Ok, so you all may remember an article that I did on exposition in your fiction a few months back...but I'd like to go a little bit more in depth when it comes to finding ways to create and finesse that exposition, how it works, and why it works.
Basically, it's the art of writing without writing. It's the craft of being able to paint a vivid picture in the minds of your readers to deliver a message without having to write it out for them. There are certain techniques that you can use to accomplish this, but in order to truly understand how and why they work, you have to realize how you're doing exactly the same thing on a daily basis. Once you're able to realize that...the rest will come naturally.
So, ladies and gentlemen...welcome to 'Exposition, Round Two!
Take a moment, and think about the people who might cross your path every day when you leave the house. When you go to work, go to school, go out shopping, whatever. Think about how much real life exposition is being fed to you without a single one of these strangers saying a word. Maybe you see a guy who you think might be a car mechanic. Why? Is it because he walked up to you and said, "Hi, I am a car mechanic"? I would certainly hope not. If he does, ummm...cross the street. Hehehe! But think about it. Maybe he's wearing a wife beater t-shirt with some oil stains on it. Maybe his hands look as though they've been digging around an engine all morning. Maybe he's got an oily rag hanging out of his back pocket. There are things about his look, and his actions, and the materials he's carrying with him, that would give you that impression. That doesn't mean it's the RIGHT impression, as looks can be deceiving (He might be a high priced lawyer who likes to work on his Mustang on his off days s a hobby)...but these are things that are familiar enough to you to paint a picture. Your mind is doing this all day. Maybe you see someone with a cardboard sign saying he'll work for food, maybe there's a lady wearing a 500 dollar pair of sunglasses and a bright red dress walking with a briefcase and talking on her cell phone, or maybe you see someone with a red nose whose sniffling and constantly reaching into her coat pocket for another balled up wad of tissue. Think about all of the times you looked to see if someone was wearing a wedding ring, or the times you saw a soldier in uniform, or noticed a kid with a black eye. All of these visual clues are telling you a story about who these people are and what's going on with their lives at that particular moment...without having them say a word. It's describing these visual cues and actions in your writing that can help you get around a lot of exposition when you're feeling stuck and can't see another way out. Take in those details, and think about how you would describe this person, this situation, this environment, to someone else...and get them to draw the same conclusions that you did. It helps when you realize what you're looking for.
Sometimes I have to babysit my younger cousins, and I'll walk into a room...and suddenly they sit straight up and look at me wide eyed without saying a word. Hehehe, it's immediately like, "Ok, you either saw something, broke something, or spilled something, so fess up!" The fact that they're being angelically quiet conveys a whole LOT of information in a very short amount of time. Now, does that mean that they actually did anything wrong? No. But I can safely assume that something is off about their behavior. It's behavior that's familiar enough that pretty much anybody walking into that room would come to the same conclusion.
When you're writing, I feel that it's important to visualize every moment of every scene. What's going on? What's the tone? How do they look? What are they doing? You can add those details to your scene to deliver the same information that you want to deliver, but without having it come off as boring or awkward. I had an art teacher once who told me that when you draw a triangle on a piece of paper...the triangle doesn't exist. You draw three connecting lines, sure...but the triangle itself is an illusion. It's simply the empty space being brought out by the lines surrounding it. Exposition can be delivered the same way. By describing the surrounding factors with visuals and dialogue, you can avoid a lot of "Hi, I am a mechanic" moments in your story.
As a writer, it's your duty to set the stage and sync it up with certain connections that your readers can recognize and follow. Let's say you have a character who's a drag queen, and performs at a nightclub on Saturday nights. Now you can start your story off with a long explanation of your character's backstory, and how they knew they liked drag, and when they started working in the club, and "Oh, by the way, my name is Harry." if you wanted to. There's nothing wrong with that. OR...you could start your story with your protagonist fitting a wig on his head and fixing his make up...there's a knock at the door. The boss walks in and says, "Let's go, Harry! The club is packed tonight, even for a Saturday! You're going on in two minutes!" Your readers now know that it's a man in drag, his name is Harry, he's a performer, and he works at a club on Saturdays. Takes, like...three sentences and a line of dialogue, tops. And it's a bit more engaging than having to read Harry's life story before getting to the actual focus of the scene. Instead of your audience reading a history lesson...you're bringing them into your world right away. Hopefully in a manner that will come off as interesting and intriguing.
