Exposition can be seen as a frightening word to most writers. For starters, Exposition is the basic breakdown of the plot of your story and also provides background information for your characters. This is very difficult to do correctly for beginners. It’s hard to not spend three pages writing exposition which most readers will get bored of reading eventually. The key is to create exposition within your story while still maintaining a sense of forward motion, without awkwardness and in a way that makes your story believable.
In the beginning, you need to set up your characters and setting quickly. Get in, get out, move on. Do not go into major detail and spend an entire paragraph describing a character’s appearance:
“Alicia was tall, slender, and had ivory-white skin. Her hair was a sweeping cascade of gold that fell about her shoulders and shone brightly when the light hit it just right. It framed her elegant, defined cheekbones and thin jaw line. The hairline made an attractive “m” shape that arched over her inquisitive eyebrows. She had eyes of piercing green with hints of gold and blue that were large and lined with long, well-groomed eyelashes. Her lips were rosy red and were always slightly parted…” and so on and so forth into infinity.
Unless you’re writing a pretentious teen romance novel, this should be avoided. Readers are easily bored by over-description of a character. It results in an unrealistic first impression of a character and it’s difficult to believe that a character thinks about another in that much detail. Therefore, at the beginning, be simple:
“Jason looked up from his book to see that his friend, Quin, had sat directly across the table from him. Quin was a mild-mannered, quiet boy with dark hair and tired, blue eyes. He was always quite bashful and hardly spoke but he and Jason got along very well and had been friends for many years”
There, a simple introductory scene of a character. Yes, it is quite vague but don’t worry, you’ll have time later on to drop hints of what the character looks like and go into more detail about what they wear or what they act like etc. For now, simplicity is the key to believability.
Now, for your plot. There are several ways in which you can create plot exposition within a story. One way is through dialogue. This way is difficult only because you have to have the characters converse in a believable way in which it doesn’t seem like the conversation is only there for the sake of exposition. Never have characters talk about every little detail as if they are simply relaying information to the reader. This is unrealistic and very awkward. To avoid this, consider the following. You could have a character giving information to another character that has no knowledge of a crucial subject or have characters “interviewing” each other (ie. Dates, crime scene investigation, psychiatrist appointments etc.) This way, believable expository conversations are created.
It is also important to make your readers open to exposition. So, set up situations in which after reading, the reader wants things to be explained. For example you could have an opening scene describing the actions of a character and then suddenly drop this on the reader: “He stopped just before entering the school. He pulled the zipper on his sweater up a little further to hide the dark bruise on his neck.” This will make the reader want to know more and sets them up perfectly for exposition. Sometimes your writing is more believable when you create questions that can be answered later than to just spew out information at the reader.
Lastly, only provide exposition that is relevant to your story. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever reference something from the past of a character that is unimportant. Sometimes that can be used to create a humorous little insert depending on the overall mood of your story. The point is that you should not do this regularly and save time for the major information that is truly important to your story. For example, you don’t need to go into major detail describing a character’s first trip to a zoo when they were five years old unless something happened there that is important to the plot (eg. The reason they wanted to study penguins from an early age). If it’s not important, leave it. Un-needed information can create problems in the pacing of your story (see post on Pacing and Transitions)
So, my tips in exposition: simple beginnings, try to seamlessly blend exposition into dialogue, create questions; and most importantly, only create major exposition when necessary to your plot. The idea of having to create believable exposition doesn’t have to be the death of you. It just requires a lot of planning and trial and error.