The Indie Novella Writing Course
Lesson 7 - Show vs Tell
Exposition refers to the set-up of your story; laying out the who, what, where, and perhaps some of the why. It is one of the biggest challenges we face as writers, as you need to show what your scenario is, but the trick is not to report, tell or explain it. Beware the info-dump.
We are storytellers, so what’s so wrong with telling a story? Consider taking a trip and coming home to regale your friends with all your adventures. When you tell a story, you are passing on information. On your trip you may have reached a waterfall and jumped from the top, thirty feet, into a pool at the bottom. And when you tell your friends about it this might be exactly how you summarise the experience. You might describe the whole trip in the span of a conversation and even blog about it, giving details of the taxi ride from the airport, the hotel room just off the beach and your guided walks through a rainforest. But you would not do this in a novel.
In a novel your reader wants to experience what you did. To feel the same sensations that you did when you took that step off the top and plunged into the waters below. It is not enough just to say it happened or simply list what took place – we hiked for an hour, it was hot, we heard running water, saw the pool below and jumped. That’s all fine but it nowhere near encapsulates the adrenalin coursing through you veins as you stood at the top looking down. One of the hardest parts of writing is moving away from telling a story, to showing the story, vividly, like your reader was there with you. By showing, we bring the reader into the story and make them a first-hand eyewitness to the events so they are completely invested in the story.
One of the key challenges we face as writers is how to jump straight into the action without your reader asking, what the hell is going on? We want our readers to know who our characters are and what has brought them to the situation they are in. Exposition refers to the background or context a reader needs to know for the story to make sense. It is largely relevant at the beginning of a piece of writing, when we need to build a world and introduce our characters, but we also see it creeping into a narrative to move the story along, as the time span develops along with further layers of story. Some authors feel they need to explain away the time between important scenes. And this can be reasonable: if your story takes place over a period of five years, this passage of time needs realistic indication. But you can’t be expected to show every scene across that time period and nor does the reader need to have this explained. Telling allows a writer to quickly summarise events when needed, however there are ways we can do this by also showing.
In our lesson on Character, we discussed how describing a character’s physical characteristics can convey deeper elements of change in a character. So, descriptions of your characters at fixed moments can help convey lengths of time and cover key incidents having happened: ‘He coughed hard. It was his third bout of flu in as many months and as he sat at his desk he felt doughy and languid, resenting the weak man who had neither the will or energy to leave the house in a year.’
Exposition can also be conveyed through dialogue, the thoughts or points of view of your characters or descriptions, particularly how they change, scene setting, or flashbacks. Some writers use props like newspaper articles, letters and even text messages to bring in backstory. Exposition does not need to be done and finished in one go. A tip for new writers is to compile all the backstory you have for your characters or your setting and drip feed it into your narrative so your reader gradually builds up a more complete picture.