It’s a beast. And I never have a problem with it as a writer until I’m writing middle grade fiction.
This podcast we’re going to explain what exactly an agent or editor or writing coach or a teacher means when they look disdainfully down their noses at you and say, “You have too much exposition!”
Anne Hawley writes for The Story Grid:
There’s a tendency among many writers, myself included, to explain too much, and I’ve become ruthless about weeding out as much exposition as possible. So my gut reaction to the client’s question was, “None of the above. Get rid of it.”
Here are some definitions:
“Exposition is a literary device used to introduce background information about events, settings, characters, or other elements of a work to the audience or readers. The word comes from the Latin language, and its literal meaning is ‘a showing forth.’ Exposition is crucial to any story, for without it nothing makes sense.” —Literary Devices.net
“Exposition means facts—the information about setting, biography, and characterization that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.” —Robert McKee, Story (p. 334).
Over on Carrie’s new substack newsletter, we’ll share some examples of this.
So, while some exposition is allowed in a story, it’s something you want to clean up as much as possible. You want to be in the scenes with the characters as much as you can and this is especially true in the very beginning and that last third of the novel.
That’s because in the beginning the reader needs to be immersed so that they’ll keep reading and hooked along. In the end that’s because the reader has stayed with you for all these words and now they want to have the big emotional payoff. That doesn’t happen with exposition. That happens when you’re immersed in the scene.
Exposition can be ALL THESE THINGS SO LOOK HERE:
- Just an info drop where the narrator is telling (not showing a bunch of information).
- Too much internal dialogue for too long.
- Dialogue sometimes. I know, right? Dialogue is action, but sometimes dialogue is an info dump particularly when a villain is explaining their motives or in science fiction or fantasy when a character is explaining the world to the noob.
- Letters pulled out or emails and presented as a block. Read it with the character instead.
- Those long, long paragraphs where you go on forever and ever describing setting and senses.
Hawley also has this great example:
Let’s go to the mall,” Heather said.
Imani thought back to the last time she had been to the mall. The terror she had felt at the sound of the first shot fired, the screams of people fleeing for their lives, the crash of displays falling over as customers dove under racks and counters for cover. It had been the worst day of her life.
“I don’t want to go,” Imani replied.
However vivid Imani’s recollection is in that middle paragraph, it does little to reveal her character. It explains some things about Imani, but it’s an info-dump—a Big Block of Explanation.
The block interrupts the action—that is, the dialogue between Heather and Imani—by referring you to a past whose details may or may not be relevant at this point in the story. Here’s what happens in your brain:
You expend energy time-jumping to Imani’s past.
You process terror, shots fired, screams, crashes, and people diving under racks. By the time you get to Imani’s response, all your memory slots are engaged, and you’ve lost sight of what Heather said.
So you expend more brainpower backtracking in the text to remind yourself of Heather’s initial suggestion.
Exposition? It’s a beast and it’s a beast that keeps your reader from being immersed. We’ll talk about it more again soon, but the first step to battling this monster? It’s knowing where to look.
Thanks for listening to Write Better Now.
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