Simply put, "exposition" is an explanation of an idea. In writing terms, exposition is anything that gives details or background information about characters and events that have happened or are happening. Figuring out the right balance of exposition in a story is difficult but is a crucial part of developing as a writer and can separate the experienced writers from the inexperienced.
In fantasy writing especially, I think writers feel the need to explain their world as much as possible, and as early as possible. But, too much explanation, or exposition, about the world can take away from the reader's ability to truly become immersed in and experience the world the writer has created in their own way.
If a writer goes into too much detail and over-explains elements of their story, they risk doing too much telling and not enough showing. "Show don't tell" was one of the first things I was told to do in every one of my creative writing classes. A quote by Anton Chekhov says it best: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass."
It's easy to think that as a writer, you need to tell your audience everything you know, but it often is not necessary to tell your reader everything, and especially not all at once. It is important for you as the writer to decide what information is necessary for your reader to know and then determine how best to provide that information.
If you're a writer, trust in your storytelling.
Oftentimes, the long paragraphs of exposition can be told in different ways that help move the story forward instead of putting it on pause or keeping it from actually starting. I wrote a novel in high school that had three prologues. Three! Years later, when I decided to begin the revision process, I cut them all out. I decided they did nothing for the story and could easily be explained later in the novel through dialogue or a flashback or something of that nature that could help with character development.
A history lesson in the first chapter of a novel is a lot less compelling than a character getting into a debate with someone about what really happened all those years ago, or a character crying as they recount the death of a loved one. Suck your reader into your world by showing it to them. Walk them through the streets of a city through the eyes of a character. Let them hear conversations, lighthearted or judgmental, to show how the people interact with each other. Have a character exhibit a behavior instead of telling your reader what kind of person they are. Give your reader the crucial bits of information you deem absolutely necessary, but also give them the opportunity to interpret what they see. Allow them to explore and experience the world and characters you created.
In Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel by James Scott Bell, the key points regarding exposition he lists are: "(1) Exposition is information the reader needs. It will slow your story down if not handled well. (2) Always cut what isn't necessary. (3) Drop exposition in a little at a time. (4) 'Hide' exposition within dialogue."
Bell's points are an excellent summary. Exposition is necessary, but think critically about what information is truly imperative to provide and how it is included in your story. Let your creativity flow; write a story filled with complex characters and vivid scenery, not a history filled with biographies and country origins.
Image by Jonny Lindner.