Exposition [ek-spo-zi-shun]: noun: a literary device used to convey background information about characters, settings, or events
I recently picked up a science fiction book by a rather well-known author. I’d heard good things about it, was excited to read it, and I was sort of baffled when I put it down, unable to finish. I was bored. I was surprised I was bored. This wasn’t a debut novel. It wasn’t high-class snobbery either (the whole “everything I say is brilliant, now listen to me describe bubbles for three pages). It was fast-paced commercial science fiction by a reputable writer and it followed the golden rule:
Show. Don’t tell.
This rule has been repeated over and over and over. It’s on every how-to-write blog post. Readers want reading to be immersive and many professionals think showing through action and dialogue instead of telling through blatant remarks is how you achieve that experience. Ideally, fiction should make readers feel like they’re standing next to the main character watching everything unfold as if it was real life. Ideally, underlying information should be conveyed in ways that don’t interrupt the flow of the story.
Ideally. But, the book I read followed the “show, don’t tell rule” to a T. I mean, this book was a classroom example of the rule. It showed me everything and told me nothing. There was zero exposition or narration. Zero. There was hardly any description. All the underlying facts were pulled through the dialogue. And quite cleverly, I’ll admit. There was none of that “As you know…” hodge podge.
There is so much worldbuilding in a sci-fi/fantasy book that revealing information solely through dialogue is a lot of talking. Conversations about political history, tech mechanics, and character motivations are not exciting conversations to eaves drop on.
Readers, writers, and editors put a lot of weight on that one rule, as if it was the very definition of good writing. In theory, it makes for snappy reading, but the example I had in my hands, the flawless execution of the rule, was one I couldn’t finish. I found it dry, colorless, and thin.
Exposition is demonized as lazy and sluggish. As if it is the wet towel that waterboards stories to death. Frankly, though, I think we push the rule in favor of “tight” writing without considering what literature would be if all stories were “tight.” Pushing all writers to follow a single rule makes for the perfect storm of monotony. It dampens the zest and waters down the voice.
In the building of a believable world, with imperfect characters who lie and fear and weep, where cities rise and fall, inventions come and go, dynasties murder and are murdered, history gets rewritten, and the future lolls between bright and bleak, there is going to be backstory. In fact, if you told me there wasn’t, that there was only just enough to elbow into the dialogue, that’s when I would wonder if the story was worth reading.
Just because there are a few paragraphs that pan over the broad scape of things that aren’t into play yet doesn’t mean those paragraphs are droll little gremlins deserving of a good weed whack. Exposition can add tantalizing layers to an already fascinating story. If used right, it can enhance tension and slide critical clues in that will give the reader a good eyebrow raise later on.
It makes sense that writers should strive for more action and less talking. A book needs to grab a reader’s attention and keep hold of it. I’m not arguing that the rule is wrong or that writers should ramble more often. I’m saying there’s a danger to stapling a universal rule to something that is fluid by nature. Stories do not come with 5-step instruction manuals. When people start to say they do, that a book must follow these fully established rules, that’s exactly when those rules need to be debated. Part of the beauty of stories is that they are impossible to pin down. They cannot be boxed. The more we try, the more life we suck out of them.
As a reader, I relish details. I love a book that feels like it was created. The whole reason I choose to spend my time in the medium of words is because I want to read words.
If I want an action-packed tour de force with less narrative, I’ll go watch a movie.