I like my story with just a smear of exposition.
In fact, when I think of exposition, I think of this scene from She-Devil. Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep) is meeting with her editor about her newest book, Love in the Rinse Cycle. Her editor says she doesn’t want to publish it. Why not? There’s this whole chapter just on laundry. It’s a metaphor, Fisher shrieks.
A little exposition is necessary, but more than a smidge (maybe a dollop) here and there slows down the pace of the story. I’m a cranky reader. Unless that exposition is highly entertaining, informative, and essential to the plot or character development, I start skimming. (If something is in italics, such as a letter, forget about it.)
Some writers are very good at exposition. Take Douglas Adams. He can tell me about the history of the pan-galactic gargleblaster or the evolution of Vogon poetry all he wants. His exposition builds the world, sets the tone, moves the plot forward, and is often the most fun part of his books. Most of us aren’t Douglas Adams (or Terry Pratchet or Neil Gaiman), and that kind of exposition may not be appropriate for your story. Plus, if you’re writing a first person point of view, your character may not aware (or care) about all these pesky world details.
My approach is to start with the bones of each scene, the dialogue and action. Then I interweave much of the world-building into the scenes, layering on the details in bits of dialogue and/or action with a stray sentence or two of description. Everything serves a double duty. The reader is smart enough to catch what’s going on without over-explaining it.
However, I will admit that some times you may need to use a lump of exposition to:
- Establish voice and style. If you’re using a storytelling voice with an omniscient narrator, exposition makes sense. The narrator will know more than the characters.
- Slow down the action. You do need to give the readers a break every once in a while.
- Work in key information that won’t fit in any other way.