How to Avoid Death by Exposition
All too often, writers try to kill their readers\’ interest by clubbing them over the head with too much exposition. So let\’s explore a few thoughts on exposition.
Exposition is information that is offered to readers to help them understand the plot, characters, or setting in a story. Exposition is telling, not showing, and passive rather than active. It is a narrative summary of events that if not handled carefully, can disrupt the flow of action, bore the reader, and make it sound as if the author is lecturing the reader. Many writers make the mistake of \”dumping\” this information into the story in big chunks, often providing more than is actually needed. If this occurs at the beginning of a story, the mistake is multiplied tenfold as it will generally result in losing the reader’s interest before the real story even gets off the ground.
There are times when exposition is necessary. There are even times when it can be used effectively to strengthen the flow of a story, as when it’s used as a beat to break up a long flow of action or dialogue. The key is to use it piecemeal, doling it out in small chunks and only when absolutely necessary. To involve readers in your story, you need to maintain their interest and pique their curiosity. You do that by revealing just enough details to make a character or situation intriguing without insulting the reader’s intelligence by spelling it out for them. And if you can offer those same revelations through dialogue and action, so much the better.
Think of real life. When we meet a person for the first time, we know nothing about their past, their personalities, or even much of their present day life. Over time, if we continue to be exposed to this person, we will glean these details through the person’s actions, interactions, and conversations. The more puzzling and complex a person seems, the more our interest is piqued. In contrast, when you meet someone who is so fascinated by his own life that he proceeds to tell you every aspect of it in excruciating detail, the impulse is to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. There is a reason people like that are often referred to as bores.
Humans are curious creatures by nature. We have a powerful need to interpret, to understand, to learn. Capitalizing on that basic human need can make a story that much more powerful. Let’s look at an example using a basic romance plot. When boy meets girl and there is a spark of something between them, the most exciting part of the relationship is often its development, the \”getting to know you\” phase. If the relationship develops to the point where these two people know essentially all there is to know about one another, that spark often fades and the relationship loses some of its excitement. That’s not to say there isn’t another different and equally as satisfying need that is met by knowing someone that thoroughly, but that spark of excitement is often gone.
There are some situations, or genres if you will, where many agree that exposition is often more necessary, such as historical and sci-fi stories where setting the stage is often critical to the reader’s understanding of the characters and their environment. But even here the exposition should be doled out in small, scattered chunks, much as it would happen in real life. For instance, if you suddenly awoke one morning and found yourself in an alien environment, you would immediately want to know as much as you could about this place. But there isn’t going to be someone there waiting to fill you in on all the details about your new environment. You will have to figure it out on your own, using the clues and cues you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste. It will take time. You might find yourself in some sticky situations (conflict!). The road to discovery is an adventure, and that’s what makes it interesting and fun. The beginning of any story should essentially be this placement of the reader in an unfamiliar environment, one where there is conflict. Reveal too much about where the reader is and what’s going on and you take all the fun out of it.
That said, the best way to reveal needed information is always going to be through action—showing rather than telling. Dialogue is one means, but a writer has to be very careful to make sure the dialogue isn’t forced or false, that characters aren’t discussing things that they both already know and wouldn’t have any reason to discuss. Interior monologue is another way, but again caution must be exercised to make sure the character isn’t pondering the sorts of things one never ponders in real life.
When you find chunks of expository information in your work, try to rewrite them into scenes using action and dialogue to show the facts rather than telling them to the reader. It’s far more time consuming and a lot more work. But if you take the lazy way out and resort to the much easier chunks of expository information, you’re going to end up with boring, leaden prose.
Try this exercise, which is one a mentor gave to me years ago when I was having trouble with too much exposition in my writing. He told me to imagine that an editor has just offered me a million dollars to publish my manuscript, but only on the condition that I eliminate every bit of exposition it contained. Playing this little game made me look at those chunks of exposition with a new eye, and made me seriously evaluate the necessity or importance of the information each one contained. It also made me rethink how I delivered the information, seeking ways to camouflage that exposition as action. I didn’t eliminate all of it, but I got rid of most of it.
