by Angel Negra
What is exposition, you ask? Exposition means to expose something in a story, be it back history of the show's universe, history of a new character, or even just the properties and powers of objects or people. Exposition is helpful on giving us the back story or history, but it must be used wisely or it can get dull and annoying.
The trick to good exposition is to only tell what relates directly to the story you're telling. Show what you can and leave the rest for if or when it will relate to the story. You also have to be careful of which characters to use when doing the exposition. If both characters already know the story, there's no point it making one of them repeat it to the other, unless there's a good reason. You wouldn't bother if someone tried to teach you how to use a computer, or how to read, if you already knew that.
Wesley isn't going to explain to Giles that yes, vampires exist. Unless, Giles has amnesia and Wes was the one to find him. Let's look at the first episode of Buffy. Our first bit of exposition comes when Giles confronts Buffy in the library and starts to give her the Slayer speech. Buffy already knows it and finishes it, more or less, for him. A very normal thing to do when someone's telling you something you already know. So, why was this bit of exposition included?
Well, for one thing showing the role/calling of a Slayer is difficult, unless we either kill Buffy or show her calling. But Buffy's already been called, and she's not slated to die until the season one finale. Even then some exposition would be needed to tell the viewers what's going on. That was another reason the exposition was there, to tell the viewers just what Buffy was. And the final reason that exposition was there was to let Xander in on the secret, which turned into a major plot point and foundation for the show's entire run.
So, how do we get around this problem? Because sometimes you have to tell the readers what's going on. The trick is the make sure you've got at least one other character there that's in the same boat as the reader. This is why so many action/adventure movies have a 'fish out of water' along for the ride. The mage's apprentice who's only just been hired, the lovely young woman who's accidentally fallen in with the hero. Someone who has no idea of their new environment and needs to have the basic rules explained to them.
We saw a lot of this with Willow and Xander in the first season. But what about when everyone's an old hat at this slaying gig? This is where character knowledge comes in. If it's a new demon, chances are Buffy won't know what it is and she'll have to ask Giles or Wes, who will know. Boom, exposition. Or, if you're doing a crossover, remember that the Scoobies and the AI gang have grown apart to a certain extent. Remember, no one told Fred about Buffy until Willow came to tell Angel she died. No one called up Cordy with the news of Willow's new sexuality. No one in AI thought to call and warn Sunnydale about Angelus coming out again in S4. Expositions on returning demons can be played out without too much repetition for the characters as not everyone knows all the Scoobies/AI history.
The history of a new character is the one that trips up most new writers. Especially in fanfic. Again, less is more. Think about all the new characters we've seen introduced on Buffy and Angel over the years. Now try and answer these: What's Faith's last name? Does Wes have any brothers or sisters? What's Giles' favorite color? How old is Gunn? Are Gwen's parents still alive?
Tough, isn't it? Why don't we know these things? Because they were never relevant to the stories being told. So, how do you know how much to tell about a new character. Well, write down his or her history, everything you know about this character. Now, with your plot in mind, cut out everything that doesn't apply. Like, playing the tuba won't help stake Lothos.
Now, once that's done, cut out anything that can be shown, rather than told. Like, Giles could have gotten a letter from the Council warning about Faith's lax morals, that she's capable of cutting classes, stealing, and sleeping around. But would it have made as big of an impression as seeing Faith talk Buffy into ditching a test, or seeing Faith walk into the weapons store and just start taking weapons, or even sleeping with Xander and then kicking him out five minutes after the sex?
Anything left about your character can be used for exposition. Just remember, less is more.
The back history of an object is something we see on Buffy and Angel all the time. I'm also including demons in this category. Like with show back history, you need at least one person who has no idea what this thing is. There's a bit more leeway in terms of what you can tell, but again, showing is best.
You can have a demon pop up and kill something in a unique way, or in a specific way. Buffy or someone else tells what happened, and we get bits of exposition as they check out features, killing methods, etc. Depending on where the information comes from, it's either dry text or an informant's more colorful interpretation.
The best way to get a handle of exposition on a demon/object is to re-watch older episodes of Buffy or Angel. The research scenes especially.
Exposition is a fine line. Too much and readers get bored, too little and readers get confused. How so? The following three examples are an alternate first appearance for Faith:
Too little exposition:
The brunette staked the vampire and chuckled. "Another notch to the belt," she said, heading into the town.
A very big lack of exposition can work in small doses, like the opening paragraph for a fic. As long as you add more information as the story goes on, the above paragraph works fine. But if all we ever learn about this girl is that she stakes lots of vampires and she's a brunette, it's going to confuse the readers and make them wonder why we should care about this girl.
Too much exposition:
Giles looked up as Buffy entered the library. "You're late."
"Sorry," said Buffy. "Mr. Cos just can not seem to accept the fact that I'm doomed to flunk math. What's the big emergency?"
"I just got a letter from the
Council. Kendra's replacement is coming here, and she's rather a
rebellious case. Her name is Faith, and she's crude, over-confident,
apparently bisexual, an impulsive fighter, prone to using army
slang, and highly flirtatious."
Pretend you've never heard of Faith before and re-read the description Giles gives. While it's all pretty close to true, it doesn't really stick to you, does it?
Showing, instead of telling:
Xander glanced up when Buffy elbowed him. "What?"
"See the slimy guy over there?" she asked.
"The one with the amazingly hot chick hanging off him?" Buffy nodded. "I'm assuming we're noticing because he's very anti-crosses?" Buffy nodded again. "And we're going to follow because he's leading her outside for some very dangerous necking?"
Buffy smiled and patted his shoulder. "Very good. You're getting a cookie later."
Xander tugged on Willow's arm so she'd follow. "Oreo?" he asked Buffy hopefully.
Rather than the expected sounds of helpless struggle and screaming Xander was used to, the sounds drifting towards them were of a fight. He exchanged a wary glance with Buffy as she pulled out her stake. They rounded the corner and froze in shock. The hot chick was beating up the vampire.
The hot chick glanced over at them and smiled. "Buffy, right?" she asked Buffy. Buffy nodded.
The vampire grabbed the hot chick from behind and she slammed her head back into his face. "I'm Faith."
Faith darted forward and grabbed Buffy's stake. "Mind if I borrow?" She spun and staked the vampire. Faith turned back to them and smiled easily.
"Are-are you okay?" asked Willow.
Faith's smile turned into a leer as
she looked Willow up and down. "Five by five, Red."
Re-read Giles' description of Faith in the previous example. Doesn't this scene drive those points home more effectively than just listing her qualities? By showing the reader your character's qualities, you draw them in, make them feel. And it helps move the story along. While Faith's fight scene shows the majority of Giles' list of qualities, rather than just having someone sit around and talk, something's happening. There's a fight, a vampire dies, the Scoobies are suddenly having to deal with a new game in town.
If you're really worried that you're doing too much telling and not enough showing, write your fic with as little exposition as possible, and get a beta to read for plot. Ask specifically for he/she to make mention of bits that don't make sense, or plot twists that seem to come out of nowhere. Add more information accordingly, but only enough to answer the questions or points your beta has made. Do this long enough, and you should develop an instinct for exposition.