Writing Exposition: Anecdotes

This is the fourth in a series of posts about exposition. My purpose is to demonstrate ways that writers can make passages of exposition more engaging, so that readers want to read them rather than skipping past or skimming.

The technique today is one that gets used so often in journalism, it’s become formulaic: turn things into anecdotes. In the hands of mediocre journalists, this annoys the heck out of me—for example, every profile about an interesting person seems to start with some anecdote that supposedly symbolizes that person’s character or work. Often, such anecdotes strike me as mere random incidents that the journalist happened to see during the course of an interview, then tried to inflate into something profoundly meaningful. Harumph. But in fiction, you’re allowed to make stuff up, so you can devise anecdotes that are truly useful.

In particular, you can invent little stories that add life to background information. Let’s look at an example.

“This house,” said Maria, “was built over a hundred years ago by a right old bastard that everyone called Black John. He was famous in his day for…well, just about any crime you can name. Robbery, murder, rape, smuggling—there were folk who’d swear on a bible that they watched with their own two eyes while Black John did it. Then with all his ill-gotten gains, Black John built this huge mansion miles away from anywhere. Built the walls good and thick, in case one of his enemies showed up with a cannon. Concealed at least three secret hiding-places upstairs and down, plus maybe more that we’ve never discovered. And if ever worse came to worst, he dug an escape tunnel in the basement: it leads down into caves that’ll take you into the woods or down to the ocean.”

Billy asked, “How did you get the house, grandma?”

Maria smiled. “Black John may have been famous for being the county’s greatest criminal, but he was shamefully bad at poker.”

This simple story sets up that the house has secret hiding-places and an escape tunnel, all of which will likely get used eventually. I could have embellished the anecdote with more details if I thought more was needed, but this was enough.

Notice that Maria could have just said, “This house has hiding-places and an escape tunnel,” but that’s pretty bland and forgettable. By explaining the house’s features with a little story, I make things a bit more interesting.

You can make anecdotes about anything. For example, if you want to explain your starship’s faster-than-light drive, you can tell a little story about how FTL was discovered. If you want to explain why Country A is at war with Country B, you can tell the story of a character’s mother who experienced the outbreak of war first hand. By weaving a little story around the facts you want to convey, you can make them more engaging and memorable.