Exposition: Not Even Once
We all do it. Exposition. Let us stop.
It’s not the easiest thing not to do, in any case.
If you’re writing your first draft, you may want to skip this post, but revisit it when you’re revising. At the same time, if you’re dedicated to writing a great first draft, please proceed! It’s never a bad idea to learn all that you can before starting any book or story.
First of all—what is exposition?
Well, in fiction, it would be a huge block of text, describing nothing more than information that’s relevant to the story, but in a way that is clearly intended as an explanation. In other words, it isn’t worked into the story. It doesn’t advance or enhance your story; it just sits there, that block of text, like a light poo floating atop the toilet water. You’ve cut your story up to maybe “creatively insert a flashback”, and the present story you are telling takes a backseat, for a time, for the past story you shouldn’t need to tell.
Exposition is clearest when the author inserts themselves into the story to tell the reader what is happening. And that is not something that should be necessary. Why? Because you’re painting a picture. You’re using your words to show. Not tell.
Let’s take an example here. Say you have a person who is terrified of storms because when they were a child, their father left them during a thunderstorm. There would be a preferred way to set this scene while still weaving that backstory into it, and then there would be the expository manner of dumping that information.
Exposition: James stood in the doorway as the rain pelted the pavement. Soon it would turn to hail. The sky was dark everywhere and James couldn’t bear to stay on the porch any longer. Instead, he went indoors. He sat on the couch as the thunder rolled overhead, and lightning flashed behind his living room curtains. Storms bothered James. To the point of panic. This panic stemmed from his childhood. HIs father had left him during a similar storm. He was only ten years old and James and his mother had to fend for themselves after that. The day his father left, a large thunderstorm rolled through town, and as James’ father slammed the door on his way out, a thunderclap struck simultaneously.
You might be thinking that that’s not so bad. It’s not, I suppose, except, well, I wrote it. But other than that, fine. But is there a better way to do this? To show the reader why James fears storms the way that he does? Perhaps.
Sneaking exposition into the current storyline:
James stood in the doorway. He watched the rain pelt the pavement beyond his front door. Soon, those quick and stinging droplets would turn to hail. The sky was dark and James couldn’t bear to stay on the porch any longer. Instead, he went indoors and sat on his couch as the thunder rolled overhead, and lightning flashed behind his living room curtains. He shook at each thunder clap. At each lightning strike. The storm weakened him. His heart pounded, and with each boom that rattled his house and worked through his body, James shook even more. He pictured the front door of his childhood home slamming in tandem with the thunder; his mother’s tears that flowed just like the rain as her husband and James’ father left their home for the last time. With each strobe of lightning, James saw his father’s back as the man retreated from James and his mother. They watched through the window, cradling one another. Neither James nor his mother spoke a single word.
The curtain of ongoing rain reminded him of his mother’s tears; of his own ten-year-old tears, mixing together.
James brought his knees to his chest and plugged his ears. He fought the urge to call his fiancé, to ask if she would come home that night. She’ll come back, he reassured himself. Another clap of thunder. James’ heart leapt and so did his body. He was on his feet, the area rug displaced by his sudden movements.
He went upstairs and climbed into bed. He pulled the comforter over his face and plugged his palms into his ears to block out the nature raving outside.
Storms were ruinous, but so were humans.
So, maybe that second one wasn’t so great, either, but you get the point. That time, the writer attempted to incorporate the main character’s fear of abandonment with the panic attacks he has any time there is a storm. This shows the readers a few things.
1. His past. Yes, I worked it into the current storyline because it was relevant at this point in the story. James is struggling with whether he needs to call his fiancé to verify that she’s not leaving him.
2. His present. This is a man with abandonment issues who is plagued with anxiety.
3. How he deals with the past and that anxiety (avoidance).
4. His self-awareness regarding his issues (he decides not to call his fiancé).
So, while the first example shows the reader James’ past while the current storyline takes a backseat, the second example is stronger because it tells the story James’ present and explains how the past contributed.
Maybe your main character had a traumatic childhood, too. Maybe that’s very important to the character’s development. It makes sense that you want to explain that trauma to the reader as soon as you can, but there are ways to sprinkle the pain of the character’s past in with the current storyline. Let’s take another example. Maybe Sandra’s mother used to beat her as a child. Sandra is now a grown woman working a lucrative job. She’s happy and successful, but she is mistrusting of people. You can show that mistrust in many ways, one of which would be for her to question the motives of coworkers who ask her to spend time with them outside of work. She could assume that they want something from her. Maybe Sandra doesn’t have many (or any) close friends. Maybe you have her decide to spend time with those coworkers. Perhaps alcohol is involved. Perhaps any time a coworker makes a sudden movement (non-threatening), Sandra flinches.
