When I say exposition by character I don’t necessarily mean exposition where one character explains something to another, though this is a perfectly valid technique, but what I mean is character moments. We can reveal a lot about a character through what they say and do, particularly when they interact with other characters.
While we might not consider what our characters are doing part of exposition that can be what makes the use of it so good for exposition. It’s simply a matter of ‘this character is this way because’, it’s as much, if not more so, showing who the character is. If they walk into a scene and immediately sit down without being invited that tells us something about the character and it tells us something different about the character depending on the situation. If the character is meeting with friends and they walk in and immediately sit down it can suggest they’re comfortable and assume an invitation. If they’re meeting with an enemy and walk in and sit down it can suggest fearlessness and perhaps an attempt at domination. This is showing us something about the character, this is information and exposition is information.
By showing the way the character behaves in a situation we have informed the reader, but the reader’s interpretation may not be the same as ours. This may appear problematic if we have a particular interpretation we want the reader to take on board. However, a reader may make their own interpretation, even if we try leading them to one in particular. Readers can often become frustrated when we over explain and don’t leave them room to interpret what is happening. I know I’ve put aside more than a few books that over explained and I know plenty of other people who have too.
Often readers enjoy a story more if instead of saying ‘they were brave’ we show a character being brave. Or instead of saying ‘they were kind’ a character performs an act of kindness. We can even have characters saying ‘I’m not brave’ or ‘I’m not kind’, and then doing brave or kind things. Think of The Wizard of Oz where each of the characters is looking for a trait they think they’re missing but by the end they have each shown they already have that trait and just didn’t know it.
What characters do and say and how they act also informs us about the world they live in without us having to tell the reader about the world. How do the characters dress? How do they have their hair? Do they have tattoos? Do they smoke? If they don’t do something, why not?
If we take tattoos as an example: Does everyone have tattoos, or no-one, or only certain people? Do certain people have certain tattoos? If the tattoos are symbols do the symbols reappear elsewhere? If so where? These are questions we can answer by showing people with these tattoos and the same symbols reappear elsewhere. We may still need some direct exposition to explain these symbols but we will need less if the reader can link these symbols and perhaps think, ‘All these people doing this particular thing seem to have that tattoo and that symbol reappears in this place.’ So they may be able to assume that all these people are linked to this building, possibly through work, or worship, or even a secret society. We can even show characters are connected without saying directly by having this symbol reappear. Having readers already making these associations means we can use less direct exposition to tell them these connections. In some instances, such as conspiracy thrillers, we may even be able to get away with very minimal or no exposition because in this case we might want the reader always speculating and never certain.
As writers it helps with writing exposition to move beyond the mind-set that we’re only using exposition when we tell the reader something directly. Everything that happens in the story tells the reader something and is a form of exposition. This is one of the core principles of showing and telling.