Let’s look at an example:
David Martin was three years old. He had always been a little hellion, getting into trouble at the drop of a hat. His mother had often grown weary and irritable as she tried to instill some sense of order in her wayward son. But it was an ongoing battle, one she was never sure she would win. Sometimes, she thought she would rip out all her hair before she ever got him tamed. She loved her son deeply and hated having to chastise him all the time. And though she’d never admit it, there was a part of her that was pleased by David’s sense of adventure and spirit. But there were times when it threatened to overwhelm her.
Today was one of those times. While his mother was busy with the laundry down in the basement, David was busy scribbling on the kitchen wall with a purple crayon. He knew he wasn’t supposed to write on the walls, but he did it anyway. When he heard his mother start back up the stairs, he ran and hid behind the couch, thinking she couldn’t punish him if she couldn’t find him. But his mother wasn’t fooled for one minute. She knew all too well where David’s favorite hiding place was.
Hearing his mother’s footsteps on the cellar stairs, Davie froze, his hand poised before his scribbled creation. His expression closely resembled the wide-eyed stare of the head he’d torn off his sister’s doll this morning—unblinking and startled. As his mother’s footsteps drew closer, Davie suddenly scrambled from the room, running for his favorite hiding place behind the couch. In one chubby hand, he clutched his favorite Tonka dump truck, scraped and battered, with one wheel missing. In the other, was the purple crayon he’d just used on the kitchen wall. He dropped to his knees near the end of the couch and shoved the offending crayon beneath it. Then he squatted inside the safety of his fortress, frozen and still, listening for his mother.
In the kitchen, Marie’s stillness mimicked her son’s when her gaze fell on the broad purple lines covering a good portion of the wall beside the refrigerator. Her eyes squeezed closed and her knuckles turned white where she gripped the clothesbasket. She lifted her face to the ceiling and muttered, \”God, give me strength. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.\” Then she flung the basket to the floor and marched for the living room, straight to the couch where she knew Davie would be hiding.
\”David Alexander Martin, you get out of there right this minute.\” The words came out harsh and clipped; Marie’s hands balled into fists at her side. Her whole body shook with anger. For several long seconds, the room was filled with an almost unbearable silence. \”Now!\” Marie yelled.
Davie crawled out from behind the couch, his lower lip stuck out and trembling. His eyes looked up at his mother, their liquid sheen reflecting both fear and remorse. \”I…I sorry,\” he hiccuped. He began to sob.
As Marie watched him, the grim set of her lips slowly softened. She blew out a tiny breath of exasperation and rolled her eyes heavenward. Seconds later she had Davie firmly wrapped in her arms, hugging and consoling him, knowing she should punish him somehow, but too consumed by her love for him to carry it out.
The first example is almost pure exposition. It tells the reader about David, his mother, and the relationship between them. The voice is mostly passive, using non-active verbs like was and had been. This distances the reader from the action and robs the story of any real sense of conflict. The second example does a better job of showing the reader. It is far more active and the tension is more palpable. The use of the diminutive form of David’s name—Davie—gives us a clue to his age. The items he carries with him behind the couch and the action of using the crayon on the wall give another. The fact that he tries to hide the crayon, thinking it will also hide his crime, shows an immature understanding of right and wrong and how things work in life. And while he’s smart enough to try to hide the evidence, he’s not smart enough to find himself a new hiding place, even though his mother always finds him in the current one. The fact that he ripped the head off his sister’s doll shows not only a certain level of immaturity, but a glimpse into the type of person David is. His language skills give additional insight into his age. While readers may not know exactly how old David is in the second example, they will certainly have a good idea.
The reaction of David’s mother in the second example shows us that this isn’t the first time David’s been in trouble. The vacillation of emotion shows us the mother’s conflict and provides a sound picture of what has probably gone on in the past between these two. There is action, body language, and dialogue to bring the scene to life. About the only thing included in the expository example that isn’t \”brought to life\” in the second example is Marie’s secret pleasure over David’s adventurous spirit. But this facet can be brought out later on in the story in another scene, perhaps in dialogue between Marie and a trusted friend or even, if she gets desperate enough, between Marie and a child psychologist.