Now, a scenario like the one above doesn’t tell the reader exactly why Sandra acts the way that she does, but it certainly shows the reader that there’s a reason for Sandra’s behavior. Perhaps she sees a child with normal bruising from playing and she takes the child aside and frantically questions the child about how the bruising occurred. OK, now we’re closer. The reader can then assume that Sandra either has experienced such pain or is at the very best worried for children who do. If all else fails, once Sandra develops and learns to get close to someone (a friend or a romantic interest), she can disclose the story of her past to that friend in dialogue. This could still be a bit of an info-dump, so be careful not to have Sandra doing a monologue here. A few short sentences are all it really takes for the reader to understand the impact Sandra’s childhood has on her, and still has on her.
What if you want your character to be a reformed murderer? One who was never caught or tried for the murder (yeah, I know, Crime And Punishment, but not really). Well, that’s tougher, but it’s still highly possible to pull of without a massive chunk of your book or a section dedicated to directly explaining this situation to the reader. You might instead have the character faced with his/her own robbery or beating. Perhaps this causes the character to think something simple, like; I didn’t know what I was doing when I did it. I didn’t know. Or some other vague allusion to his or her past.
Perhaps the character gets a normal job, joins the working class. Reforms themselves. But every time the character looks in the mirror, they imagine small speckles of blood on their face, or on their hands (sure, this is a bit cliché. Still better than exposition/an info dump).
The reader pieces together what the issue most likely is. Slowly revealing these details as they become relevant in the current story is your best bet.
What not to do:
Under no circumstance should you have pages and pages of backstory that do not contribute to the present story. Always move the story forward. Always. If you have to go back a bit to do that for a sentence or two—that’s different than blatant, in-your-face exposition.
Avoid shit like this:
· Dreams- Look, no one wants to hear about a dream (yes, there are exceptions to this, but most writers abuse this tool and it ends up reading like a five-year-old prattling incessantly about something that never happened, and worse; embellishing something that never happened). No one wants to listen to a person drone on and on about something that isn’t real. Now, if your character has psychic dreams and some magical ability to alter the future, sure, go ahead, devote a half-page to that dream. Otherwise, it’s obnoxious.
· Flashbacks- Again, these can be viewed as occasional necessities, but don’t use them unless you’re certain that they’re, once again, moving the story forward. Ask yourself this: “What would I lose if I cut this shit out of my book?” Really think about it. Perhaps you forgot that later on, you mention and summarize the events in a much more concise manner, or the subject of the flashback never comes up again. The answer to that would be: “Nothing”. Then do it. Cut that shit out, man. Kill those darlings. Yeah, it’s hard. I have a special folder for all my bullshit that was totally irrelevant so that perhaps I can use it later in another, better form. I would suggest you keep a folder as well if you have a hard time letting go. But you want to think of your story as the most important thing. If a flashback contributes little or nothing to the story or fails to advance the plot: cut it.
· Things that will come into play later on but that you want the audience to know right now- They don’t need to know now. I’ve seen this done in series’ before. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Sure, that historical battle and the history of the two sides involved may matter in your sequel, or later on in the book, but if it doesn’t matter right now and it doesn’t push the story forward, leave it be. Save it for later. Cut and condense.
· Prophecies- Okay, so I’ll probably get ragged on for this because a ton of fantasy writers love to use this trope and while it’s a well-hated trope; it’s also well-loved. When you have a prophecy, you’re telling the reader the story arc instead of allowing them to discover it organically. It’s the epitome of telling instead of showing.
· Speaking directly to the reader- again, this can be done tastefully. There are many books that do this, and they do it well. A Clockwork Orange comes to mind. But if you’re just starting out and you want to use that sort of narrative; don’t. Try omniscient or first-person before you attempt a second-person narrative as it’s probably the most difficult. Now, of course, you can do whatever the hell you want, and if you’re dead set on this, go for it! Just keep in mind that it’s an exposition trap waiting to happen. Since your narrator has those little “asides” for the reader, it’s all too easy to use those as an opportunity to launch into a backstory or history that doesn’t move the story forward.
While it may be damn near impossible to avoid all forms of exposition, you can do your best to curtail the instances in which they appear in your drafts. That way, your editor can hopefully catch them and advise you on how to better place them. A developmental editor is perfect for this because they specialize in reorganizing and helping the author build their story where it’s needed.
I’ll repeat an earlier statement: If you ask yourself what the exposition contributes to the story and you find yourself grasping at straws to justify it—cut it. Let it go!
That’s all for today.