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An Exposé on Exposition

In order to be made accessible, writing needs a clear thread to follow. Ideally, there should be intention behind action and an end goal. The emphasized terms are suggestions I give to any beginning writer of fiction or nonfiction. What I specifically suggest is, as a baseline for their planning, figure out what these words mean for their style or work in progress.

These definitions can serve as an anchor, but they can change through the course of composition.

While I will be specifically be discussing use of exposition in fiction, it is just as essential in nonfiction. Nonfiction aims to condense a concept, even a life, into language, so there has to be a clear thread to follow, intention behind language choices made, and some kind of end goal. So, nonfiction also has the task of creating exposition and following through. The expectation of effective exposition, one could argue, look different in fiction and nonfiction.

In fiction, the writer has the capability to conceive of a world as they envision it. They make the rules by which their world operates, a task unto itself. In nonfiction, writers represent the world from their experience of it, from what is happening, from what has happened, from the way things are. Exposition can communicate how effectively the writer will be able to accomplish these goals.

Evan Skolnick (2014) defines an exposition as "information the audience needs in order to understand and appreciate the story," a direct approach that sets up the framework of his chapter. I take a lot of value from working definitions in nonfiction because terms like "exposition" do not stand on their own.

He begins by discussing "show, don't tell". Video games have a unique opportunity in storytelling, something that I wish Skolnick would have opened with, to effectively combine the strategies of "show", "tell", and "do". However, his advice is very scattered, though it is clear by the end that he advocates of a balanced approach for all of these.

Video games, by their nature, allow players to have immersive experiences of stories, necessitating this balanced approach depending on the purpose of the game. To elaborate, and again I'm using Skolnick's working definitions with some of my own adaptations for the novel or short story:

  • "Show" refers to imagery and action, something that allows for interpretation of a setting and situation.

  • "Tell" is a direct active fact-based explanation of who, what, when, where, why, and how.

  • "Do" is a decision that is made and acted upon. A player does this when making a narrative choice in their game. In a novel or short story, I see this as an opportunity for an author to use language to open their work up for interpretation to the extent that it influences the way future events can be perceived.

Exposition matters throughout a story and "show, don't tell" has been relegated to myth. John Rechy (2002) wrote "When Rules Are Made to be Broken" for the Los Angeles Times and had an interesting take on where exposition takes place.

Note: Please click the hyperlink to read the full article.

He states, "Good writing involves 'showing'--that is, dramatizing--as well as 'telling'--employing exposition. An avoidance of 'telling' may convolute clear motivation (exemplified by 'showing'). It compromises setting. It obfuscates situation."

More simply, according to Rechy, the act of telling is the exposition work, and there's a lot of evidence to base that off of. One piece of this is in text-based video games in which typing in a prompt allows a player to gather information and progress in a story. A 2018 game (inspired by 1980's text-based mystery games) called Ozapell is particularly sophisticated as it generates a new mystery each time it's played. Games like this have no choice but to "tell" for the most part. Decisions can be made, battles may be fought, there are ways to win or lose, but the writers have no choice but to "tell".

The mystery is a particularly striking specimen as "telling" can never be sacrificed if a viewer or reader must be expected to gather their own clues and guess the solution.

That said, "showing" is a dramatization, so what do we mean by that?

Going back to Rechy (2002), "A good way to add life to exposition is to capture a dramatic moment, to hear someone speak, see someone move, act--yes, show--since time is the accumulation of moments."

The way that Rechy describes a dramatization is in the way it complements and moves an exposition, perhaps giving viewers or readers an opportunity to unfold the way a character interprets the way the world is built. People need to exist and interact with the world to progress a story, and this sentiment holds true for both stories and video games, but the difference lies in who the progression and movement relies upon.

In Ozapell, one prompt that can be generated is this: "Horace is the sophisticated butler." The player can then, "Ask Horace about Zane." Horace says, "Zane failed to demonstrate the proper manners for someone in his position" (Ozapell, 2018).

This is a simpler example, but while this is mostly exposition and "telling", we are "shown" a sophisticated butler because it is possible that players have specific expectations of a sophisticated butler, perhaps a tall no-nonsense man that wears a suit and bow tie. It is "sophisticated" that opens the door to this possibility of visualization, and his dialogue lends to that experience. Perhaps we know to suspect Zane, but we take into account that Horace has a general dislike of displays of frivolity and holds a prejudice against Zane. The player can then make a decision as to what to do next based on their assessment of their dialogue with Horace.

While exposition does convey information that is necessary to follow and appreciate a story as Skolnick defined it, its value can be expanded upon through Rechy's piece as the necessary "telling" of a fascinating story.


Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far and to my wonderful colleague who sent me "When Rules Are Made to be Broken". I intend to refer back to it often.

There will be a second part to this exposition-focused article as I've only covered a small portion of the discussion in Skolnick's chapter. The following sections discuss different effective ways to integrate exposition, and I look forward to expanding on those!

If you would like to be among the first to receive Purposeful Prose updates, you can become a member! Members can "like", comment on posts, and write on my forum! Also, if you want to submit suggestions for anything you'd like to see covered here, I will see your name first.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Ozapell (2018). Ozapell Mystery Text Adventure [Steam]. Ozapell

Rechy, J. (2002, October 6). When Rules Are Made to Be Broken. Los Angeles Times. Skolnick, E. (2014). Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques (Illustrated ed.). Watson-Guptill.

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2 Kommentare

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
05. Sept. 2022

Wonderful illustration and definition of key terms that can be used to both monitor and guide writers. Love the way in which you clarified the distinction between "show" and "tell." It's one of those subtle differences that has a significant impact on the finished product!!! Nice work as always!

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05. Sept. 2022

Another interesting post. It's very helpful to have working definitions of terms like "show" and "tell," because writing instructors often use them as if they were self-explanatory, when in fact they aren't. And it's also important to realize that showing isn't necessarily better than telling: you need to combine them. So these are useful guidelines.

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