Exposition is both a dirty and necessary word in writing, especially for genres like Science fiction and fantasy where you have a whole host of information to give. Fictional worlds, histories, folklore, and characters all need their chance to shine. Delivering exposition is notoriously difficult, and when it’s your first book all the advice online can feel overwhelming. Thankfully there are lots of great examples of people doing it well, and I’m about to list some of my favourites alongside the reasons for why they are so damn good.
Alright, so I’ll do possibly my favourite example first. In James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes they have the tremendous task of teaching you about 300 years of human history, where humanity is in its journey, and what technologies and characters are important or useful for the reader to know. All of this while delivering a compelling and immersive narrative sounds daunting, but there is one passage which makes me smile whenever I think about it.
[Shed speaking about healing Paj’s lost arm] “… The inner planets have a new biogel that regrows the limbs, but that isn’t covered in our medical plan.”
“Fuck the Inners, and fuck their magic Jell-O. I’d rather have a good Belter-built fake than anything those bastards grow in a lab. Just wearing their fancy arm probably turns you into an asshole,” Paj said. Then he added, “Oh, uh, no offense, XO.”Page 10 of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
There’s a lot in that, so let’s break it down and find everything it tells us and, more importantly, how it tells us this.
The basic points we know from this are that Paj is a Belter (someone living in the outer planets and asteroid belt), that living in the Belt is dangerous in some way (his arm was lost in work), that there is a chain of command with the XO (Holden) his superior, and that Shed — the beloved Shed — is a medic.
Great, that’s a lot of information, but there’s more here. The language Paj uses is so aggressive that we understand there is tension between the Inners (those living on Earth and Mars) and the Belters, so much that he would sacrifice better medicine just to use Belter-built things. The fact that even the suggestion of an Inner-made technology being used on him is so distasteful that he loses his self-control in front of his superior is another interesting point to note.
The aggression Paj has for the Inners is a great seed to start us off in the Belter mindset, and the contrast between his speech and Shed and Holden’s softer tones only serves to highlight that more. I wish I could put in the entire start of this book because it really does world-build and deliver exposition expertly. Definitely, if you have an interest in science fiction or writing, check this series out. As a bonus, the TV adaptation, The Expanse, is one of the best changes from book to screen I’ve come across.
So maybe you’re not looking to build a world with lots of depth and history, maybe your exposition needs to be more about characters and their struggles. Well, good news, buddy, this next one is a great example just for you!
Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, the ever-controversial author with the same hometown as me, is a brilliant piece of writing, and it’s worth looking at how she introduces us to the main character.
Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember, and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had gotten it.Chapter 2, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
This is great. The way Harry’s description is framed is not as a “he looks like this” but as a way to explain why his cousin bullies him. It compares Harry’s size to Dudley’s which gives you a clear vision and fits nicely into the stereotype we, especially as children, have of bullies and the bullied or, as American scriptwriters like to say, Dweebs. Although if you want to enjoy this series it is best not to look too deeply into stereotypes and symbolism…
We then have a few physical descriptions which give you more of an insight into Harry’s personality. The easiest to see is the scotch tape used to repair his glasses which makes him look and feel more beaten down and helps add to the feeling he doesn’t belong with his uncle and aunt, a subtle hint that Hogwarts is his rightful home.
The way his scar’s description is framed tells you more about his character (it’s the only part of his appearance he likes), but its framing makes you want to know more about it. Why does he have it? How did he get that scar? Lightning bolt? That’s cool! It just adds wonder and is a fun way to give us a very vivid image of Harry, Dudley and the household he lives in.
My third and final example is adapted from a book, and from a favourite in my social circle, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, specifically from the 1981 BBC version. The clip I’ve chosen was actually a suggestion from a friend of mine, and I’ll use his words exactly to explain why it’s so good.
Here the book acts as an expositive device that pushes the narrative along whilst keeping the audience in the know.Chris. P. Bacon
The thing all of these have in common, and indeed many other examples do, is how the exposition is framed. Take the first example, it’s not framed in a way of “hey, people live on asteroids and hate the people living on planets”, instead it’s framed almost as though it is a personality trait of the Belters, as a reason for Paj to not get the better treatment. I already touched on the framing from Harry’s description, that is really the aspect of that which makes it shine so well, and the Hitchhiker’s example is, I think, explained best by my friend’s short quote.
There is one more piece I’d like to use because it is truly standout, and that’s the 1981 radio drama of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The reason I haven’t put it in here is because there is no one moment which captures the essence of exposition, instead its excellence comes from every single line. From drunken Hobbit talk to Gandalf and Legolas, every character and scene is written exceptionally well and I highly recommend trying to find it. On that, if anybody does find a good version, please do send it my way, I’d love to have it on my phone to listen to on my morning walk!
Ultimately your preference as a reader and as a writer is what defines good and bad exposition, but framing, context, and humour can really help to change the narrative and make your exposition excellent. There are other things which tie into this, things like dialogue, symbolism, and a host of other literary aspects, but framing is, I think, the main definer. Of course, you are more than welcome to disagree with me, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this either in the comments, on my social media pages, or through my email address, all of which can be found on my contact page.
Hopefully this has been interesting and has given you something to consider when writing your own stories. For more of my thoughts and discussions in writing, check out my blog, and if you’re interested in my own work then give my projects page a look.
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