Robert McKee gives a very succinct definition of exposition in his invaluable book Story:
Exposition means facts – the information about setting, biography and characterization that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.
So by this yardstick, exposition is essential – without it, a book simply does not make sense. But it seems that exposition has become the unwanted stepchild of novel writing, the thing we must ration at all costs lest our audience get bored and demand another action sequence. Yet, when watching Harry Potter and the Collection of Meaningful Stares 7.2 last night, I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t the elaborate scenes of magical carnage that really impressed me, it was a 4 minute sequence of emotionally-devastating flashback. Here was a scene that should have been in the way of the forward momentum of the story, yet it managed to encapsulate the underlying sadness and stoicism of the whole series. Suddenly, Harry Potter felt very grown up.
Withholding information like this is definitely a powerful tool – ironically, the problem I’m having right now is that perhaps I’ve been withholding too much and have now got to explain it all! I’ve been emphatically putting this together as a standalone novel, so all the loose ends do need to be tied up – perhaps I can see the appeal of writing a trilogy now...
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with exposition and I think writers are conditioned to dislike it. Do audiences really notice the endless expositional dialogue in modern blockbuster movies? Perhaps they feel like they’re simply being told the story and that's ok? Certainly the meteoric success of Doctor Who and The Da Vinci Code suggests that people are pretty comfortable with a character popping up and spewing out a load of information to move the plot forward.
One of the reasons I decided to have a main character with amnesia in Zomboy was that it freed me from the burden of backstory in the opening chapters. Not for me a massive info-dump in the middle of page two – my first-person character had to discover the rules of his world at exactly the same time as the reader. Of course, I did have to explain things eventually, but as a writer that uncertainty was empowering because I wanted find out what was happening as much as the character (and ultimately the reader). I don’t think you should underestimate the power of discovery in a novel and that’s one of the reasons why planning too comprehensively can be detrimental. Sometimes, you just have to take that journey with the character and see where it leads you.
Ok, I’m rambling now. My protagonist’s journey is almost at an end and all that remains is to tell him what he doesn’t know and let him make his climactic decision on that basis. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was someone to do that in real life? I may have to look into it…