slow down and smell the exposition

Does anyone ever write exposition quickly? Not I. Exposition isn’t flashy like dialogue; it doesn’t make your heart race like conflict. It seems dull but necessary, but there is a secret heart tucked inside placid old exposition’s exterior.

Everything you want to reveal about a character can be shown via their surroundings. All the things you want them to say, but can’t, all the backstory, all the personality quirks, it’s all right there in their own living quarters (and also in the way they dress). The entire history of a person can be revealed by their surroundings, and even explain the way they think.  Someone living in a flashy, clean, hi-tech city is going to have a different way of going about life than someone who lives in a bombed out post-war city.

And everything you want to say about your character’s inner state can be revealed through judicious use of exposition. It all depends on the way your viewpoint character is filtering the world around him; and mood is the thing that modifies filters. Obviously this can veer straight into cliché: rain, for example, is used as shorthand for sadness too often, but even a sunny day can be described as tedious, mocking, or oppressive.

Plot may be the engine that drives the story, and characters may be the complex mirrors we hold up to ourselves, but exposition is what truly makes the imaginary real. Without taking the time to describe the world for your readers, they’ll bounce from scene to scene in a disoriented state. Exposition gives them something to hold onto. It takes time. It takes thought. But that’s what makes a story rich. That’s what makes a story real. That’s why it’s hard as hell to do, and that’s why we keep trying anyway.

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