Now I, personally, write most of my stories in the first person. So I can deliver a great deal of exposition through the inner thoughts of my main characters and bring my readers along with me. However, when it comes to all of the other characters in my story, their thoughts, feelings, and motivations have to be relayed through observation. My protagonist doesn't get to be a mind reader (Except for that one story where the protagonist is a mind reader! Hehehe!), so I have to describe anger, attraction, heartbreak, shyness, from outside the source. And it would be easy in some parts to simply write down what needs to be said and be done with it. I won't say that I've never done it, and won't do it again, but I try to avoid taking the easy way out more often than not.
Down below is the very first paragraph of a short story that I wrote called, "The Kissing Game". It was one of those little innocent/not-so-innocent Daydream Shorts that was just meant to capture one small moment in time. They're supposed to be quick and to the point, so there's not a whole lot of room for backstory and character development here. They have to feel real, and they have to be able to connect to readers right away. So exposition was given in a way that sets the stage, but a lot of the details are merely implied. Even if the readers don't realize how much and how little information was actually given.
Every time I asked my friend, Jared, why we were doing this, his answer was always, "Because…it's 'practice', Tommy. You know, for the real thing. We're going to high school this fall. That's, like…real school, you know? We don't want to go out there and get ourselves a couple of cute girlfriends, just to end up looking like we don't know what we're doing. Girls talk! Their gossip will ruin us forever."
Now, what does this short paragraph actually tell you as a reader?
- The main character and the love interest are friends.
- The main character's name is Tommy, and the love interest's name is Jared.
- They are 'doing something' together for practice.
- They're going to high school for the first time in the Fall. That makes them about 13 to 14 years of age.
- Jared is obviously straight, and is looking to get a girlfriend and high school status. Also...he mentions getting 'ourselves' a couple of girlfriends...so chances are that he doesn't know his friend Tommy is gay.
That set the stage, the audience is locked in, ready to go. Boom. Done.
Now...what doesn't that first paragraph say? How long have they been friends? Did they grow up together? Did they meet two weeks ago? When did they start kissing each other? Does Jared live next door? Across the street? Across town? Is there a parent in the house at the moment? Did they lock the door? Is Jared really straight, or is it just an excuse to make out with his friend? Where are they? The city? The suburbs? Summer camp? The beach? The park? Is it Summer time? Spring break? A snow covered day in January? Who knows? None of that stuff is mentioned. Nor does it need to be. It's not important to the story in the least, so why even go into all of that?
A good strategy for writing exposition is figuring out what is, and what isn't important. Exposition is the art of answering a question that wasn't asked. So if your readers don't need to know certain details about a scene or a character, and it isn't going to have any further impact on the story later on...cut it out. Trim it down, and let your readers fill that part in for themselves. I'm willing to bet that a majority of my readers saw those first few sentences and pictured two boys, long time best friends, in a bedroom when their parents weren't home, possibly over Summer break, close to going back to school, in the early afternoon. The thing is, if you read it again, I didn't give out any of that information in the first paragraph. This could be current, or it could be placed in the 80's, or the 90's, or a post apocalyptic world being rebuilt by society to get back to normal. Hehehe, but unless those extra details are directly needed for me to tell the story I'm trying to tell, there's no reason for that extra detail to be there.
In the story, "A Class By Himself", the main character's mother works in a diner. She's a waitress. I displayed that by having her work long hours, standing on her feet, coming home exhausted, bringing food home in plastic cartons, falling asleep on the couch...and it's a part of her character. Not only that, but her character is an important part of the story as a whole. The fact that she's a waitress, barely makes enough money to make ends meet, and likes to cook, is also a big part of the story. So those details were given and occasionally reintroduced to the reader as needed.
Now, compare this to the mother in "The Secret Life Of Billy Chase". She works for a living too, right? She's doing something to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table. So, after reading 450 chapters of the story...tell me...what, exactly, does Billy's mom do?
