Exposition is a necessary component of any story. At some point, the characters will have to give context to their actions or some other backstory details will need explaining. If delivered clumsily, exposition brings the plot to a screeching halt. No reader wants to be swept up in the momentum of the story only to be bored senseless with an ill-timed information dump.
When I was writing Winter’s Shadow, I was constantly trying to figure out ways to insert exposition without ruining the narrative’s pace. The specific challenge I faced was describing the book’s unique supernatural mythology – the new monsters, the worlds behind worlds, the magic. The reader’s surrogate, Winter, needed all of this explained to her.
Which is what I did. Another character sat down and literally explained everything to Winter in a long, boring exposition scene. Not only once – but twice! Two separate long, boring sit downs where the mythology of the book is described in detail. One of these talky scenes even took place in a coffee shop – a story trope used so frequently a phrase has been coined, exposition café.
(I learnt about this phrase when my publisher sent back my manuscript with exposition café scribbled across the notorious chapters in red pen followed by REVISE and a number of faintly accusatory exclamation points.)
Each of these exposition scenes ground my story to a halt. I cursed myself for not writing about vampires, werewolves, or some other pre-existing monster. If I’d done this, I could have limited my exposition to one sentence. Everyone reader knows what vampires drink. Every reader knows a silver bullet kills a werewolf.
So, how did I solve my tricky narrative problem?
The answer came from a surprising source – the DVD special features of James Cameron’s The Terminator. In the retrospective segment, Cameron admits to having had trouble figuring out the best way to deliver his exposition. The heroic character of Reece has to explain to Sarah Connor that he’s been sent back from the future to protect her from the Terminator, a murderous cyborg, who wants to kill Sarah before she can give birth to a son, John Connor, who will help defeat the robots that have taken over the world in the future.
The way Cameron dealt with his exposition was by inserting it smack bang in the middle of a tense action scene. While the Terminator is chasing them, Reece tells Sarah who he is, who the Terminator is, and why she’s being hunted. All this time bullets are flying around, cars are being smashed, lives are in peril. Despite the chunks of information Reece is relaying, the pace doesn’t lag.
All I had to do was rejig my story a little bit so that Winter faced a similar kind of peril. Something that forces her to flee. Luckily, I had just the menace – a trio of soul-slicing inter-dimensional monsters called Skivers. I wrote a scene where the Skivers chase Winter and my exposition-delivering character, Blake, through a series of twisting suburban streets. As they’re chased, Blake covertly delivers paragraphs of information without sacrificing the narrative’s momentum. Just like Reece in Terminator.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that chase scenes are the only way exposition can be delivered but they’re handy and are a lot more fun to read than having characters sit around chewing the fat over a couple of cappuccinos.