Narrative vs. Exposition
Whether writers are in early stages of developing their craft, or are perfecting prose they have practiced for years, understanding the subtle but important difference between narrative and exposition gives writers control in the voice and pacing of their stories.
And while these devices are often confused and used interchangeably, the writer’s clarity can begin by evaluating that set phrase most writers know: show, don’t tell. But should we always show? Should we never tell our reader anything?
A close evaluation of most contemporary literature will reveal this advice is partly true, while the other part depends on a careful balance of when to show, when to tell and how to do it. We show when we use exposition. We tell when we use narrative, and how we use each of these can shape the work in various ways to fit our genres.
Narrative tells what is happening. The writer gives the reader important facts, usually about character, and in telling these important facts, the writer slows the pace of the story.
The reader will gain footing in the story and be ready for that next scene, usually one of action.
An example of narrative looks like this:
The writer sat at his desk, hands poised above the keyboard, the clock ticking in the next room.
We see this writer. We see his hands. We hear the clock. We, the reader, know the facts.
But unlike narrative, exposition builds and moves the story through description of the scene.
Exposition shows what is happening. The writer reveals to the reader what the character is thinking and feeling through description, which brings the reader deeper into the text and helps them connect with character.
Exposition is what creates the forward movement and rising action of a story. The sentences have depth and meaning in a way that a narrative sentence does not.
An example of exposition looks like this:
The writer sat at his desk after pacing the room for an hour. The ticking clock echoed off the silence, each second mocking the words he had yet to write. With his hands poised above his keyboard, he took a breath and began to type.
We see this writer, but we also know this writer. Maybe we are this writer. The anxiety and tension of this character exists in the description. We, the reader, know the character.
And that’s the difference. The pace of the first example is slow, showing little. The second example moves and reveals character. Beyond the pacing, the writer can then use exposition to reveal voice with specific and appropriate word choices and the intentional structuring of sentences.
Is narrative still important?
It is not as flashy, nor does it carry the same weight of description. But the writer needs to use narrative to give those facts and offer the reader the footing I mentioned earlier.
In fact, the genre of Narrative Non-fiction has gained much popularity and is a source of many powerful true stories written in the form of a novel, revealing the most important facts of character, setting and plot. For more reading on what Narrative Nonfiction looks like as a genre, read Kristina Stanley’s article found here.
We promise our readers a story, and we promise we will take care of them with every page they turn. So, we tell our readers the facts they need, using narrative to guide them through that story. We show them our story through character and description, allowing the reader to move one step at a time until they reach a satisfying end.
Article Written by Heather Wood
By combining my experience of teaching writing at the secondary level with a Fictionary StoryCoach Edit, I will help you strengthen your story while honoring the care and effort you have dedicated to your art.
Heather Wood is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor and Content Creator for the Fictionary blog.
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