There are some areas in a story where you simply have to give an explanation to your reader, but there are some common mistakes and clichés many writers resort to in order to either avoid using direct narrative exposition, or through poor planning and editing.
The “As You Know” Clause
Dialogue is a favourite medium for informing the reader of something, as questions can be asked and answered and the exposition can sound almost natural. Unfortunately, one silly technique is having one character tell another character something they should already know.
“Bad Boy Joe has been in prison for three years after shooting you during that drugstore robbery. Now he’s being released and we have to go into hiding because he swore revenge when you took the witness stand.” (As you know)
The only way an example like this makes sense is if the character receiving this information has lost his memory, woken from a coma, or has a dissociative identity disorder.
The Villain Speech
James Bond novels and movies are notorious for villain speeches. Exposition by the villain is sometimes quite difficult to avoid entirely, but it can be made less clichéd by avoiding certain stereotypes: a villain who stops what he is doing to explain his master plan; one who decides to hold off on harming his victim until the plan is fully explained; or one who is easily tricked or distracted.
One way around the villain speech is to divulge most of the plan in some other way before the showdown scene.
The Detective Speech is a similar cliché, but is an accepted part of mystery stories, just as related jargon is expected in medical, forensic, crime, and science fiction books.
Future dumping occurs when the narrator slips in a reference to a future situation that the viewpoint character shouldn’t know about.
“Little did she realise that this would be the last time she saw him alive.”
Is a story more interesting if it is possible that either lover might die or they might both survive, or if the reader already knows that she will survive, but he won’t?
The author may be attempting to highlight the importance of the scene so that the reader remembers it, but there are better ways of doing this. Future dumping usually only succeeds in pulling the reader out of the action of the story and reminding them that the narrator already knows the outcome. This has crept in from non-fiction memoirs or autobiographies, where the writer/narrator does know the outcome, and only works for this type of writing.
Imagine the difference in Harry Potter if JK Rowling had added “Little did Harry realise that…” before the scenes in the astronomy tower in Half-Blood Prince, the Department of Mysteries in Order of the Phoenix, and the maze in Goblet of Fire.
Plant hints, instead, so that your reader thinks back and realises there were clues to what might happen, but don’t take the deductive process away from your reader.
Late Planting or “He just happened to…”
The easiest way to annoy your reader is to place your protagonist in a tight situation he can’t easily escape from, and then miraculously plant something (a loaded gun happens to be lying on a convenient table, etc) to help him out. If your plot takes a turn like this, you must go back and retro-plant these clues. Don’t cheat your reader by withholding information they really should know. Your reader should be enthralled by the action, not asking, “Where did that come from?” or rolling their eyes because your protagonist’s escape was unreasonably convenient.
A prime example is in Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three. A character is shot in the heart, but (despite being a non-smoker) happens to have a metal cigarette lighter in a pocket in that exact position. King then has to stop the action to explain that the character’s boss smokes and he bought the lighter for future acts of sycophancy. It would’ve been so much more convincing if this information had been presented earlier, along with the details of the pocket he placed the lighter in.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in February 2007. © Elsa Neal
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel by Diana Wynne Jones is a fantasy parody that illustrates the most popular fantasy clichés. Essential reading if you want to avoid these. (Read my review of this book.)
Or try How Not to Write a Screenplay : 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Make by Denny Martin Flinn