Writing Techniques: How to make exposition suspenseful

writing techniques,

September 12, 2015

Exposition is the relaying of information, be it description, explanation, or background information.

I've found the most useful way of thinking about exposition in written narrative is by thinking about it in contrast to exposition in visual narratives such as, for example, comics.

In a comic, the character has to be drawn over and over and over again, in every panel in which they appear (just as the location has to be drawn over and over again).

In a written narrative, once you have described a character once, you don't have to describe them over and over again, continuously, forever. The character's name becomes a signifier, carrying the description along with it in the reader's mind. The only reason to describe them again would be to draw attention to their appearance for a particular reason, or if something has changed.

This demonstrates that the best time to include exposition is usually: when something is encountered for the first time; when something needs attention drawn to it; or when something has changed.

In fact, these are the moments when the reader wants to know the information, and exposition is alive and interesting to the reader if it is something they want to know--either because they are consciously eager for it to be revealed (who is the strange, masked man???), or because they unconsciously desire to know it in order to orient themselves in the text (the character has just walked into a room, what does the room look like?).

Here are two simple examples from two books that I have just pulled off my shelf. From Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling, Harry meets the Weasleys for the first time, so Rowling gives some exposition about the Weasleys:

"--packed with Muggles, of course--"

Harry swung round. The speaker was a plump woman who was talking to four boys, all with flaming red hair. Each of them was pushing a trunk like Harry's in front of him, and they had an owl.

From The Philosopher's Pupil by Iris Murdoch, George enters the room for the first time, so Murdoch gives some exposition about the room:

He walked unhurriedly out of the bedroom door and across the landing to Stella's room. The room was bright with sun, the curtains pulled back, the bed not slept in. George sat down on a chair. No, Stella was not dead. Was he glad? Christ, what a lot of bloody trouble he had landed himself in, he would lose his driving licence.

In each case, the exposition is given at the moment that something is first encountered --and therefore at the precise moment that the reader wants it--and this timing is important. Exposition given before the reader cares about it is less engaging (the reader doesn't care about it QED) and at worst gains the whiff of infodump. Whereas exposition given too late-- after the reader needs it -- creates an interval of confusion, where the reader is holding in their mind an unconscious question, Mrs Weasley = ?

Thus exposition is best timed at the moment of peak reader need or desire, or in simplest terms, when George walks into the room, that's the best time to describe the room.

Because this is the case, writers frequently (successfully) use the following sequence:

action --> encounter/change --> exposition --> new action

To use the above example, George walks into room (action) --> George encounters room (encounter) --> The room is described (exposition) --> George starts to think about Stella (new action)

This sequence is relatively simple, and extremely useful. Today's technique, however, is a way to alter this sequence in order to increase suspense within a scene.

A technique for making exposition suspenseful

I learned this technique from Dorothy Dunnett's (masterful) fight scenes. I was having difficulty writing swordfights and battles. I wanted my swordfights to feel pacey and exciting, and include lots of action. But in a swordfight there is a lot of information that the writer needs to tell to the reader-- about the weapons, the terrain, where everyone is, their status in the fight -- so the difficulty becomes, how do I write all of that exposition in an exciting way? And (since there is also a lot of action in a swordfight!) how on earth do I transition successfully between action and exposition?

You can see from this example how adding expositional information dilutes the immediacy of the action:

1. He swung the sword.

2. He swung the long, heavy sword that had been handed down to him through six generations of his family and that he had conflicted feelings about using because he felt burdened by a weight of expectation.

3. Standing about a foot and a half away from his opponent, a short, dark haired man, he swung the long, heavy sword that had been handed down to him through six generations of his family and that had some notches down its length but that he had conflicted feelings about using because he felt burdened by a weight of expectation.

Because Dunnett appeared to handle this problem effortlessly, I did a technical/mechanical breakdown of about ten of her fight scenes and I noticed that she uses a different sequence to the one that I discussed above. Her sequence is as follows:

action cliffhanger --> exposition to delay cliffhanger resolution --> new action

Here's an example from Dunnett's Race of Scorpions:

Then, turning to Diniz, he saluted briefly and flicked his blade to invite the first blow.

Swordplay in a gymnasium or a paved exercise yard was different from the same thing in a yard deep in mud and littered with irregular obstacles, but Diniz had all the advantages he could have hoped for: of youth and energy and familiarity with the terrain. He also had the better weapon.

He came forward.

Here the "flick of the blade" provides a mini action cliffhanger. Instead of resolving the cliffhanger, Dunnett pauses, and uses the moment to provide exposition about the location, and about Diniz and his fighting capabilities. This has the effect of drawing out the cliffhanger, and increasing suspense. In fact, the suspense works in two directions: the exposition feels tense and engaging because it comes after a cliffhanger, and the cliffhanger itself becomes more suspenseful, because the resolution is delayed by the exposition.

Here's a second example from another fight, later in the book:

The emir simply gathered his horse and flung it into a gallop that must collide with his own. And Nicholas, watching him, spurred his horse likewise.

It was one used for ballgames, and wiry. If it had been heavier, he would have allowed the collision to happen. As it was, he waited until the last second, and his opponent did the same. The two horses swerved, brushing one another, and the two blades flashed and met.

Here again the horse charge (cliffhanger) is followed by a description of horses (exposition) before the cliffhanger is resolved with new action (the horses collide).

Of course, not only Dunnett uses this technique, nor is it limited to fight scenes. Here's an example from the opening paragraphs of The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart.

I met him in the street called Straight.

I had come out of the dark shop doorway into the dazzle of the Damascus sun, my arms full of silks. I didn't see anything at first, because the sun was right in my eyes and he was in shadow, just where the Straight Street becomes a dim tunnel under its high corrugated iron roof.

The souk was crowded. Someone stopped in front of me to take a photograph. A small grey donkey pattered past under a load of vegetables three times its own width. A taxi shaved me so near that I took a half step back into the shop doorway, and the shopkeeper, at my elbow, put out a protective hand for his rolls of silk. The taxi swerved, horn blaring, past the donkey, parted a tight group the way a ship parts water, and aimed without any slackening of speed at the bottleneck where the street narrowed sharply between jutting rows of stalls.

It was then that I saw him. He had been standing, head bent, in front of a jeweller's stall, turning over some small gilt trinket in his hand.

Here the first glimpse of the man (cliffhanger) is followed by a description of the area (exposition), and Stewart uses the delay caused by the exposition to create a sense of drama . Both the suspense and the sense of importance this gives to the man are artificially (yet successfully) constructed, using timed exposition to signal to the reader that something important is happening.

What I like most about this technique is that it changes exposition from a difficult task that must be managed as best one can, to a dynamic tool that can be used to increase suspense and improve pacing. Learning it changed the way I thought about exposition, and opened up new ways of approaching scenes.

You can find a complete list of the writing techniques covered in the series at the Writing Techniques Master Post