I’m not going to say anything here that is revolutionary or that has not been discussed ad nauseam in other forums. The Internet (more accurately, though, the World Wide Web) heralded a dumbing down of humanity. It catalyzed a change in how we consume information. In the wake of its arrival, we are losing our collective attention spans and want our news, information, and entertainment in “bite-sized” crumbs. We no longer seem to have the patience or tolerance for the digestion of long-form content.
Here, though, I want to discuss, specifically, books and literature. In one of the online groups to which I belong, one dedicated to horror fiction, a frequent refrain is that this or that book has too much exposition. They entreat authors to show don’t tell. While the latter is more or less a recent commandment (circa 20th century) of writing fiction and one to which I fully subscribe, I believe many miss the point of exposition and maybe misunderstand it as not necessarily the symptom of poor writing but a fundamental element in good storytelling. Exposition is description and through description the author paints for the reader the scene (in broad brush strokes, ideally). Yes, there can be too much exposition to the point of tedium, but I get the sense sometimes that contemporary (read: younger) readers want novels that are not much more than glorified screenplays—minimal description with propulsive dialogue. I say, “To each his own.”
However, exposition serves a very important function in literary storytelling, and that might be an important distinction to make in this argument. My preference is literary, for the most part. Yes, there are times when I would like a read that is quick and light. Other times, I want to be completely immersed in the world the author has built and the characters he or she has created. Exposition (description), then, is the magical rabbit hole through which the reader accesses the wonderland of characters’ inner lives—their backstories. Again, there is something to be said for short, quick reads—beach books, as it were—but I believe we can’t arbitrarily dismiss and/or summarily criticize books for having “too much exposition” without qualifying what precisely we mean by the criticism and in what ways we choose to employ that criticism. Without exposition, we would not have a great number of literary classics: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Magic Mountain, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Miserables, and Moby Dick. We would not have such horror classics as Dracula, At the Mountains of Madness, The Other, Ghost Story, The Shining, The Stand, It, Swan Song, The Exorcist, and more.
In general, I want the books I read to be immersive. I want to live with the story, with characters, over time. I’m not interested in a one-night stand, so to speak. With exposition, the writer provides the reader with glimpses into the deeper lives of his or her characters, sets a scene, or provides backstories or summary of events that have taken place “off stage.” When we refrain, “show don’t tell,” we forget or overlook that all writing is characterized by a substantial amount of telling. After all, we are telling a story. I feel the entreaty to “show don’t tell” is more properly leveled against visual storytelling, such as film or television, where characters, through long expository scenes of dialogue tell the viewer what has happened in the story or opens up the interior lives of the characters in awkward and unnatural exchanges, rather than finding novel, visual alternatives to revealing that information.
Again, my complaint is in support of literary works that are arbitrarily dismissed because the author’s use of exposition has made the story tedious for the reader. All stories are built from a certain amount of exposition. I simply hope that great stories are not going unexplored because of their thickness or because we no longer have the patience to live inside a novel that strives to dive deep into its characters, its central mythologies, its mysteries, its settings. Storytelling is painting pictures with words. We shouldn’t fault the author if he or she chooses to paint a Rembrandt rather than a Monet.
In the end, I would caution writers, though, to at least be conscious of striking a delicate and appropriate balance, all the same.