Updated: May 29
Regardless of whether you're a beginner or advanced writer, one of the most essential skills to have is an understanding of the differences between SCENE and EXPOSITION in your storytelling: understanding exactly when to share what information with the reader, and exactly how you should go about doing so.
In this Writer's Workshop, let's begin by considering the following two passages:
"A roomful of people were playing League of Legends on computers."
"Fingers clicked against keyboards and hot computers whirred their fans, filling the net café with a sound like a light summer’s rain. Mystical heroes and mythical beasts fought on the screen of every computer as men and women talked over strategy on their League of Legends teams."
The first passage is what's known as "exposition" and the second is what's known as "scene." Although both passages describe the same event, they each have a vastly different feel and provide different sorts of information to a reader. In the most essential of terms, understanding the difference between Scene and Exposition is about understanding the difference between Showing and Telling, and when and how to best use both at just the right moment within a story.
Exposition typically has a more journalistic and impartial feel and focuses on communicating facts quickly and with as little ambiguity as possible, similar to a summary. Exposition is what can be used to quickly share information with a reader, and is most often found in report-styled writing where the key purpose is to inform after an event has taken place. Exposition is closely related to another word writers often hear, "telling." Passages of exposition result in a reader having a logical understanding of what's taken place, and can also be a great device to establish recurring events. Typically news reports are told in exposition.
Below are a few more short examples of exposition. Note how much information there is in each example even though you might not quite be able to picture the exact details of what might've happened:
Eugene walked to work at 8:00 a.m. and went home at 5:00 p.m.
The Peach Creek Cobblers lost against the Lemon Brook Lumpers 0-62 on Friday night.
Julie and her Nana baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies..
Scene typically is what's more familiar to writers in terms of how it relates to another key word writers frequently hear about: "showing." Scene is depicted with a mix of sensory details (such as sight, touch, sound, taste, smell), description, dialogue, actions that take place, and setting. Scene puts your reader in the action during the moment it occurs and is a unique one-time event, like if your reader were watching something happen live in front of them. For an example, let's take the passage of exposition "Julie and her Nana baked a batch of chocolate-chip cookies" and start writing a unique scene:
The kitchen smelled like a sticky sweet mix of sugar and melted butter. Julie screamed in delight when the 5-pound package of chocolate chips finally popped open in her hands. The bittersweet gems left trails in the white flour dusting the countertop as they skittered past and cascaded over the edge like water over Niagara Falls. "Sorry Nana," Julie apologized to her grandmother as the two of them began gathering up the chocolate morsels. The chocolate quickly melted in Julie's 11-year-old hands and left gooey brown marks on her fingers. "This is the best part, just for us bakers," Nana said with a smile as chocolate seeped into the wrinkles on her 70-year-old hands. "Taste testing!" Julie finished her grandmother's sentence. Julie and Nana both laughed and licked the melted chocolate from their fingers...
Tips and Tricks on Using Scene and Exposition:
Some cool things writers can do with Scene and Exposition is manipulate a reader's sense of time and use it to speed up or slow down a story. For example, you might not want to write a full scene every time a character does something simple and everyday like getting dressed, or else your writing will probably get put down by your reader before you even get to the real story. If it's a normal day some simple exposition "Fred got dressed and headed off to work" is a good and quick way to depict a costume change before heading off to the real action. But, on an important day (like before a big presentation) Fred might break the usual mold and think more about what he's going to wear. This would be an excellent opportunity to write out something normally done in exposition as a scene to show more of what Fred's going through on this particular day as he heads in to work. A scene pays close attention to detail in a way that makes this difference obvious for your reader and lets them know that something special is (or is about to be) happening:
Bypassing his usual khakis and polo, Fred pressed onward and to the back of his closet to where his old friend waited to join him in battle. The slate gray suit hung like knight's armor on the wire hanger....
While exposition lets your reader know the basics of what happens, scene gives a reader additional information about how something happens that can be used to express elements of mood, theme, tone, or otherwise create a unique experience for a reader out of even the most everyday of activities. Play around with scene and exposition next time you feel stuck in your writing!
Let's Get Writing!
Scene and Exposition Challenge
Using the photo below for inspiration, write a passage of scene or exposition. Let's see how many different ways there are to describe the same event!
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Thanks so much for reading, and as always,