Every good story is good because of its exposition. Exposition makes a story credible, grounding it in its own ‘reality’, no matter how incredible and fictional or fantastical that story may be. So, what is exposition?
In a nutshell, exposition is the ‘back story’, which recounts the foundation or ‘history’ behind the people, places and events in your story. You need to convey a whole host of details to create a ‘real world’ within which your characters can live out their lives; and you need to do this without boring your reader!
The conventional approach to exposition is to outline the background or foundation in a chunk of the narrative, finding a balance between keeping it concise and credible, engaging and informative. Many writers do this at the start of their book, choosing to lay the foundations of reader expectations and establishing the context of the action to follow. Check out the following extract*:
Following centuries of unsubstantial truces amidst the rise and fall of powers around the globe, the Eurasian Council and Central Command emerged as the only authorities of Earth worth mentioning. The amalgamation of European and Asian interests had created a more than considerable opposition to the retention of American strongholds overseas. Over time, this led to a decisive rift as the United States withdrew its military and, for all intents and purposes, fortified its position in the west while abandoning and crippling eastern and European economic allies. Absorbing South America came next, as a trading embargo enforced by the North American military forced those independent nations to submit after decades of violent opposition. While the new political body of Eurasia had its hands full trying to rejuvenate its consequently integrated economies, its leaders decided against any significant intervention in the west, making the mistake of losing allies to the American onslaught.
As the years wore on, it became clear that the tensions between this newly defined West and East would erupt into something catastrophic if nothing were done to ensure otherwise. With the creation of Central Command in the west and the Eurasian Council in the east, two political bodies divided up the responsibilities of running a world suddenly and unexpectedly introduced to extra-terrestrial neighbours. It was the way of the world that only a common enemy would bring opposing views and forces together, but it was clear to those in the right circles that these two powers were not truly together on anything. The Eurasian Council, on the surface, dealt with civil and administrative matters, while Central Command appeared responsible for off-world military operations and surveillance. In truth, both authorities maintained covert operations to ensure that every aspect of human life was monitored. And both authorities knew this.
What happened next could not have been anticipated by either power. A breakaway group formed by high-ranking representatives from the EC and CC became increasingly infatuated by philosophies encountered on the alien worlds of the Garran, leading to the inception of the New Elect movement on Earth. As it became more politically influential and financially powerful, the New Elect infiltrated both world powers and sought to evangelise the general population. The Eurasian Council managed to successfully combat the ensuing coup, but Central Command, hampered by internal conflict, was lost to the movement. Thus, the New Elect took control of the west, and a new philosophy spread eastwards like a contagion. Once again, surface relations and appearances were maintained, but the Church of the New Elect were now a force to be reckoned with, and the general population of Earth, ever oblivious to the big picture, did not even witness the change of power. The great majority of people considered the New Elect to be just another religion, without sufficient influence to become anything more. They were wrong.
This extract would easily work as an introduction to a story, but instead it occupies a position in the overall narrative immediately before a major aspect of the plot (and its constituent characters) is introduced. Up until this point, the reader did not need to know all these details; and this is something you need to consider, especially if you are writing a large scale, complex story. Sometimes there are so many details in building a credible fictional world that it’s difficult to convey them all in one place. You need to decide when to tell your readers the things you want them to know. This extract relates only to one aspect of the story, positioned at just the right point to introduce its foundation.
The extract above is taken from a Science Fiction novel, but in contemporary fiction, the situation is somewhat different - after all, you’re writing about the world we live in. People are aware of their shared history and of the world around them. Background stories are not necessarily required to be so detailed, but even this has its caveats. Not everyone knows about the world around them, and people living in different countries do not know as much as you think they do about your country/culture.
You might also be writing about a completely different culture in a story aimed at an audience within your own culture. For example, if your target audience for a book about Samurai warriors in Medieval Japan is culturally ‘western’ (e.g. American, Western Europe), then you would need considerable exposition to lay the foundation and context for your story. Your readers are unlikely to know a lot about the fictional (or historical) world you are writing about - unless they have previously read something similar.
You could take the approach above to set the scene and prepare your readers for what is to follow, but a rich historical/fictional world should not - in this author’s opinion - be reduced to a singular isolated exposition. Instead, and I believe this to be the best approach, exposition should be a continuous exercise, with details that bring your fictional world to life popping up regularly in the narrative. You might like to have concise narrative exposition accompanying or supplementing the words and conversations of your characters, because - as you will see on the next page - forcing exposition into dialogue is not always a good way to go.
*Extracts on these pages are from Gods of Kiranis by Ronald A. Geobey.