Why You Should Get Rid of Exposition

Once upon a time there were three bears: a Mama Bear, a Papa Bear and a Baby Bear….

We learn the art of telling stories at an early age, and in the process of learning to tell stories, I believe we actually do ourselves a disservice. For as writers, our job is not to tell a story, but to draw our readers into the story. We don’t tell the story; we allow the story to tell itself.

I am becoming more and more convinced that exposition, in most cases, is totally unnecessary in a story, and actually strengthens a story when you take it out. And when I look back at my published books, the ones that are strongest are those who tell the story through action and dialogue, rather than through explanation.

Let’s compare a couple of passages, and see if you don’t agree with me. Here’s the first:

 During the next six months, excitement of the choosing of a new king died down and the people of Israel almost forgot about Saul, their new leader. Life returned to a normal pace, with farmers and shepherd returning to their fields, and women to raise children and weave and bake. Life was relatively contented, even though the nation of Israel was surrounded by enemies and never knew when their next attack would appear.

Here’s the second:

           “I WIN!” Ziba shouted to Jonathan across the table and jumped to his feet. The tall 12 year old raised his arms in victory and danced in place, which the younger Jonathan sat quietly grinning up at his friend.

            “See,” Jonathan said. “You said you never win at Jackal and Dogs.”

            “Well, I don’t usually,” Ziba agreed, then paused. “Say, you didn’t let me win, did you?”

            Jonathan grew serious. “I swear,” he said, putting his hand to his chest.

            “Yeah,” Ziba said. “But what are you swearing?”

            “Don’t you two have anything better to do than play games? What about your chores? Ziba, I know you can’t be done with yours.” The boys looked over at Achim, Ziba’s father, who stood over a hot fire in the blacksmith pit. Orange flames licked the round stone pit, and black smoke rose into the round hole cut in the center of the ceiling. An assortment of farming implements lay scattered around the fire and next to the stone anvil in the corner.

On the surface, the two sections it would seem have little to do with each other. But either one could have been the way that I would have started Chapter Two of my new novel, Chosen. The first gives you a sense of foreboding and provides a context for the rest of the story. And many would start that way. But the second draws us into the story, rather than talking about it from a distance. That “psychic distance” determines how involved you are in the story, and in many cases, how emotionally tied you are to what happens.

I am a little hesitant to say there are never situations when you should use exposition, and I still use it on occasion, even though I have to catch myself and see if there is a way to tell it by showing action and listening to dialogue. The goal is as much as possible to remove psychic distance from your story. When you do that, you will find not only that you are invested more in telling your story, but that your readers will be too.