Future Exposition, Now

How can you add world-building without presenting it to the reader in one enormous expository lump? How can a character describe the world around them without it feeling contrived?


Short story writers take great pains to avoid narrating directly to the reader, preferring to show their world to the reader rather than tell them about it. This bias toward showing over telling is accepted wisdom, so it’s no surprise that there are endless techniques for hiding exposition.

One technique currently in vogue combines exposition with prolepsis. This holds the benefit of segmenting the description away from the main narrative using the natural barriers of the flash forward.

Dominica Phetteplace applies this technique in her short story “Her Appetite, His Heart,” wherein her point-of-view character, Javi, imagines retelling current events to another character named Isla.

The instructions were to walk along the golden mean segment that connected two vertices of the pentagon. Javi had been told you had to be naked in order to see it. While he didn’t believe this, he didn’t want to disrespect the customs of those who did, so he walked there wearing boots and socks and nothing else. Isla should be with him now, sharing his kombucha. It was raspberry, her favorite flavor. He found himself narrating the event in his head in anticipation of telling it to Isla the next time he saw her: There were other people on the same path. Some had binoculars. I wished I had also brought binoculars. A crowd gathered. That’s how I knew the deer had been spotted.

The phrase “telling it to Isla the next time he saw her” introduces the exposition. We get a description of the world around the main character through his eyes. It’s clear what’s happening, and it doesn’t feel like Phetteplace is interjecting herself into the story. The main character shoulders the expository burden himself.

Notice how smooth the transition is; he talks about Isla in the sentence before (“Isla should be with him now”) so she is fresh in your mind. The italics play the crucial role of signaling the end to this prolepsis interlude.

Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
 The Elements of Style - William Strunk Jr.

This is not a one-off. Phetteplace employs the prolepsis exposition throughout the rest of the short story. It forms a sub-structure for the composition.

In the dark, he felt he had escaped his own body. He imagined telling Isla how he died when he met her in the next life. I walked into wasps in order to find you.
He would tell her how the little wasps dissolved his clothes and his pack and the water he had brought with him spilled on the barren ground, but still he walked towards her. Then the medium-sized wasps began to land on him, and they didn’t quite sting, it was more like an embrace that covered him. The wasps began to spread out their mechanical bodies until they covered every inch of him, even his eyes and his mouth, and he could not breathe and they tightened their embrace. It did not hurt and he felt like he was flying and that it might have been a good way to die if not for all the fear.

She keeps things fresh this time by italicizing only the first sentence, then switching to plain narration.

Phetteplace’s skill shines through on the third repetition. The technique becomes even more organic when the transition gives us a peek into how this prolepsis affects the main character’s mental state:

He put his hand over his heart, the place where the priest’s word used to rest. Where did nonattachment fit into all this?
He found it easier to keep his balance as he walked through the herd if he kept his eyes closed. And he found it easier to keep going if he imagined telling her about it later.
Isla, I was so scared and I just kept walking. It was the only thing I knew how to do.
Gradually, the texture of the ground beneath his bare feet began to change. It became coarser and cooler and even a little moist. Javi hoped for some kind of shore, but didn’t believe it until cool water began to lap at his toes. He kept walking forward and didn’t open his eyes until he was waist deep. He was in a lake.

The repetition of the technique builds a pleasant context for the reader. But the technique has to evolve to keep their interest.