Narrative Exposition: How To Improve Your Writing Technique (2023)

A novel is about emotions and thoughts, but it’s also about facts. Even in literary fiction, where focus is on characters, the author needs to communicate certain facts to the reader. For example, what a character did on a certain past occasion. Or, where her parents were at some point in time. We call this narrative exposition (I will offer a more detailed definition further below). Believe it or not, narrative exposition is an area where authors of even the highest caliber can have trouble with.

Improving your narrative exposition technique candramaticallyimprove many areas of your writing. It can make your narrative flow more naturally and more realistically. A better narrative exposition strategy can also increase the affective power of your characters.

Narrative Exposition: How To Improve Your Writing Technique (1)

What Is Narrative Exposition: Some Examples

I really believe in the power of examples, so let’s look more into narrative exposition with their help. The following examples are imaginary, to facilitate the comparison.

Example 1

John looked into Maria’s eyes. She seemed sad and anxious. Her hand, holding the photo, was shaking.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Do you remember last summer, when we went to that cabin for the weekend?”
“Tell me about it… $200 for a weekend without electricity, thanks to the storm
. What of it?”
“Well, I was watching the photo we took at the lake, and it made me sad. I realized how much I’ve missed you.”

In the example above, the part in red font indicates narrative exposition. In other words, it’s a part that conveys certain factual information that isunknown to the reader while known to the characters.

This is a crucial point to understand, so take a moment to read the example above again. Try to see why the red-colored text qualifies as narrative exposition (based on the definition I just gave you) and why the rest of the text doesn’t.

Let’s see a variation of the example above.

Example 2

John looked into Maria’s eyes. She seemed sad and anxious. Her hand, holding the photo, was shaking.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I was thinking about last summer…”
“What of it?” he mumbled, thinking that renting a cabin for $200 only to be without electricity would make anyone sad.
“Well, I was watching the photo we took at the lake, and it made me sad. I realized how much I’ve missed you.”

Notice how in this example the same information is offered not as a part of the dialogue but as a narrator-inserted thought in the character’s head. Take a moment to see both examples again, and try to pick your favorite. That is, try to decide which of the two examples feels more naturally flowing.

Narrative Exposition Is about Natural Flow

I expect most people to have chosen the second example. That is easy enough. The important part for our purposes is to understandwhythe second example is better.

Remember that narrative exposition is information a reader needs to know, but which characters are already aware of. In our examples above, John and Maria both knew that they spent a weekend at a cabin without electricity.

Ask yourself: hownaturalis it to talk with someone over something you both know?

Perhaps, at first, example 1 doesn’t seem all that bad. Indeed, sometimes you might talk like that in real life as well. However, first of all consider whether example 2 is still not better narratively speaking. Secondly, realize thatthe longer the exposition, the less natural it appears.

In other words, whereas example 1 above is inferior but still passable, an excerpt of narrative exposition that is more extensive will suffer greatly.

A Problem Plaguing Any Author

I mentioned this in the introduction. Narrative Exposition problems are not a prerogative of inexperienced authors. Would you like an example of a Nobel-level writer who commits this… narrative crime?Kenzaburō Ōe. In my Goodreads review of Death by Water, I wrote the following:

A lot of naive narrative exposition going on, further undermining the characters’ personalities and realism. For example, I can’t count the times that a character – in order to give for the umpth time the same info to the reader – tells another character something the latter already knows. In other words the narrative doesn’t justify the dialogue at all, but the author keeps pushing it in order to pass some information. Awful strategy.

Benefits of a Realistic Narrative Exposition

I have already referred to the reasons why a solid narrative exposition technique can help your writing and your novel, but let’s make it more specific and concrete.

In a nutshell, a good narrative exposition strategy offers:

  • a more natural flow of the narrative, with improved pace.
  • more realistic characters.
  • the ability to interject subtle undertones, enriching the narrative.
  • (as a result of the element above) the development of a narrative style.

Refer to the two examples further above. The first two items on the list should be easy enough to notice. The narrative flows more realistically in the second example, as a result of the narrative exposition being naturally incorporated into the narrative, rather than being “forced” as a dialogue. Of course this makes the characters appear more realistic.

In regard to the third item – the ability to interject subtle undertones – notice how the structure of the second example allows for the inclusion of witticism (“…would make anyone sad”) that is absent from the first example. It is of course conceivable that one could insert such a remark in the first example as well, but there is a crucial difference.

The second example facilitates such undertones byits very structure, that is, by removing the need to have the characters deliver the information, allowing the narrator to take control of narrative exposition. It becomes apparent that such a context facilitates the ability to develop and display a unique authorial style.

Narrative Exposition: How To Improve Your Writing Technique (2)

How To Improve Narrative Exposition in Your Writing

I’ve saved the most important part for last. To the question, Are there specific things a writer can do to improve narrative exposition, the answer is: you bet! Perhaps the more perceptive of you already know what item no.1 will be.

Remove Narrative Exposition “Duties” from Your Characters

As we saw in the examples, when characters need to deliver information to the reader which they themselves already know, the result is not optimal. It can be outright bad with longer excerpts. The solution is to incorporate the narrative exposition as a part of the narrative, that is, as something belonging to the narrator.

Remove Unnecessary Information

Readers don’t need to be told everything. A major sign of inexperienced writers is writers who place disproportionate emphasis on the plot and, on top of that, explain every little detail to the readers, perhaps worried that the reader won’t “get it” otherwise. Awful idea. Among other problems, it sets the stage for narrative exposition problems, precisely because there is an inordinate amount of information that needs to be communicated.

Deliver the Information only when It Is narratively Natural to Do so

Even when you, as a narrator, remove the narrative exposition duties from your characters, there are moments when you can talk and there are moments when you need to stay quiet. Learn to recognize when it is narratively natural to interject the information. To an extent this comes with experience. But here are two quick questions to ask yourself.

1. Does the scene make sense without the information?

In our earlier examples, the scene requires the information to make sense – otherwise the reader doesn’t understand what Maria means when she’s referring to last summer. If the answer to this question is “yes”, you could still ask yourself…

2. Does including the information serve a Narrative Purpose?

A purpose in a narrative context is defined as something that either moves the plot forward or illuminates the personal drive of a character. Perhaps sometimes you can include narrative exposition that isn’t necessary in terms of delivering a sense-making sentence or scene, but which can still serve a purpose. In our second example, not only is the information basically necessary, but it also reveals (potentially; since it’s an imaginary example, there is no context) something about John’s character: Witticism? Indifference? There can be many available options to the writer.

Avoid Repetitive Narrative Exposition

Perhaps this should be self-evident, but avoid repetitive narrative exposition. This means not to give the same information twice (that’s precisely what madeKenzaburō Ōe’s text so frustrating, as you saw in the excerpt of my review). It also means not to offer repetitive pieces of information one after another. Divide your narrative exposition, if needed by inserting other dialogue or descriptions in-between.

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