Exposition is critical as it provides background which the reader needs to appreciate the plot and/or characters. An example:
It was understandable that George would act like that. Dad was army and retired as a general. Not the top—which I think made him bitter. He got to Brigadier General which is a one star general. The top guy is four stars. I think Dad thought he should have risen higher and took it out on us.
He ran our home like boot camp. My mother tried to protect us but Dad really had it out for George—maybe because he was the oldest. George got slapped down for every little thing. One time, it was for breaking a glass. Even though Mom kept saying it was an accident, Dad gave George a clip on the ear that swelled it up for days. So, when George got away from home, he was pretty mad.
Not a horrible paragraph and for exposition of the type I’m talking about, not even all that long.
What’s wrong with exposition?
Absolutely nothing. It is completely necessary but exposition, almost by its nature, slows down the forward action. It is a pause while you tell the reader something she needs to know. But if it goes on too long, readers get restless and/or bored. And they start skipping to more interesting bits which defeats your purpose.
Multiple extensive expositions in your story will make the reader more likely to say something like, “I put it down and just couldn’t get back into it.” Not the only reason for a reader to abandon a book but too many blocks of exposition can be a contributing factor.
Writing exposition without slowing the action
Cut it down to the pertinent facts.
It was understandable that George would act like that. Dad was army and ran our home like boot camp. Dad really had it out for him—maybe because he was the oldest. So, when George got away from home, he was pretty mad.
You might not agree with my particular cuts but the point is to keep the exposition to a minimum. If George’s relationship with his father is really important, you might dramatize the glass-breaking incident in a flashback.
This is not the time to show off all the research you have done into the armed forces. When you use research in a story, keep it to the facts the reader needs to know at that moment in order to understand the situation.
Weave it into the story
Think about showing the effect his father had on George either through flashback or the way he acts in the present. If you do that, the reader will get the relationship without having to spend a lot of time in explaining and/or slowing the action. Breaking up a long explanation into a back-and-forth conversation, especially if it reveals something about the speakers (“But a lot of military families…”), avoids a feeling of stopping the action.
I realize that there may be some hackles raised as you protest, “But the reader needs to know this.” I am not doubting that; I am just encouraging you to both keep it to what she needs right at that moment and consider actually expanding some of the exposition (e.g. Dad was bitter that he didn’t rise higher in the forces) to give a fuller picture rather than cramming it in as an aside on the way to the main point about George.