Hidden in Plain Sight

Let’s face it: you can’t write a story about much of anything without exposition. It’s necessary. Exposition is the nuts and bolts of a story. It’s the back story, the setting, the critical things about characters and locations we have to know for the plot and dialogue to make sense.

Exposition is the detail that pulls the reader in. It’s the lens that brings motive into focus. It’s the who, what, when and where that makes the why meaningful. But, oh boy, can it be a beast to write.

Thinking about the processes of both writing and reading exposition, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best exposition is the exposition I don’t even notice. I’ll give you an example.

When I read the Harry Potter books, the writer in me knows full well what JK Rowling is up to. She’s planted Hermione right there, center stage in her story, and given her this know-it-all attitude and an unquenchable desire to speak every bit of background she’s aware of as a clever (oh-so-clever) way of sneaking exposition into the books without boring the reader. Hermione’s read Hogwarts, a History, and she makes the highest possible marks, and she’s “the smartest witch of her age” so she knows, well, very nearly every bit of detail the reader could possibly need to know and then a smidge more on top. Her character is a double-agent, not only a significant facet of the story and an important personality within Harry’s world, but also Rowling’s personal smuggler, feeding us exposition by the spoonful every chance she gets.

And you know what? I don’t care. In fact, I don’t even notice. I buy her as a character. I believe she’s smart and that she likes sharing her knowledge and I roll with it every single time she opens her mouth. She is the queen of exposition hidden in plain sight.

The cardinal rule of fiction, according to a teacher I had in college, is “show, don’t tell”. If you can manage that with your exposition you’ll rarely have to worry about boring your reader with details. It is, admittedly, hard to pull off an all-knowing character like Hermione without your hidden agenda becoming obvious, but there are other ways. Exposition doesn’t have to be delivered in a single, sweeping blow. Let it be the rich, brothy fluid your story is marinaded in. Let it slip into dialogue. Hand it off to the reader in small chunks so that we want to know more and are never bored with information overload. And let us connect some dots on our own. Sometimes exposition is just pointing us, your readers, in a direction and letting us piece the details together.

You can’t write fiction without exposition any more than a story can exist in a void. We have to know the back story, and you have to tell it. You’re the writer. But exposition is more than a necessary evil. It’s a part of the craft. Find ways to use it to draw your readers in. Make it part of the strength of your story. After all, that’s what good writers do.