on your characters, what I mean is that you need to introduce us to the people who matter: Who are your protagonist and antagonist? Is your story going to have a hero or villain (or even an anti-hero)? Who is the POV character for the story?

Once you have introduced us to a few key players, you may want to consider divulging the juice descriptions for these questions too:

  • What does the character look like?
  • How does the character interact with other characters? (Do any of the characters have history with one another?)
  • What are the character's likes/dislikes?
  • What is a defining attribute of the character? (Niceness, courage, homicidal ego-mania, etc.)
It is going to be hard, but avoid infodumping when you describe your characters. You exposition needs to be light and engaging, not so dense that readers can't get past page eight.

3. Events

Is there a major conflict around which your story is going to take place? (There should be.) If you know upfront what you want your major conflict to be, consider tucking some foreshadowing details into your exposition. But don't get too stuck on the future; if there is a major interaction that happened in the past and which is still rocking your characters' worlds, touch on that in the exposition also.

For example, if you decide to start your story in the middle of the action, and you are hanging your entire story on an event that happened before the story itself even started, drop your poor readers some clues as to what is going on.

So, say your story starts off which characters running from some unknown/unseen thing. If you just show your characters fleeing, with some relevant fleeing dialogue ("Hurry! They are coming" or "Don't look back! Just keep going!"), your reader may be lost. Be kind, and let your readers' know what is going on. You don't have to be blatantly obvious about it (and you don't want to if you are trying to maintain a sense of suspense from the very beginning of your story), but you also don't want to scare readers off because they have arrived at the story too late to keep up.

If you are interested in more information on exposition, check out Chuck Wendig's article "25 Ways To Make Exposition Your Bitch" and the article "10 Ways to Start Your Story Better" by Writer's Digest.

What do you think? Have you given some juicy details about characters, setting, and events in your exposition that will engage your readers?

Do you have other opinions on the exposition? Share them below!

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