If you’re confused about the difference between narrative and exposition, don’t 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:
Exposition is information the reader needs to know but it doesn’t contribute to the forward momentum of moving the story along.
Narrative is 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 pacing–and our novel with it.
Below is an excerpt from an article/post/lecture (I don’t recall which now) I did at one 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?
Narrative 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 they’re 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, it’s likely that you don’t want the reader to experience that rape with the heroine. Yet the rape is instrumental to your heroine’s 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 few words.
Another means of transition is to setup for the transition in the last sentence of the work that precedes the change.
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 character’s 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 he’s mourning, he isn’t apt to notice bright, sunny, or airy objects. He’s 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 a 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.
Narrative 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 doesn’t reveal something new or a different perspective of something already conveyed to the reader, if it isn’t essential to the reader for events to make sense, or if it doesn’t foreshadow a major coming event, then delete it. It’s 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 doesn’t pick it back up.
Narrative 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 urgency.
Narrative can be strong and compelling, informative and entertaining–and it will be, if written effectively.❦