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  • Writer's pictureFlorence Osmund

Narrative Exposition - Too little and readers may be confused. Too much may put them to sleep.

Let’s start with some definitions. NARRATIVE—the story in itself. The entire novel is a narrative. EXPOSITION—background information that explains a current situation. Typically used to fill gaps between active scenes and dialogue in fiction, exposition may or may not be essential to the story.

NARRATIVE EXPOSITION—exposition embedded in a novel. Narrative exposition conveys certain factual information—that is unknown to the reader while known to the characters—that usually pertains to a character, setting, or historical event. This can be accomplished through dialogue (internal and external), flashbacks, characters’ thoughts/memories, background details, or character backstory. Patrick reached for Helen’s hand. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I can’t help but thinking about when Billy was in the hospital and if the same thing is

going to happen to Lucy.”

“You have to think positive, Helen,” he said, his mind drifting back to three years earlier

when their brother Billy lost his fight with cancer. In this example, the bolded information indicates narrative exposition—Patrick and Helen know about their brother Billy’s losing battle with cancer, but readers are not aware of this because it happened before the current story began.

Every character has a past before your story begins, and some of that backstory may be crucial to the main story’s development. For example, Goldilocks and the Three Bears begins with an introduction of the three bears, where they live, and what they typically ate for breakfast. This is important information for the reader to know before the story actually starts—when Goldilocks comes walking through the forest and smells porridge.

Writers sometimes (readers seldom) fall in love with their characters’ backstories and have a tendency to provide a bit too much of it, which can slow the narration and bore readers. But unless the backstory is as much apart of the main story as the current action (for example, in Sophie’s Choice, in which a series of Sophie’s flashbacks reveals her heart-rending story that led her to Auschwitz), it is a good idea to include only those elements of the character’s past that are necessary for plot development, provide an important aspect of the story, or give a better understanding of the character’s current behavior or mindset.

Narrative exposition on setting, in particular—the story’s time and place—is almost always needed to situate the story in a specific environment and time period in order to ground the characters to their past and present. And sometimes certain historical events are important for the reader to understand what is currently going on in the story, especially in sci-fi and fantasy stories where history is an unknown to the reader.

Understand that narrative exposition slows the momentum of the story, and too much can even bring it to a screeching halt. It’s a balancing act—too little and your readers may be confused, and too much may put them to sleep. Present whatever facts you need to get across in as few words as possible—a line or two here, a short paragraph there—then return to the action as soon as you can.

Most importantly, realize you don’t have to explain everything that happened in the past. In fact, most readers prefer to figure some things out for themselves, typically wanting to go on the journey with the character without being distracted by irrelevant information that interferes with the flow of the story.

Above all, don’t let narrative exposition turn into an information dump…like I did with early drafts of my first novel. Here is an example of an information dump (not one of mine, thank goodness). Susanna retreated to the veranda, sat down on one of the high-back wicker chairs facing

the water, and sipped what was left of her watered-down mint julep. The troubling

conversation she had just had with her son, Harold, had lingered in her head for the past

hour. It wasn’t enough he was going to Brazil to join his best friend, George, to help save

the Amazon rain forest, but he was leaving his wife and three small children behind to

fend for themselves. George had been in Brazil before he was married and had had more

than one close call with the natives who didn’t want foreigners of any kind in their

village. Harold knew this and still wanted to join in on what he considered to be one of

the most valiant environmental efforts on the face of the earth and didn’t care how

dangerous it could be. And it wasn’t only the natives they had to watch out for—there

were also malaria-carrying mosquitoes, blood-sucking leaches, and other critters lurking

in the depths of the rain forest. George had already made the arrangements for Harold’s

arrival, complete with an escort by local jungle police from his small plane to the nearest

river and then to the campsite. Susanna stared at the sparkly surface of the calm lake

while the last remnant of bourbon slid down her throat. Readers are likely to skip over that amount of detail, and when they do, they run the risk of missing something important. In the revised version that follows, only what is essential at that point in the story remains, allowing the readers to understand the importance of what lies ahead for Harold and his family. Susanna retreated to the veranda, sat down on one of the high-back wicker chairs facing

the water, and sipped what was left of her watered-down mint julep. The troubling

conversation she had just had with her son, Harold, had lingered in her head for the past

hour. It wasn’t enough he was going to Brazil to join his best friend, George, to help save

the Amazon rain forest, but he was leaving his wife and three small children behind to

fend for themselves. She stared at the sparkly surface of the calm lake shaking her head,

while the last remnant of bourbon slid down her throat. Whether you throwaway the leftovers or introduce them at a later place depends on whether they are germane to the storyline. And even if they are germane, you may still want to eliminate them and let your readers fill things in on their own, forcing them closer to the action and the characters. Readers actually like that sort of thing as long as it’s not too confusing or overdone.

