X is for (E)xposition.
When you’re setting up point of view (POV), consider how your reader will discover things about your character. If you don’t get inside his head, you’ll have to reveal it through the thoughts, actions, and dialogue of other characters.
Exposition can be accomplished one of two ways:
- Show, where the writer lets the reader infer information from action, words, thought, feeling, etc. rather than explaining everything
- Tell, where the writer advises the reader what is happening
Telling done wrong tends to pause the action and the narrative stops moving forward. You might have to explain a few things about your character to get the readers up to speed, but it doesn’t have to be in the form of an info dump.
A good example of an info dump is something I mentioned in the V is for Villainy post, where villains in movies (and some novels and comics) stop what they’re doing to explain their motivation to the hero. Mostly it’s done to give the hero time to untie himself or think of a countermove. If the information isn’t woven into the narrative naturally, then the story clunks (as I like to put it). It takes a few beats to get started again and jerks and hitches like a car with a messed-up transmission.
You shouldn’t have to grind the action to a halt to clue readers in. There are ways to weave information into a scene where the character is doing something mundane. He could be reading an article to get information; in that case, you can intersperse action and thoughts with the article to keep the reader connected to the character. (Disclaimer: I’m not the expert on this and for all I know, my critique will come back from Brian Keene with half the following scene cut to ribbons!)
Here’s an example from Rose’s Hostage, where you first meet John Robert Cook, Jr. In Chapter 5, he is enjoying his coffee and newspaper before work:
Yesterday’s bank robbery dominated the front page. The Black Bandit again. The guy had robbed four banks now, the take larger each time. This time it was almost two million. He whistled through his teeth. A nice sum. The jerk probably wouldn’t know what to do with it, though. Scum like that usually blew their money right off, buying expensive crap and putting the rest up their noses or into their veins. Still, he was getting lots of press.
The thought made him frown. He paged through the section, finding nothing about the motel room killing. He skipped to the local section. There it was, page four. “PROSTITUTE, CUSTOMER FOUND DEAD,” the headline blared. Below, in smaller type, “Motel Serial Killer Still At Large.”
Why was this all the way in the back? The Black Bandit should have been back here, not this. He read the article.
RALSTON (AP): The bodies of a man and a woman found Tuesday in a local motel room have been confirmed by Ralston police as the latest victims of the Motel Shooter, a possible serial killer who is targeting area prostitutes and their customers.
Customers. Huh. Idiots, risking disease or worse. He took a gulp of coffee and grimaced as the hot liquid burned his throat.
Bullets recovered from the bodies at autopsy matched .9mm rounds found at two other similar crime scenes.
No way to trace the gun. .9mm weapons were like cigarette butts in the gutters. They were everywhere. He continued reading.
Media Liaison Officer Brad Mercer said the Motel Shooter case had its own task force. City council members have complained about this, citing the overtaxed detective division, which is also assisting the FBI with a recent rash of armed, takeover-style bank robberies perpetrated by a man known only as the Black Bandit.
Mercer would not confirm or deny that the department had placed the robberies at a higher priority than the Motel Shooter case.
Higher priority? Ridiculous. There were hostages. Of course it was. They couldn’t afford to ignore him. He would see to it they had no reason to. And they mentioned the Bandit in his story. Couldn’t they leave him to his own article? Damn.
Earlier, you get some things that tell you John is very picky—how he likes his coffee, that he rearranges the paper before reading it. What else can you discover about John from this?
- He’s searching for the local crime articles.
- He doesn’t think much of the bank robber, the Black Bandit (called that because he dresses all in black—the cops and reporters aren’t very creative).
- He’s reading a particular article, about the shooting of a prostitute and her customer.
- Why does he care if the cops can trace the gun or not? Hmm.
- He refers to it as his story. Did you catch that?
- He doesn’t like all the attention the bank robber is getting.
Soon after this, your suspicions are confirmed. A little reminiscing before work and we know something about John that no one else knows.
Your character could also explain something to another character. This is difficult; often, it works better just to narrate what the reader needs to know. If you use this technique, avoid Hollywood dialogue, or the dreaded “As you know, Bob.” Make sure your character should actually be explaining something in this scene, rather than just using it to inform the reader. You can use it to move the story forward—since people rarely give complete explanations of anything, leave out a bunch of stuff or even make him lie to Bob. Let Bob discover it later.
Showing takes more time than telling. There will be times when you need to convey some information but you don’t have room for an entire scene or chapter illustrating exactly how X happens. In that case, you can use your narrative for exposition. It’s a balancing act—not too much of one or the other, or your reader (and you!) will grow tired.
In this useful post from Writer’s Digest, Roseann Biederman suggests a tool to help you spot and vanquish telling for exposition where it doesn’t belong in your narrative.