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“Showing” through Exposition: A Study

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

When writing teachers say “show, don’t tell,” they typically suggest doing so through dialogue, action, and sense imagery. Exposition, on the other hand—the writing that contextualizes the more active aspects of scene, and is often thought of as mere connective tissue—is often pointed to as “telling.” After all, its etymology is from the Latin exponere, which means “explain.”

If a reader wanted to be lectured, he’d probably choose nonfiction. Fiction fans love to add things up in their own minds. They rarely want their stories explained.

But exponere can also mean “expose.” When a woman exposes her body to a lover, do you suspect there’ll be a whole lot of explaining going on? [Except in Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, that is, where such “explaining” is used to comic effect. In one scene, Dr. Kellogg, a man experienced with the deflowering of virgins, is speaking to the young supplicant (our POV character) lying naked on his bed. “Forgive me if my hands are cold, Vivian, but I’m going to begin touching you now.” She finally kisses him to make him shut up. Ha!]

Clearly, exposition can either show or tell, or pull off both, which does not make things clear at all for the studious writer.

Take the opening of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, often misremembered as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” By applying his value judgment, the author is telling you about the times.

But the actual first sentence is:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Within the context of the whole, the best of times/worst of times paradox—that on its own had felt like telling—becomes the first of many paradoxes, whose accumulation “shows” that only superlatives can define the period.

But stories have changed since 1859. Who knows if today’s publishers would let a writer like Dickens through their gates? So let’s look at a New York Times Notable Book that was published in 2001: How to be Good by Nick HornbyThe novel starts with the following first-person observation. Is it telling, or showing?

 I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s teacher. The other bit just sort of…slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, I really didn’t think that I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile telephone. That kind of self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly. I can describe myself as the kind of person who doesn’t forget names, for example, because I have remembered names thousands of time and forgotten them only once or twice. But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all. If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.

Check out Hornby’s purposeful use of adverbs—obviously, apparently, clearly. Are they foreshadowing anything about this narrator’s reliability?

I’d make the case that despite the fact that the first-person narrator is speaking directly to the reader, which carries the whiff of telling, this character is actually “showing” us quite a bit. What do you think? I’ll ask again at the end of the post.

If nothing else, the woman is self-referential to the point of obsession. Repeated throughout the story, almost as if a mantra, is a version of these paired sentences, from p. 8: “I’m not a bad person. I’m a doctor.”

She also tells us why she’s a doctor: She liked the way it sounded.

I thought it made me seem just right—professional, kind of brainy, not too flashy, respectable, mature, caring. You think doctors don’t care about how things look, because they’re doctors? Of course we do. Anyway, I’m a good person, a doctor, and I’m lying in a hotel bed with a man I don’t know very well called Stephen, and I’ve just asked my husband for a divorce.

Interesting accumulation of detail here on p. 8, wouldn’t you say? Especially since we don’t learn that our narrator’s name is Katie until page 31. This sets up a deep inner rift between “who she wants to appear to be” and the seemingly less important sense of “who she is.” This inner crisis escalates throughout the novel as she considers whether to stay with her husband.

On one hand, she’s the kind of woman who commits for life. On the other, she is a woman whose desire to break her vow seems justifiable in light of her husband’s persistent anger. But here’s the kicker: she convinces him that she’s right, and he takes action. He finds a spiritual teacher who leads him toward inner peace and inspires his desire to do good works—works that inconvenience Katie and awaken her to her own long-suppressed anger. The question shifts: if she can no longer justify her righteous indignation in the face of her husband’s anger, who is she?

This novel is well worth reading for the way Hornby completely embodies this complex female point of view, and its many laugh-out-loud moments have punchy insights that will linger.

But there’s more than entertainment here for a writer. Stay alert for the ways the author uses exposition to both show and tell.

So what say you, about the first excerpt of Hornby’s exposition? Telling or showing? If showing—what did the character “show” us, besides her desire to talk about herself? Do you ever think of how you can still “show” through exposition?

About Kathryn Craft [1]

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [2] follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.