Exposition can be useful: “a man walks into a bar…” – useful information that is required in order to advance the plot.
Or it can be clunky: “oh and he had a duck on his head, did I mention that?” – annoying, blundering, in your face chunks of text that remind you this is a fictional story. Not a good thing when you want the reader to get lost in your words.
When it’s used naturally, and sparingly, it is an essential part of a novel. It can help lay the foundations for a story without having to read and read and read. It can be a quick way of saying “look, this is kind of where we’re going, bear with me”.
But exposition is a double edged sword. It can be a killer of flow, believability, and plot.
There’s a bit near the beginning of Avatar – I forgot how far in – where the main engineery dude turns to the main science lady, plucks a lump of some unidentified substance and says something along the lines of “You see this? This is why we’re here, because this little beauty sells for a shit tonne of cash back on Earth.” I’m pretty sure he doesn’t say shit ton but you get the idea. They are god knows how many years into their ‘mission’, all with specific roles, duties, and goals yet somehow he decided to suddenly spell out to the scientist exactly why they were there…you know, just in case she’d had a sudden bout of amnesia. It’s clunky and it immediately brings you out of the story.
This happens a lot in books, characters explaining things to other characters that they should already know. It’s annoying, and mildly insulting to the reader. It’s saying “you can’t figure things out unless I explain them using words of one syllable or less” – which is bollocks. Readers are smart, especially my readers…yeah, you lot are all smart, sexy, and sophisticated sons of…and you don’t need writers to hold giant placards over characters heads explaining what’s going on.
It can be seen in both dialogue and narration, either characters explaining unnecessary points or the writer bombarding you with information that they couldn’t be bothered weaving into the story (or they thought you were too stupid to understand it as part of the plot).
The following example shows how exposition can kill a story:
Jeff Stabby walked into his doctor’s office, which he visited every week to discuss his problems. The air conditioning was cool but he sweated through his shirt at the thought of his appointment.
The receptionist smiled at him. “Good morning, Mr. Stabby, here for your weekly appointment with Dr. Knifey to talk through your issues about cheese?”
“Yes, Shirley, and I’m here five minutes early because we both know Dr. Knifey doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Well, you know he’s been that way ever since…the incident.”
Ugh, it’s horrible isn’t it? Trying to force all the relevant information into the story as soon as possible so the reader doesn’t get ‘confused’ or ‘bored’ – imagine having to wait a few pages to find something out! *shudder*
Now try it without the in your face exposition:
“Good morning, Mr. Stabby”
(there you go; you’ve established the characters have a previous connection)
“Is Dr. Knifey ready?”
(and that Mr. Stabby is there to see Dr. Knifey)
The young receptionist glanced at the clock above her desk and pulled a face “Better go straight in,” she said.
(uh oh, looks like either Stabby is late or Knifey doesn’t like to be kept waiting)
Sure, it’s not Koontz but you see what I mean. You don’t have to fill in every last detail, let the reader work things out for themselves. If the receptionist is concerned with the time then we can figure out this is an issue all on our lonesome. You don’t have to break the flow of the story to explain that the good doctor has a phobia of people being late ever since that time a patient was delayed and it somehow led to a giant spider crawling across his face (arachnochronophobia, look it up).
In fact it may be better if the time issue can be interpreted in different ways, as long as those ways make sense that is. That way it’s up to the reader to fill in the gaps. And they will, with the answer that seems most logical to them.
That means they truly believe the story AND they’re doing all the heavy lifting!
Resist the urge to spoon feed a large bowl of infodump to your audience.
Have a little faith in your readers!