Fictional Textbook? No, Thanks

Hi there guys, I wanted to focus on a more craft level element this week so I decided that I was going to write about the role of exposition in a narrative. An early piece of writing advice that I received was to avoid exposition like the plague. For the most part, I agree with this, but after writing for a minute I think it isn’t quite black and white.

Exposition can be dreadfully boring, but it can also be the only good way to communicate critical information to your reader. Often, the information isn’t the problem but how it is delivered. Starting with the most boring, here are a few strategies to convey information common to exposition.

The Best & Worst Ways to Write Exposition


The Fictional Textbook

Like many of these headings, this section is pretty self-explanatory. If you want to save yourself the inevitable retina hemorrhages caused by my atrocious writing, skim the sub-titles and you should get the gist of the post. If you happen to enjoy the feeling of blood welling inside your eye-sockets, go back and agonize over that run-on sentence. Take that grammar nazi’s (Strokes Falipo, the hairless kitten, while laughing manically).

If you’ve ever read about the appropriate way to seperate independent clauses within the English langague, you have suffered through the least exciting way to convey information. Textbooks are often written in straight, 200-proof exposition. They might be able to convey information, but they are dreadfully boring.

This leads to my next question, when was the last time you read a entire textbook? I don’t mean skimming, but when was the last time you finished a textbook in the same way that you would read a novel? I can honestly say that I have never read an entire textbook, but that might be due to the fact that the average orange and I share the same IQ. It’s a wonder I remember to breath.

If you ever feel the need to provide information as if it where a textbook, you are going to have some work to do in the revision process. This doesn’t mean you should never write about the thoasand-year war that sent your world into perputual darkness, but it is hard to maintain tension if you don’t have a specific character actually doing anything.

Maid & Butler Dialogue

Instead of having your narrator point-blank tell your reader your intended information, maid and bulter dialogue masks the information into a conversation between characters. This style is gets its name from the old drama’s in which the maid and butler would discuss the current state of affairs of their employer at the beginning of the play. It quickly establishes a few background details and helps set the mood of the scene, but the problem is that there is usually little reason why the characters would discuss the information in the first place.

By using characters as the conduits of exposition, the information should feel natural, not only to dialogue, but to the character speaking. A teenage protagonist will have a different way of describing something than a college proffesor. In addition, most people have a contextual basis that frames their conversations. Information like a full name, title, history of an area, and macro-level events are not as likely to come up in a conversation as opposed to small talk about the weather.

In order to use dialogue to convey exposition, it is neccassary to flavor it according to the medium it is being presented in. It should be noted that this can be done well. Orson Scott Card does a great job of it in the first scene of Ender’s Game. If you haven’t read it, check it out.

In Media Res

Of all of the forms, this is my favorite. “In Media Res,” is Latin for, “In the Midst of,” or “Into the Middle of Things.” As a literary term, it describes the form of narratives that throw the reader right into the story and hope that they are able to catch on before they give up on the book.

When this is done poorly, the learning curve is so steep that readers become lost and are not able to enjoy the story. The goal of this style is to be as true to the characters and world as possible. Instead of framing the story as a book, it is more like a snap shot of a life. To mitigate this problem, try to find situations that are relatable to the reader.

When it comes to exposition, in media res is more like seeing the information in practice. Let’s say you want to describe all of the technical components of a space ship. You want to describe its speed relative to light, its plasma weapon systems, and every, little, illuminated display. If you have a character interact with each piece throughout an entire scene, you will be able to convey the same information, but often in a way that progresses the plot and can drive tension.

Tip: Try using a malfunction as a trick to give exposition in the moment. It is easy to describe minute details if your characters are inspecting each element in an effort to fix the problem.

Parting Thoughts

Like always thanks for reading! I really appreciate all of your support, and I am looking forward to talking to you in the comments. If you haven’t done so, make sure to sign up for my newsletter in order to be entered in the Writer’s Toolkit Give Away (The books are picture below). Have a great day, and good luck with your writing.



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2 thoughts on “Fictional Textbook? No, Thanks

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