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What the Classics Teach us About Exposition

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The literary science of accomplishing exposition is set in stone.  

The inexperienced writer dumps it like rocky weights on the reader's head (or not at all).The experienced author delivers at the right time and place, fusing it within the narrative flow so as to avoid the appearance of artifice. But wait, let's provide a simple definition before going further:  "
exposition" is that sum of information which must be delivered to the reader to enable them to fully understand the plot of the novel going forward.

Generally speaking, the reader learns exposition in a similar manner to the way life teaches it, e.g., upon moving into a new neighborhood, you learn the background history of the neighbors a bit at a time. They tell you about themselves, and others, as circumstances and conditions permit. By combining these fragments, you are finally able to perceive the entire picture of neighborhood society. 

The example above should give us a clue as to the best methods for delivering exposition. Here we arrive at classic SHOW, DON'T TELL situation. Consider plays and screenplays. How do the writers of these fictional products deliver exposition? Primarily via characters engaging in expositional dialogue at the right time and place (see novel examples below with Gatsby and Sun Also Rises).

NOTE: keep in mind that most if not all major exposition MUST be delivered to the reader by the time the FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT arrives (usually within the first 50 pages or earlier). It only makes sense. The reader must understand the backstory and exposition before the course of the plot changes and creates the major rising action of the tale. If this doesn't take place it would be equivalent of a friend telling you about the car accident she had yesterday, beginning the story by saying: "And then the car exploded and I was taken to the hospital." Doesn't work. You have no context, no backstory. Where had she been driving? What caused the explosion? etc.

Below are a few character and narrative techniques for delivering exposition.

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nick, the narrator and friend of Gatsby, has been dating Jordon Baker, a friend of Daisy. Using Jordon in a scene dedicated to expositional purposes, the author conjures up Daisy's past by means of dialogue and narrative, thus revealing that Gatsby was a former boyfriend of Daisy's (surprise) while further exposing the nature of Daisy's marriage to Tom, including notes on his infidelity. The past of the major characters is revealed, the present given orientation, and as a bonus, the novel's major source of dramatic tension is further advanced (i.e., Gatsby's attempt to renew his relationship with Daisy), and suspense increased thereby.

NOTE: F. Scott uses anecdotal recollection and dialogue with a minor character to deliver exposition on the major characters. It seems natural, of course, since Jordon is involved with Nick, the narrator, and at the same time involved in the lives of Tom and Daisy. She serves F. Scott as the perfect vehicle for delivering expo, arguably existing in the novel solely for this purpose.

Authors of novels, plays and screenplays, almost always create characters to deliver exposition at the right time and place.

From One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

In Scene 12 of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (btw, the bestselling American novel of all time), a conversation takes place between McMurphy, the protagonist, and Harding, one of the more intelligent patients. In this scene which begins the first major plot point, Harding delivers a final dose of exposition on the insidious workings of the asylum wherein they are imprisoned. It all boils down to one thing: if one doesn't cooperate with the therapy sessions and provide answers to questions in a suitable manner, he is labeled "Uncooperative," and if irritation is finally demonstrated, relabeled "Potential Assaultive" and immediately whisked off to the Disturbed Ward where a final fate of electro-shock awaits if cooperation isn't achieved.

According to Harding:

And, my friend, if you continue to demonstrate such hostile tendencies, such as telling people to go to hell, you get lined up to go the Shock Shop, perhaps even on to greater things, an operation... The Shock Shop, Mr. McMurphy, is jargon for the EST machine, the Electro Shock Therapy. A device that might be said to do the work of the sleeping pill... You are strapped to a table, shaped, ironically, like a cross, with a crown of electric sparks in place of thorns... Enough of these treatments and you could turn out like Mr. Ellis you see over there against the wall. A drooling, pants-wetting idiot at thirty-five.

Once the above is accomplished, the reader finally understands the dangers and insidious workings of the asylum environment, thereby establishing concern for McMurphy once he announces he will challenge the authorities and make a game of it. His announcement is the foundation of the first major plot point.

From The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway

The narrator and main character, Jake, meets up with Robert Cohn, a friend who has become enamored with his Jake's love, Brett Ashley. The following dialogue, crackling with tension, aids in characterizing the narrator and Cohn, providing a foreshadow of Cohn‘s temper yet to come. Hemingway also uses this scene for the same purpose as Kesey in Scene 12 above: the final exposition we need to understand is delivered here and the first major point begins, i.e., at this point, the story transitions effectively to Robert Cohn's ongoing pursuit of Ashley.
    "What do you know about Lady Brett Ashley, Jake?"

    "Her name is Lady Ashley. Brett‘s her own name. She‘s a nice girl," I said. "She‘s getting a divorce and she‘s going to marry Mike Campbell. He‘s over in Scotland now. Why?"

    "She‘s a remarkably attractive woman."

    "Isn‘t she?"

    "There‘s a certain quality about her, a certain fineness. She seems to be absolutely fine and straight."

    "She‘s very nice."

    "I don‘t know how to describe the quality," Cohn said. "I supposed it‘s breeding."

    "You sound as though you liked her pretty well."

    "I do. I shouldn‘t wonder if I were in love with her."

    "She‘s a drunk," I said. "She‘s in love with Mike Campbell, and she‘s going to marry him. He‘s going to be rich as hell some day."

    "I don‘t believe she‘ll ever marry him."

    "Why not?"

    "I don‘t know. I just don‘t believe it. Have you known her a long time?"

    "Yes," I said. "She was a V.A.D. in a hospital I was in during the war."

    "She must have been just a kid then."

    "She‘s thirty-four now."

    "When did she marry Ashley?"

    "During the war. Her own true love had just kicked off with the dysentery."

    "You talk sort of bitter."

    "Sorry. I didn‘t mean to. I was just trying to give you the facts."

From Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

During the course of narrative in the beginning of the novel, a triggering device subtly begins an associative process in the mind of the major character that redirects the narrative flow towards exposition of his life. The character is riding on a train:

He crawled into the dark narrow space of the berth. In his half sleep he thought where he was lying was like a coffin. The first coffin he had seen with someone in it was his grandfather‘s.

An artful obscuring of the author‘s purpose occurs when the exposition is partially "masked." In this particular case, a form of masking is accomplished by fixating the reader's attention with narrative so engaging that nothing but the subject at hand matters. For example, no sooner is the grandfather recalled in the coffin than Flannery O‘Connor animates the corpse, making it appear as though it will suddenly rear up and prevent death from closing down on it. The author thus seeds the exposition with a provocative image to counterbalance.

The character's past can now be discussed via berth to coffin. He wanders a dreamscape that reveals items of backstory.

To later resume the non-expositional narrative, another triggering device is used to transit the reader back to the present. The character finds himself going to sleep in an old house. His thoughts conjure the image of his mother in a coffin, and then, himself in the coffin in her stead: "From inside he saw it closing." Abruptly he awakens, frightened, but safe in his berth on the train.

The character has left the expositional dream and returned to novel reality.


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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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