If youre confused about the difference
between narrative and exposition, dont worry. Most
writers use the terms synonymously. Both are
portions of the work/scene that are engaging but non-active.
The author's telling versus showing.
For a clear picture on the difference in narrative and
exposition, we have to go back to Aristotle. When
he was talking about his "beginning, middle, and
end," he also said that exposition has no profluence.
Narrative, according to THE ART OF FICTION's John
Gardner, does have "some profluence of development."
So if we take stock in what Aristotle and Gardner have to
say and translate it to normal writer talk, then we'd say:
information the reader needs to know but it
doesn't contribute to the forward momentum of
moving the story along.
information the reader needs to know (for what is
happening at the time to make sense to the reader)
and does contribute to the forward momentum of
moving the story along to some degree.
Frankly, in my humble opinion, it's hair-splitting.
Narrative and exposition (in contrast to scenes
with action and dialogue) are essentially stagnant blocks
of information inserted into scenes. These blocks
create psychic distance between the reader and character;
remind readers they're reading. Sometimes you, the
writer, want that and sometimes you don't.
Regardless, no matter how engaging and well
written, narrative and/or exposition won't hold a
reader's attention for long. Why?
Because while the author is telling the
reader what's going on, nothing is actively happening or
going on in the story. The reader isn't experiencing the
action. So regardless of which it is in our
work, exposition or narrative, we want to be certain it's
balanced and it doesn't drag down the novel's pacingand
our novel with it.
Below is an excerpt from an article/post/lecture (I don't
recall which now) I did at some time on Effective
Narrative. (Regardless, the entire article is in
the Writers Aids Library.) I hope this excerpt will
eliminate any confusion.
Excerpt from Effective Narrative Article:
When is narrative effective?
is effective . . .
when the writer wants to convey
necessary information to the reader quickly and
efficiently. There are times when
expository or background information is essential
for the reader to grasp the severity of an event,
or to understand the significance of something
currently occurring in the story. When this
situation arises, narrative can be the best means
of effectively conveying that information in a
minimum of space, thereby negating a long
disruption in the forward momentum of the plot.
Narrative often does stop this forward
momentum, and it reminds the reader that theyre
reading. Too many disruptions, or halting
this momentum for too long, and the reader grows
dissatisfied and antsy to get back to the story
event where the reader is immersed in "real
time" happenings. So give the reader
essential back-ground quickly, and then get back
to the active story event.
when the writer wants to create
emotional and/or psychic distance between the
reader and the point of view character. Generally
speaking, the writer is tasked with creating and
maintaining the fictional dream in such a manner
that the reader is totally immersed in the story
and an active participant. Yet sometimes
disclosing information or events is necessary for
the reader to understand character conflict and/or
motivation that the writer does not want the
reader to experience firsthand. For
example, if you are writing a romance novel, and
your heroine is a former rape victim, its
likely that you dont want the reader to
experience that rape with the heroine. Yet
the rape is instrumental to your heroines
inner conflict, and its resulting emotional
devastation impacts her motivation for specific
novel actions. The reader needs to know she was
raped or her conflict and motivation lack
conviction and the power to be convincing.
Because this is a romance novel, and in a
romance novel the focus is on the development of
the emotional relationship between the hero and
heroine, you want to convey the rape as
background information. Narrative is an
effective means. It allows you to convey
the event and yet maintain psychic distance
between the event and the reader.
when the writer wants to smoothly
transition, moving the characters/reader from one
time or place to another. The
individual segments of a novel--scenes and
chapters--lead the reader from page to page
through the book, from beginning to end. At
times, the writer skips ahead in time, or flashes
back to previous times. The writer also
takes the reader from one setting to another.
The most common means of accomplishing
these changes is by incorporating transitions.
A transition is simply a bridge that fills
the gap between Point A and Point B. It helps the
writer to think of theses transitions as bridges.
The longer the span, the weaker the bridge.
So make transitions as short as possible. Some
writers use an object to do this.
For example. Two characters are talking on the
phone. The first is the point of view character.
When the call begins or ends, the point of
view changes from one character to another with just a
Another means of transition is to setup for the
transition in the last sentence of the work that precedes
For example, chapter one ends with a character saying or
thinking that they must talk to another character.
Or they must get to another place. Then,
chapter two opens with the two characters talking or at
the other place.
Again, this transition is short, to the point, and it
leads the reader from point A to point B unobtrusively.
when the writer wants to cue the
reader that something other than what is being
said or shown is meant. Frequently
characters say one thing when they mean something
else, or the characters perception of
something is different from the facts. In
these situations, narrative can be extremely
effective at clueing the reader in to the actual
intent versus the surface motivator or perception
of the event. The writer can, through narrative,
offer the reader a different perspective than is
actively depicted by the characters. This
perspective and depiction can be reliable or
unreliable, which can create depth and add
texture to the novel.
when the writer establishes
setting, tone, and emotional impact. Narrative
is vital in conveying conflict-- both internal
and external--and in keeping the forward momentum
of the plot strong. It is also essential to
creating and maintaining the fictional dream,
meaning that the details the writer selects to
anchor the reader onto the scene, also assists in
conveying tone and the emotional impact scenes
will have on the reader. For example, if a man
has just lost his wife, and hes mourning,
he isnt apt to notice bright, sunny, or
airy objects. Hes far more apt to
notice those aligning with his current emotional
mood that is naturally oppressed, depressed,
dark, and gloomy. In utilizing details of
setting that convey those emotions, the
writer sets the appropriate tone, and the
emotional mood of the character is conveyed.
Large chunks of narrative are hard to
swallow. If strictly
informational, large chunks of narrative create sludge
that the reader must wade through while waiting for
something interesting and active to happen in the story.
Feed in narrative and details a little at the time.
Intersperse a sentence or two--at most, a paragraph
or two--in an active event. Then, by the time the
reader registers that the forward momentum of the story
has stopped, it has started again.
should reveal something new and necessary that the reader
must know for what is currently happening in the story to
make sense, or to foreshadow a coming major event. Like dialogue, and
everything else in a novel, narrative must serve a
purpose. The more purposes it serves, the stronger
it is and the more effective it becomes. If the
narrative doesnt reveal something new or a
different perspective of something already conveyed to
the reader, if it isnt essential to the reader for
events to make sense, or if it doesnt foreshadow a
major coming event, then delete it. Its
wasted space that will bog the reader down. Bog the
reader down too often, and the reader puts down the book.
Offer too many opportunities to put the book down, and
the reader doesnt pick it back up. ·
should never be stagnant. Use your writing skills
to make it entertaining and compelling. While
narrative does often stop the forward momentum of the
plot, it should never be stagnate. Use vivid
imagery and sharp verbs to make it compelling. Vary
your sentence lengths. If the overall emotional
tone is tense, then use short, terse sentences. The
reader reads faster, thus picks up on the sense of
Narrative can be strong and compelling, informative and
entertaining--and it will be, if written effectively.
© Copyright Vicki Hinze 2003. All Rights
Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling
author who routinely shares her expertise at national
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