When you catch yourself creating large amounts of narrative exposition, dole it out in small bits. Leave out explanatory details that are not essential to the story. Include only the absolute bare minimum the reader needs to know for each scene to make sense. And if you can make the same point in the main story, do it there and eliminate exposition altogether.

Some valid reasons to include narrative exposition are to: Explain a character’s motivation Enhance a character’s personality, psychology, what shaped them Make the character appear more real to the reader Add a strong emotion, such as irony, regret, or hope Educate the reader on important or relevant historical facts Inject clues about your character’s past Slow the pace after a particularly dramatic scene Here are several different ways of effectively providing background information in a novel. Narrative summary Narrative summary is the telling of some aspect of the story in a com- pressed form, most often used when the conveyance of what has transpired over along period of time can be covered with few words.

EXAMPLE 1. She grew up with an alcoholic mother and a truck-driving father who was

rarely home, not even for the important events in her life.

EXAMPLE 2. Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a

man in a movie theater. This was shortly after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and

people were being tolerant of soldiers, because suddenly everyone was a soldier, but

Jenny Fields was quite firm in her intolerance of the behavior of men in general and

soldiers in particular. (Excerpt from The World According to Garp by John Irving.) Flashback Flashbacks are interruptions in the narrative that provide background information to the current events and give insight into a character’s motivation. Dream sequences, visions, and memories are methods used to present flashbacks.

EXAMPLE 1. The sound of her husband’s heavy work boots echoing throughout the house

caused her to jump. A scene from her childhood came back to her. It was her twelfth


“What’s this?” her father shouted when he came home after work. He stomped into the

living room where her mother was passed out on the sofa, an empty gin bottle nestled in

the crook of her arm. “Get up, you worthless piece of…”

The sight and sound of the bottle slamming against the wall caused Mary to run and hide.

“Can’t you even bake a goddamn birthday cake for your kid?” he roared.

EXAMPLE 2. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s first vision (The Ghost of Christmas

Past) takes him back to his old school where he finds himself alone, abandoned by his

schoolmates. As the ghost takes Scrooge and us through the journey of his past, we learn

that Scrooge had been rejected by his father and sent off to school, never to go home

again. Dialogue with Another Character Dialogue between two characters is an effective way to handle narrative exposition.

EXAMPLE 1. “My mother drank a lot,” she told Gabrielle. “In fact, she was usually passed

out when I got home from school. My father was a truckdriver, and when he was home,

which wasn’t very often, he did a lot of yelling and complaining about what my mother

had or hadn’t done while he was gone.”

EXAMPLE 2. “Voldemort… took your blood believing it would strengthen him. He took into

his body a tiny part of the enchantment your mother laid upon you when she died for

you. His body keeps her sacrifice alive, and while that enchantment survives, so do you

and so does Voldemort’s one last hope for himself.” Excerpt from Harry Potter and The

Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling spoken by Dumbledore to Harry.

Memories as Related through Interior Monologue

Relying on a character’s recollection of something that happened in the past is another effective way to handle narrative exposition.

EXAMPLE 1. She thought back to her twelfth birthday. Her father had come home from one

of his long road trips only to find her mother passed out on the sofa, her ruined birthday

cake sitting on the kitchen counter.

EXAMPLE 2. I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s

no getting away from the date. I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August

15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to

be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in

respectful greeting as I came.(Excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.) There are moments in the narrative that are perfect for including exposition. The trick is knowing how to spot them to achieve the right balance among the action and dialogue. In this example from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling used exposition in the middle of a scene for the benefit of readers who had not read her earlier books and were unfamiliar with all the characters. Harry had been a year old the night that Voldemort—the most powerful Dark wizard for a

century, a wizard who had been gaining power steadily for eleven years—arrived at his

house and killed his father and mother. Voldemort had then turned his wand on Harry; he

had performed the curse that had disposed of many full-grown witches and wizards in his

steady rise to power—and, incredibly, it had not worked. Rowling manages to present key pieces of information to new readers without boring those who are familiar with it.

Some authors start their novels with exposition, like Toni Morrison does in Beloved when she talks about the house (124 is the street number) where she and her family had lived.

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the

children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her

daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the

sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old—as soon

as merely looking in a mirror shattered it.

When properly interspersed throughout the story, narrative exposition will boost interest and intrigue and compel readers to keep reading. Use it sparingly and keep it short. Use just enough to serve the purpose and then get back to the current story.

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