Hehehe! Crazy, right? I don't even know what she does for a living! If I ever bothered to mention it, then I forgot. LOL! The point is, it's not important. It doesn't play into the rest of the story, so that bit of exposition isn't needed. Maybe she's a nurse, maybe she's a corporate defense lawyer, maybe she's a professional female WRESTLER! Hehehe, but it doesn't add anything to the other parts of the story, so it doesn't have to be said. Sometimes she's at home, sometimes she's not...and the reason is ‘work'. Done. The readers can fill in the rest on their own. And chances are, they don't care.
If your main character works in an office….what kind of office? Doesn't matter. An office. In your reader's minds, they will probably think of cubicles and paperwork and copy machines and water coolers...and that's all they need to know. Does he work on payroll? Accounting? Does he balance budgets? Does he work customer service? Doesn't matter. He works in an office. Done. Now...if he happens to be an accountant, and he finds out that a great deal of funds are being used to hire contract killers in foreign countries...and that's what your STORY is about? Well, then you might need to be a bit more specific. But if it's just a passing detail to round out your character, then mention it vaguely and let it pass. At least that's how I would handle it.
Now, one last thing before I wrap this up...
To make things a bit more visual, this is a short horror film that I found on Youtube. It's a fun little flick to give you the creeps, but I want you to pay attention to what information is being delivered to you from the very first shot, and through the first two minutes or so of dialogue. Look at the surroundings, listen to what's being said, and see what is actually being told to you...and what isn't...but you sort of fill in the blanks regardless.
Your readers are probably doing the same things when they read your work.
So...watching that, what do you think was told do you? And what do you think you made up on your own? Spend some time to meditate on it if you like.
The very first thing that you see on the screen is a cardboard box with the words 'Toby's Room' on it. Immediately, you can assume that this mother and son are moving into a brand new house. And he's probably not used to sleeping in a big room by himself, so he's a little scared by the idea. Also, he says that he misses his dad...to which his mom quietly says that she does too. Which would cause me to assume that there was a death or an accident of some sort. Either way, we've established that 'Dad' isn't around. A lot of information seems to be given to the audience right away, and you kind of go along with it. Because we know how movies work, and the exposition is being quickly given to us by showing us a situation that feels familiar.
However, and I'll go into more detail about this on my 'Plot Twists' article later on...a lot of my assumptions about this short film are more illusion than direct information. And if you play around with that illusion a bit, you can really shock your readers by subverting their expectations. Playing mind games with what they thought they knew, as opposed to what you were really telling them. Hehehe!
For example...is that little boy really 'Toby'? I saw a box with the name Toby on it, and I made an assumption...but if I wanted to throw a monkey wrench in the works, readers might find out that this boy isn't Toby at all, and 'Toby' is another little boy tied up in the basement somewhere, because this boy and his mother burst into their house and took over! LOL! He's never referred to as Toby once in the whole film. Not by name. But...in my head, that's what I was thinking. Imagine if it was all a nightmare, and the mother kisses the boy goodnight, saying, "Goodnight, Carl." And then goes down in the basement where you see a mother and her son, bound and gagged by the furnace. "Goodnight, 'Toby'." That would be cool!
Did his father die? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he was shipped off to war. Maybe he got caught banging a leather clad bear from the 'Manhole' club! Maybe he got relocated to another dimension to work with Billy Chase's mom! Who knows? But...did I NEED to know? Nope! Not important. Not for this particular story. I was given just enough information to make the appropriate assumptions, and that's all that needed to be said.
The director had eight minutes to make a movie. The dad's history? Not important. The reason they moved? Not important. Who is the Number Man? What's with the rhyme at the beginning? What's with the numbers on his chest? Is he supernatural? Is he a figment of the boy's imagination? Is he an escaped mental patient? Doesn't matter. It has nothing to do with the story this very short film had to tell. And anything that was left out? My mind filled it in anyway. So it's a win, in my opinion.
So when it comes to exposition in your stories, try to find clever ways to deliver the information needed for your reader to get a sense of what's going on...but ONLY the information needed. Trim the fat, and have faith that your audience is doing a lot of the work with you. Their imagination is carrying half the load. You can avoid a lot of exposition when you practice with this idea, and spend your energy enhancing the details that do need to be given. In a future article, I'll get more into how you can use your readers' own assumptions against them to turn the whole story upside down! Hehehe!
But, until then...as always, I hope this helps! And happy writing!