In writing fiction, exposition means giving the reader background information.
The need for exposition is universal—at the start of Hamlet, for example, the audience needs to be told that Hamlet is a prince, that his father, the king, recently died, and that his mother married his uncle soon thereafter. Since these events happened before the start of the play, Shakespeare didn’t want to show them on stage. Instead, he had to convey the information in some other way.
As I just said, every piece of fiction needs exposition. There’s always a lot of things that the audience needs to know in order to understand what’s going on, and it’s just not practical (or even possible) to present those things as a direct part of the action.
The problem can be even worse in fantasy/science fiction. F&SF often deal with “facts” that don’t exist on our own world—fictional places, for example. If I’m writing about our own world, I can set a story in Toronto and take it for granted that readers will have a general picture of the city. (Of course, I’ll have to explain specific background details that non-Torontonians aren’t likely to know.)
If, on the other hand, I set a story in a fictional city on a fictional world, I can’t take anything for granted. I have to explain history, culture, environment, etc. starting at Square One.
Small details are easy to toss in during the action: My mother lived in Cabbagetown, one of the worst parts of the city. That’s enough to give readers a first impression of the mother’s neighborhood. Later on, you can go into the specifics of what makes it so bad.
But sometimes, you need to give more information than just a thrown-in phrase. For example, if you’re writing about a war, you (usually) have to tell what the war is about. Depending on the needs of your story, this may involve a deep dive into the relevant history, economics, cultural perceptions, and so on.
How do you provide this information without putting readers to sleep? I summarize the basic principle like this:
A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.
Think of all those things we wish that school teachers would do: take us on field trips…use visual aids…make active presentations…tell anecdotes…turn parts of the lesson into games. As writers, we have to do the same sorts of things.
Lectures have their place, but they’re dry. Next time, I’ll talk about how to use more colorful ways to convey information in the course of a story.