What is exposition?

Put simply, exposition is writing that explains. Writers use it to quickly fill in background information about characters or circumstances. By its very nature, exposition isn’t exciting. A lot of it all at once can make a reader tune out. And it’s not always an effective choice. A page of exposition about a character won’t do nearly as much to fix the character in a reader’s mind as a well-chosen action or gesture.

Still, exposition can create tension and meaning if you use it well. Include only to what is absolutely necessary to help the reader understand the action of the story. The details of Lucy’s arrests for shoplifting, for example, may not be important in a story about her lost dog.

But what about background information that is important? Consider just how much detail is necessary. Let’s say Lucy feels like losing her dog is some sort of payback from the universe for her past indiscretions. In this case, the reader does need to know about her arrests, but not the catalogue of what she’s stolen, descriptions of jail, or a summary of her last spree. Simply letting the reader know the shoplifting arrests are part of her past will inform the action of the story and keep the reader focused on what’s important now—Lucy’s experience of losing her dog.