First of all, exposition basically means a literary device intended to describe a character’s background, or “our story so far”. It can be done elegantly, with flashbacks or dialogue or even a character finding something or other. It can be clunky, like when characters say, “As you know, …” and then proceed to clue in the reader but then tell the other characters everything they should, logically, already know. For example, one doctor telling another one how chemotherapy works would denote really clunky exposition.
Clunkiness was rather memorably skewered by the Basil Exposition character in Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. However, you and I don’t want that to happen with our works.So we’ve got to try to be a lot more eloquent. Hence we’ve got to figure out how to clue in our readers in a more natural fashion. So consider your setting.
What do I mean by this? Your story’s circumstances and your characters’ specifics might be places to sneak in some background. Are they spies? Spies get briefings. Are they museum goers? Museums have docents (specialized guides) and tours, and they also have guidebooks and even identification for paintings or artifacts. Hikers use trails. Motorists use maps (or GPS, if the time period is right).
There is nothing wrong with a character reading a street sign, either out loud or to themselves.
Here Now the News
Love or hate it, but a character reading a newspaper or listening to radio news or watching it on television can provide a level of exposition to your story which can be seamless and even elegant.
When your chapter title is Sunday, August 6, 2017, 11 AM, San Francisco Chinatown, you get across a ton of information in a very short space. And you do so without interrupting the flow of the story unnecessarily.
Character Names and Occupations
These are more subtle, but if your characters have names like Maria, Vito, Anna, Guido, and Antonio, your reader will think Italy or at least an Italian family. If your characters have occupations such as blacksmith, miller, alchemist, and barber surgeon, your reader will think of medieval times.
The New Guy
There is a damned fine reason why a lot of television pilots involve someone coming to a new city or starting a new job. This is because explaining the story and the plot and characters to the new kid in town is perfectly natural. “Excuse me, but where’s the spaceship parking bay?” “Oh, it’s next to the mess hall. I’m Dave; I do the regular run to Venus every Thursday.” It’s natural, it flows, and it doesn’t bog down the story.
Yet another method is to weave the exposition into the story or the dialog. “You have great eyes. I love that color blue.” “My mom always said they looked like the ocean. But I grew up in Kansas and I confess I didn’t see the ocean until I was thirty.” Or “You look like hell,” she said, noticing the wound on his arm. “Oh, you should see the other guy.” Get it?
Exposition is truly vital in writing but you need to get it across without a dump of information. Read back your exposition. If it reads like a text book, or it goes on for too long, see about changing it but also about breaking it up. A bit of exposition here and there, even if it’s the same amount as in your big info dump, will stick out a lot less.