Exposition is a lot like water. Your fiction narrative can’t live without it, but it will just easily drown if there’s too much of it coming in too fast. Likewise, just as most people would prefer to drink something other than water once in a while, only a few people prefer to knowingly have their stories made entirely made up of exposition.
But before we go further, it’s important to define what exposition is.
In broad terms, exposition is anything which delivers information which the creator needs the audience to know. It needs to exist in fiction because fiction necessarily takes place in a world different from our own – even if the differences are relatively minor, like the existence or behaviour of a single individual. The information that exposition delivers allows the audience to reconcile the fictional world to their own in a way which allows them to understand the events which actually make up the narrative. Without exposition, the audience has no context for the events of a fiction narrative. Without context, a narrative of any complexity becomes incomprehensible. In that regard, exposition is vital, yet it’s also important to maintain the audience’s attention when delivering exposition. Even if a creator lays out what they want their audience to know in the plainest possible language, the audience has no reason to pay attention unless they have motivation to do so – and if the audience doesn’t pay attention, then that exposition might as well not exist.
This is the difference between good exposition and bad exposition: good exposition engages the audience in a way which makes them internalise the information being presented, bad exposition doesn’t. Good exposition sinks its hooks into the audience’s brains, is that the information it provides is still there when it’s needed to make sense of some future plot element. Bad exposition just bounces off.
There are quite a few tricks which allow a creator to keep the audience’s attention through exposition. However, learning those tricks themselves is nowhere near as important as understanding the underlying principle which substantiates all of them. It’s all well and good to know the shortcuts, but as with so many other writing techniques and principles, not knowing the reason why those shortcuts work will often mean that a writer will misuse them, to the detriment of the quality of their work. Meanwhile, a writer who understands the basic principle behind those techniques will not only be able to intuit those shortcuts themselves, but be able to adapt and improvise new ones, based on their own writing style, intended audience, and objectives.
When it comes to keeping the audience’s attention through exposition, that underlying principle is, in a word, suspense.
Suspense is essentially what fills up the gap between the moment the creator poses a question to the audience, and the moment the creator answers that question. Ultimately, it requires two elements arranged properly: a setup and a payoff. The setup is a question which the audience has an interest in knowing the answer to. The payoff is an answer clever enough (or at least, well-written enough) to satisfy the audience, and make them believe that the wait was worth it.
You might already recognise how these principles might apply to exposition. If you simply dump information on your audience without any context or motivation, their eyes will glaze over and they’ll skip right over it. However, if you give them exposition in the form of the reply to a question they already want answered, then they’re a lot more likely to pay attention to anything which might give them that answer. Of course, the more attention they pay, the more likely they are to remember that information for later – and the more likely they are to put the pieces of your story together the way that you want them to.
The simplest form of this is something that can be worked into dialogue: the protagonist (or any other character) has a question about the world, and they ask it, so that another character can answer it in a way which conveys the information making up that answer to both the first character and the audience. The audience isn’t so much paying attention just to the information itself, but to the context in which it’s provided, to the interaction between these two characters. The exposition is slipped in through the interplay of two personalities. It’s a pretty simple method, and one which gets used pretty often (it’s why so many stories have an audience surrogate who is as unaware of the elements of the setting as the audience is).
There is, however, a second level to this sort of interaction. The way in which a character interacts with others can, itself, be a form of exposition. The way that a person acts is often shaped by their cultural context, their socioeconomic status, their personal history, and so on. Having them act in a way which relies on a piece of context which the audience does not yet know about can also pose an unanswered question. If the character is interesting enough, or if their behaviour is incongruous enough, then it is all too likely to stick in the audience’s mind, until they aren’t just interested in the answer, but actively try to pursue it.
These are just two examples, of course. There are a myriad of other ways to apply the same principles in different ways. Say a character needs to go on a journey, but states that they need specific supplies to ensure their safety. That’s an unanswered question. Maybe a town has an old ruined tower in the middle of its square, left unrepaired for centuries. That’s a question. Maybe someone mentions offhandedly that a previously unmentioned country is at war again – but that this time, they might lose. That’s multiple unanswered questions.
Of course, what’s also key to building suspense is making sure the unanswered question you’re posing is one your audience has an interest in having answered. The key to making sure of that is making sure that the potential answer pertains to something which the audience already cares about. If you set up exposition by making a character act incongruously, it’s usually better to have that character already established as someone the audience cares about (for good or ill), and to have that action seem to have some bearing on how the narrative might affect that character. You’re more likely to be interested in the answer to a question when it seems like the question itself is significant enough to affect elements of the narrative which the audience already feels invested in.
Setting that up, however, is more a matter of characterisation, plotting, and narrative design, which are all somewhat beyond the scope of this particular article.
That being said, the principles I’ve outlined above should not only be enough to give you some idea of what good exposition is, but also give you enough of an understanding of its basic principles to iterate on that idea in a way which best fits your intended audience, medium, and how you mean to tell your narrative.