Don’t Chunk! The Brain Science Behind Bad Exposition

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Don't Chunk! The Brain Science Behind Bad Exposition

Hi, welcome to Write Better Now, a podcast of quick, weekly writing tips meant to help you become a better writer. We’re your hosts with NYT bestselling author Carrie Jones and copyeditor extraordinaire Shaun Farrar. Thank you for joining us.

This week it’s not so much a writing tip, but a writing explanation as we dive a little deeper into why too much exposition is bad.

It’s all about the human brain.

But before we start, once again, exposition is just a literary device that according to Masterclass:

“Is meant to relay background information about a main character, setting, event or other element of the narrative. Exposition comes from the Latin word expositionem, which literally means “showing forth.”

And in a story, exposition often bores the reader or breaks up the forward motion of the plot.

So why does that suck?

There’s a thing called working memory. Most of our brains can only keep four or five things inside our memory at one time.

That’s not super good. JUST FOUR OR FIVE THINGS!

So, our brains adapted because our brains are awesome and they do this cool thing called “chunking.”

As Anne Hawley, writing for Story Grid explains,

“Chunking is when we group ideas so that together they occupy only one of the four or five available memory slots in our brain.”

 Or the APA Dictionary of Psychology says chunking is

“the process by which the mind divides large pieces of information into smaller units (chunks) that are easier to retain in short-term memory … one item in memory can stand for multiple other items”.

She cites Steven Pinker who wrote The Sense of Style and gives this example:


 If we don’t chunk those sixteen letters together, we would have a much harder time remembering them.

But we can chunk them like this:

M D  

P H D  




And voila! You think about the doctor and the Ph.D. who rsvp’d to the ceo of Ihop.

Amazing, right?

So, exposition inserted into our stories as an info dump? It keeps us from chunking. It makes our brain work harder and that can take our brains out of the story.

SPOILER ALERT: Be kind to readers’ brains. Most of them don’t want to be taken out of the story, but immersed in it.

Thanks for listening to Write Better Now.

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Author: carriejonesbooks

I am the NYT and internationally-bestselling author of children's books, which include the NEED series, FLYING series, TIME STOPPERS series, DEAR BULLY and other books. I like hedgehogs and puppies and warm places. I have none of these things in my life.

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