In fiction, exposition is the information the reader needs in order to understand the story: background information, for example, or descriptions of unusual things. Usually exposition is told in narrative: that is, not in dialogue. It’s important for writers to understand that the information revealed by exposition is not the story. It’s merely necessary information without which the reader might not understand aspects of the story.
When writing my first novel, She’s on First, I assumed that everyone reading it would know baseball. But when my agent read the manuscript, she said that the story would appeal to many people, both women and men, who liked the idea of such a story (first woman in the major leagues), but who did not understand baseball at all. My agent herself was such a person.
So, explained my agent, as I rewrote the manuscript I would have to explain various baseball terms and situations as they came up in the novel. Double play, for example. Curve ball. Three-and-two. AND: I would have to explain these terms (exposit them) in such a way that the non-baseball reader understood the explanation — but also in such a way that the baseball reader would not be offended by my “explaining” basic concepts they already knew.
Writing the exposition for readers with such different backgrounds was difficult. It was my first novel — what did I know about exposition?
Regardless of what I knew or didn’t know about exposition, this was a problem I had to solve. So, as I rewrote the story, line by line and page by page, I paid careful attention to words, phrases, or concepts that I thought a non-baseball reader would need explanations for. And I decided, almost intuitively, to solve the problem by expositing mainly through appositives.
Yes, I remembered appositives from tenth grade English, though little did I think back then that I’d have a “real life” need to know what an appositive was. An appositive is a phrase which clarifies or provides more information about its nearby noun by renaming that noun in different words. Here’s an example from the wonderful Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale: “Miss Goldenfingers, my typing teacher, was fond of tongue-twisters.”
As you can see, the noun that’s being renamed is “Miss Goldenfingers,” and the exposition provided is that she is the writer’s typing teacher.
As you might infer, appositives can be — and quite often are — very short. A word. Two. Three. And that’s it. A reader understands the main sentence, quickly assimilates the information in the appositive, and moves on, barely aware that he or she has been fed information. Sort of like a parent feeding a child medicine by sinking the medicine into a spoonful of pudding.
I felt that baseball readers could tolerate exposition in such short doses and maybe not even notice it. But if I were to stop the story in midstride to explain in an entire sentence or two what a double play was, baseball readers would notice. And probably be offended.
Here are two examples from She’s on First, each using an appositive.
“One clothesliner, a low-hit line drive, came her way in the second inning.”
“Harland signaled. Two fingers: curve.”
In the first example, I explain what a clothesliner is, and I use an appositive to do so. This is smoother and less intrusive than if I had used an entire sentence to do so, as in: “One clothesliner came her way in the second inning. A clothesliner was a low-hit line drive.” In the second example I could have exposited/elaborated with something like: “Harland signaled. Two fingers. The usual signal for a curveball was two fingers.” You can see very quickly how using a full sentence of exposition can sound klunky and can stop the story. The reader momentarily comes out of the forward movement of the story while assimilating the information in the expository sentence.
Beginning writers sometimes put all their exposition in one place: the first chapter; sometimes the second chapter; a full paragraph describing each character; several sentences at a time. Such heavy use of exposition is called an “information dump,” and that’s an excellent term for it, because the information is being dumped on the reader all at once.
Readers experience a story more deeply when the exposition is smoothly woven into the story. That smooth weaving usually requires that the writer break up the exposition into small pieces or occasional sentences tucked as unobtrusively as possible into the story.
In some genre fiction such as science fiction or forensic fiction, readers need more exposition than in most novels. Sometimes a lot more exposition before they can understand the particular science fiction world the writer has created, or understand the medical problem or procedure involved. Many readers of these genres don’t mind the “information dumps.” They’re used to them and maybe even expect them as part of their reading experience. But for readers from other genres who might be reading a sci-fi or forensic novel for the first time, the information dump can be a huge hurdle for readers to overcome.
Even if you aren’t a baseball fan, you will easily understand what’s happening in She’s on First.