First, let’s start with a quick lesson in language so that we’re all on the same page. I made an assumption about the word, exposition. I thought (and honestly, most literary books and websites) define it as a device used to introduce background information about events, settings, characters, etc., to your readers. The word actually comes from the Latin, meaning a showing forth. Editor, Donald Maass, uses the word, exposition, to mean interior monologue – finding out about a character through use of their thoughts. Today, we’ll continue using his description. (I would prefer the term internal exposition to describe these story revelations.)
So why do we use exposition in a story? To reveal things about the backstory or your character’s inner struggle. Done well, it can add intrigue and emotional layers to your fiction. Done poorly, it can bog down your action and bore your reader. Remember, exposition always slows a story.
Here’s Peg’s basic rules:
- Exposition must matter to the story. I don’t need to know the population of your city, if your character is a dog or cat person, or if it’s a cloudy/cold day – unless it is specific to the story you are telling. It’s very easy to make exposition (both internal and external) into pointless filler for your book.
- Any internal dialogue must be from the point-of-view character or it will be confusing to the reader.
- Don’t interrupt action ever. Keep all exposition short and sandwiched between active scenes.
- Dialogue is always more interesting than internal monologue. Consider if what you have to reveal could be better done so in a conversation.
- Expose information at the absolute-last-minute. Don’t let your reader have it until right before they need it – this creates urgency and a sense of tension.
- Don’t use quotation marks for inner thoughts. Italics can be used sparingly, but they can get really annoying. Best rule? Choose and be consistent.
- Keep it simple. Just like dialogue tags, he thought and she thought don’t take away from the thoughts you are trying to convey.
I love good examples to illustrate a point, so I went hunting for the perfect scene to make this point. If you are familiar with Janet Evanovich’s main character, Stephanie Plum, you will recognize her unique inner monologue. Despite warnings from her mother about neighborhood bad boy, Joe Morelli, she is lured into a garage for a “game” at age six:
“What’s the name of this game?” I’d asked Joseph Morelli.
“Choo-choo,” he said, down on his hands and knees, crawling between my legs, his head trapped under my short pink skirt. “You’re the tunnel, and I’m the train.”
I suppose this tells you something about my personality. That I’m not especially good at taking advice. Or that I was born with an overload of curiosity. Or maybe it’s about rebellion or boredom or fate. At any rate, it was a one-shot deal and darn disappointing, since I’d only gotten to be the tunnel, and I’d really wanted to be the train.
Exposition like this does a lot for the story. First, we feel like we’re Stephanie’s friend and she’s just revealed a secret about herself through this self-observation. We like her, we see our own curiosity in her. But on a much deeper level, we see personality traits that have been with her since childhood. In just those few sentences, Janet Evanovich gives us a picture of the adult Stephanie and her trusting, adventurous relationship with the now-adult Joseph Morelli.
Now, head into your own manuscript. Find a spot where nothing is happening and the story is static. Have your main character take an honest look at him/herself. (I will do this brainstorming in a separate file.) What piece of personal information can your character reveal? Remember, it should tie closely to parts of your novel and show your reader things below the surface of the story.
Keep your reader glued to the page by showing them the inner workings of your character!