When you’re writing a novel in first person, how do you write exposition without it sounding weird and unnatural?
Vicky posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How do you write exposition from the first person without it sounding daft – unlikely the character would be thinking about how things work, she’d just know. I’m writing a fantasy, so some explainations are necessary – or aren’t they? Many thanks for your help.
Randy sez: Writing exposition in a novel always feels a little unnatural, because it breaks the reader out of the story. When you’re writing in third person, it may feel a little more normal. But it’s not that hard to do it well in first person.
There are a few principles that should keep you from the dangers of daftness.
1) Minimize the amount of exposition. When you think you need to explain something, ask yourself if the reader absolutely must have this explanation in order to understand the story. If so, then what’s the least you can get away with explaining?
Authors often worry about this much more than readers do. The reader usually doesn’t care, unless the story just plain stops making sense. Then a little exposition will go a long way.
2) Put the exposition in dialogue, if you can do that in a natural way. You can do this if one character knows something and another character doesn’t. If they both know it, then it doesn’t work.
Whenever you see the phrase, “As you know…”, consider that a red flag.
Your readers are going to mock you if you write something like this: “Rapunzel, as you know, the two of us are twins and inherited a billion dollars from Great Aunt Daphne, who died last year at the age of 92, leaving us as the heirs and cutting Cousin Wilhelmina completely out of the will, which is the reason she’s been chasing us across Europe with a machine gun and a Dachshund, which is massively interfering with you completing your Ph.D. in philosophy and is keeping me from marrying my fiancee of seven years, Gretchen, who lives in Topeka.”
Dialogue should generally have conflict. If you’re going to use exposition in dialogue, consider making one character unwilling to give up the information, and make the other character have to work hard to get the info she needs.
3) If you really need to use exposition, then just do it. Suzanne Collins broke into a few paragraphs of exposition several times in The Hunger Games. Her character Katniss gave a two-paragraph first-person explanation of how the tracker jacker wasps were created by the Capitol. This came right at the point where Katniss discovered a nest of them and found a way to use them as a weapon. Here’s what she wrote:
Fear shoots through me, but I have enough sense to keep still. After all, I don’t know what kind of wasp lives there. It could be the ordinary leave-us-alone-and-we’ll-leave-you-alone type. But these are the Hunger Games, and ordinary isn’t the norm. More likely they will be one of the Capitol’s muttations, tracker jackers. Like the jabberjays, these killer wasps were spawned in a lab and strategically placed, like land mines, around the districts during the war. Larger than regular wasps, they have a distinctive solid gold body and a sting that raises a lump the size of a plum on contact. Most people can’t tolerate more than a few stings. Some die at once. If you live, the hallucinations brought on by the venom have actually driven people to madness. And there’s another thing, these wasps will hunt down anyone who disturbs their nest and attempt to kill them. That’s where the tracker part of the name comes from.
After the war, the Capitol destroyed all the nests surrounding their city, but the ones near the districts were left untouched. Another reminder of our weakness, I suppose, just like the Hunger Games. Another reason to keep inside the fence of District 12. When Gale and I come across a tracker jacker nest, we immediately head in the opposite direction.
Collins needed to explain just how lethal tracker jackers could be. So she did. It worked. The above segment comes right near the beginning of chapter 14. It’s very smooth and clean — just enough info. Notice that it’s not done as if it were interior monologue. Katniss is stepping out of the story to explain it to you, personally, in a conversational voice. Then she steps back into the story and it resumes.
4) When you’re writing your first draft, just write the exposition and don’t worry too much about whether it works smoothly. Best to just get it down on paper. Later when you come back to edit, ask yourself how much of it you can throw away without confusing the reader. Get it right in the second draft, not the first.
More Resources for Writing First Person
Should Your Novel Be In First Person? What are your options and how do you choose between them?
Some Special Problems in Writing First Person How do you show what’s going on inside the other characters’ heads?
Perfecting That Pesky Point of View What if you want to write your novel partly in first person and partly in third person?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Tami Meyers says
In first person, since the protagonist is the story teller, it seems less daffy to have them take a moment to explain something the reader may not know. I think it’s more natural than when a disembodied third person butts in to explain things.
Ginny Jaques says
Two of my all-time favorite writers have given me their stories in the words of their protagonists and I love it. They are both delightfully unique, witty characters, in a droll sort of way, so it works really well to let them speak in their own voices. I suspect both actually speak in the voice of their authors, but you don’t remember than when you’re going through their antics with them. Explanations, when they’re necessary, are fun, because of the personality that comes out in the telling.
Who are the authors? Who are the characters? 1) Didius Falco, created by Lindsay Davis, and Bartholomew Bandy (Canadian) created by Donald Jack. Highly recommend these series. Falco, 10 or 12 books, Bartholomew, 3 good ones, then some follow ups that aren’t so good. Google if you dare! You’ll be addicted with the first book.
Jessica Flory says
I LOVE first person! And I love this post 🙂 First person is awesome because you can have big chunks of infodumps – provided they’re not too big – and, if your character’s got a great voice, it will still be interesting.
Rob Britt says
I think this sort of thing has to happen more often in fantasy and sci-fi alternate reality sort of books. “Normal Information” is easier to fit in one sentence at a time – example. “Charlie bolted up at the sound of his alarm clock and looked out into the gritty alley outside his two-bit room in the flop house in 1920’s Greenwich Village.” invokes a certain feel, but you can’t do a single sentence to describe an alien environment and societal norms that are foreign as easily.
wow that was a long sentence.. I want to revisit “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov. He and Robert Heinlein were able to do exposition well while maintaining the readers interest.
Thanks for this article. really helped me in my understanding
Jackie G Mills says
I love reading and writing in 1st person. I love the suspense of only knowing what one person knows and experiencing things they way he/she does. I love to use it in writing as I can put lots of detail and information in without someone shouting SHOW DON’T TELL! My novel PERIL is written in 1st person and I’m currently attempting one in 3rd person – I’m not finding the latter as exciting and might actually change it. Want to vary my writing a bit though.
Mark Thompson says
I allow that the person needs to know it so I have the narrator tell them straight out, as soon as possible. I find using a conversational style in telling a story works. I don’t mean dialogue, but as if I am speaking to a group of friends. Conversation allows, well requires, varying degrees of intentionality and the mixing of tenses as a story is told. It is a very natural way of speaking and can be converted, (e.g. removing hand gestures and facial expressions) into a clean writing style.