Exposition is a dirty word. Editors pull sour faces; readers wander off in disgust. Even your mum says you could have used a bit more action.
I am forcing myself to wonder, though, whether exposition might not, like cholesterol, come in good and bad flavours.
Let's begin at the beginning:
My great hero, Doug Harper, has very little to say on the subject of the origins of this simple workhorse word:
late 14c., "explanation, narration," from O.Fr. esposicion (12c.), from L. expositionem (nom. expositio) "a setting or showing forth," noun of action from pp. stem of exponere (see expound). The meaning "public display" is first recorded 1851 in reference to the Crystal Palace Exposition in London. Abbreviation Expo is first recorded 1963, in reference to planning for the world's fair held in Montreal in 1967.
Wiktionary's #6 definition is the one we're interested in:
6. (writing) An opening section in fiction, including novel, play, and movie, by which background information about the characters, events, or setting is conveyed.
Merriam-Webster Online doesn't give a definition relating directly to fiction writing, but does include the following example of usage:
This is not an easy book, and the reader may find the layers of detail challenging. There are long expositions of the knotty tangles of monarchical lineage, and the necessary chronicle of historical events occasionally consumes the novel's narrative drive. —Lucy Lethbridge, Commonweal, 23 Oct. 2009
Urban Dictionary has only one definition, so get over there you writers and add some more! The illustrative example is, in my opinion, very telling of the low status that this word has acquired in certain contexts:
Dialogue that gives the audience the background of the characters and the present situation.
Writing or speech intended to convey information or to explain, an explanation.
[e.g.] Vegeta provided exposition about his home planet in a flashback.
(Geek points for those who can identify the example.)
Ernest Gowers in complete plain words uses the word just once. His usage is apposite, if obliquely, but I think it serves to illustrate the problems of exposition without invective:
Those who like showy words are given to overworking metaphors. I have already referred to the usefulness and attractiveness of metaphors. They enable a writer to convey briefly and vividly ideas that might otherwise need tedious exposition.
The adjective that he chuses is perhaps no surprise.
We think of exposition as a means of getting necessary information across to the reader, or a means of moving the plot forward without having to provide detailed description of the action, or as a means of moving forwards rapidly in time.
These all seem to be valid uses. So when does exposition become an abuse? Regular readers of my blog will know that I like to use the Aristotelian Unities as a rule of thumb. Exposition frequently violates all three (sometimes at the same time). I take this not as a crime of itself, but as a warning sign that something else may be amiss.
If you find that, in order to get to the next point in the story without losing the reader, you need to get across a whole stack of background information via rapid (or tedious) exposition, this is a good sign that something has gone astray in your narration earlier on. There are two common mistakes in narration that I associate with this. If you are a plot opportunist—you develop and/or alter the plot while you are writing as you have new ideas—then you may well find that a new twist you thought of needs some additional explanation or background. The mistake is to deal with that immediately. If there are more details to add, they should be spread liberally through the preceding and following chapters. It is also a common mistake to suppose that the reader needs to know everything in order to understand. Readers can manage amazingly well on a dearth of information. As you become more skillful, so you will give more satisfaction to your reader all the while giving him less information. Readers don't need maps. Also, take note of Ernest Gowers' comment above; you can get a whole lot of information across with a well chosen metaphor.
If you find that you need to give a lot more information to keep the reader in the picture, that's fair enough. When Johnny runs away to became a soldier, he has various adventures before he even takes the shilling; but at some point a whole army has to be mobilized, and it seems fair to me that in order for some important event to have its proper context, the reader ought to know about the movements of the whole army. You encounter two issues in this kind of situation, those of scale and those of grain. Scale issues occur when a change in the scope of the narrative comes suddenly – we go from Johnny and his fellow recruits to several armies thousands strong. Grain issues arise from a conflict between the amount of detail needed and the amount possible to give. On this I refer you back to my comment on the amount of detail readers can get by on. Ways to deal with issues of scale are: change scales gradually–maybe as Johnny rises through the ranks; use interludes–devote a separate chapter or series of chapters to large scale events; change POV–switch to a broader point of view like an omniscient narrator or just use a less intimate viewpoint.
A lot of the stories I edit break down because the author feels that at some stage in the story, "time passes". There can be all sorts of strong justifications for this. Supposing two major story events are the young couple conceiving their child and its birth – but nothing momentous occurs between the two events. Time will have to be moved forward somehow. This isn't always easy to accomplish, though I wouldn't go so far as to say that you should never do it. It all depends on the pace of the narration before and after the time shift. If your preceding chapters have been dealing with several weeks at a time, then a chapter that glosses over nine months will probably pass unnoticed. If, however, each chapter is a couple of days, and in chapter 4 there is a paragraph in which nine months pass without incident, then you have a problem. It becomes more an issue of pacing than of exposition per se: the exposition is a symptom of poor pacing.
What I am begging to think is that exposition is not a defect in itself. When exposition seems wrong is when the narrative jumps from action to exposition, from show to tell, in a sudden, clunky or uncomfortable way. And this is indicative of a larger problem: not that there is too much exposition, but that exposition is being used to patch a jittery narrative. If you find people are complaining about exposition, it's time to look at how you tell the story, how you structure it.