Blog The Writing Process What's the Difference Between Narrative and Exposition?

What's the Difference Between Narrative and Exposition?

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The ProWritingAid Team

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Published Sep 14, 2016

What's the difference between narrative and exposition?

Sometimes, narrative and exposition are used synonymously to explain parts of a novel that “narrate” pieces of information for the reader. They are, in fact, different devices used to give the reader information. Used appropriately, narrative and exposition affect the pacing of your story.

  1. What is Narrative?
  2. What is Exposition?
  3. When to Use Them
  4. Final Thoughts

What is Narrative?

Narrative is the way you, as the writer, give your readers information that’s non-essential or non-active. It’s a way to inform your reader without really moving the story forward.

Some stories begin with a bit of narrative. Take, for example, Dean Koontz’s One Door Away From Heaven. It begins with this paragraph:

  • The world is full of broken people. Splints, casts, miracle drugs, and time can’t mend fractured hearts, wounded minds, torn spirits.

Narrative tells you something, perhaps a character revelation, but it merely tells. It doesn’t describe. That’s the work of exposition.

What is Exposition?

This is where you give important information that will give your reader better insight and help to move your story forward. Think of exposition as “showing” your reader something important.

Using Koontz’s same novel from before, consider the following exposition:

  • Face to the sun, eyes closed, striving to empty her mind of all thought, yet troubled by insistent memories, Micky had been cooking for half an hour when a small sweet voice asked, “Are you suicidal?”

Unlike narrative that tells you something, exposition shows your reader using description to inform and move the story forward.

When to Use Them

All of your writing should be a balance between narrative, exposition, and dialogue. Narrative lets you set the scene and give background information. It slows the pace. Here’s a spot of narrative from Koontz’s novel that breaks the tension in a dialogue between two characters:

  • She hadn’t cried since childhood. She’d thought that she was beyond tears, too tough for self-pity and too hardened to be moved by the plight of anyone else.

He follows it brilliantly with some exposition that gives you insight into the two characters in this scene:

  • Geneva, who knew her niece’s stoic nature, nevertheless didn’t seem surprised by the tears. She didn’t comment on them, because she surely knew that consolation wouldn’t be welcome.

You learn a lot about each character from those few choice words set in between the dialogue between the two.

Final Thoughts

Most scenes in your story will be made up of all three elements: narrative, exposition, and dialogue.

Use just enough narrative to give your reader a breather between action-packed scenes or dialogue. Use exposition to show your reader in a descriptive way. So narrative is telling, exposition is showing. Interspersed with dialogue, you’ll achieve just the right balance with narrative and exposition to compel and interest your readers.

If you enjoyed this post, check out The Writing Process Blog or these articles from our archive:

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The ProWritingAid Team

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A narrative is storytelling. This can be accomplished moment by moment (showing) or in summary (telling). We can experience the first. Exposition is backstory. It allows us the necessary understanding of characters, setting, and mood to experience a story. In fact, summary is exposition in a way. It accomplishes the same thing. It allows us to reset and be prepared to experience moment by moment narrative again. As for dialogue, it really is just a specialized form of action (talk, say, speak, etc.). I think our primary area of disagreement is your definition of narrative. A narrative is a story. You can tell a story. You can show a story (not just as a movie). You see a lot of folks writing about showing and telling, etc. However, some of them have missed the point entirely. Telling is equally as important as showing.
I confused by the statement above, "Narrative is the way you, as the writer, give your readers information that’s non-essential or non-active." I thought this is exposition. Museful's comment below speaks to this as well.
Yes, I was totally confused by this. I thought exposition was information/backstory, and narrative was the actual scene which moves plot forward. ? No?

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