On November 20, 2021, Kasie and Rex took on Exposition in a “what not to do” approach, specifically to help those NaNoWriMo listeners who were giving it a go. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
You Need to Know, but does the Reader?
- Exposition is what, again?
- How too much exposition wrecks a good story
- How not enough exposition ruins a good concept
- Things to consider when writing exposition into your work
Continuing our NaNoWriMo coaching series, we bring you the Scaffolding, Exposition, What you Write for Your Own Benefit episode. We talked extensively about methods for including exposition in Episode 122.
Here’s a quick recap:
- Exposition is the literary term for everything that happens before the story begins. It’s background. History. Baggage.
- There are a few ways to lay it into the story: the fact dump (see prologue), the inner monologue or flashback, dialogue or one character telling another critical circumstances.
- There are a few places to put it: 1) at the beginning (prologue), 2) sprinkled throughout (on a need-to-know basis), 3) in foreshadowing wherein things are said that seem incongruent now but might be important later, and 4) at the end in a dramatic “reveal” that connects the dots for reader and character alike (a la Lisa See).
We covered all that in Episode 122, but it’s been a while so we can spend the first segment recapping, reminding, revisiting, etc.
So what’s fresh and new and relevant to those NaNo’ers in today’s episode?
It’s the inversion technique: What NOT to do. How exposition can suck and what to do about it. We’re going to pull apart all the shitty ways people kill the action in a scene or bore us to tears with exposition.
Last week in our short fiction critique group, I gave advice to a writer on a story that basically said, “start at the halfway point.” She’d built the story chronologically but the real hook, what really mattered, didn’t come until halfway through.
She had this delicious line that said, “I waited nearly a week after Foster’s death before going out to the woods to look for that area where our troubles began.” I commented, “I want the story to begin here.” She had given us the circumstances around poor Foster’s discovery, illness, and death before bringing the main character’s experience with the murderous discovery into the story.
When we ask, “Where does the story really begin?” we get to that lit-fuse moment. The place where fire meets kindling. Even in a slow burn, there’s a specific, definite beginning. And everything that came before is exposition.
So let’s help our NaNoWriMo’ers who are probably boring the shit out of their readers right now in the first 20,000 words that shouldn’t be exposition. You write it because you need it, not the story and not the readers.
There are some clever ways to deliver exposition:
Have the main character be a newbie needing things explained to him/her (Harry Potter)
Have a side character be a newbie and let the main character explain to the side character (Zootropolis)
News reels, old TV footage, home videos are used sometimes used to deliver exposition in movies; how does that play in a book?
So, since too much exposition drags down the action and bores readers, and too little leaves us not really caring about the character or being confused by the circumstances, how do you know exactly what to include and what not to?
As you might imagine, there’s plenty of advice. Let’s start here:
- Include exposition that supports the conflict — speaks to the character’s motivation, their desire, or the obstacles in their way; anything that explains the stakes of the pursuit and the results of failure should the protagonist not achieve their goal
- Include exposition that might not contribute to this scene, but might be needed for a later scene — foreshadowing, world-building clues, or character insight or development.
- Include only required exposition early on, once the reader trusts you to deliver the story, then you can add the additional scaffolding to raise the stakes and contextualize subplots.
- Include exposition that closes the gap between what the characters know and what the reader knows — use internal monologues, dialogue, or devices (like a newspaper) to deliver
How do you know which device to use?
How do you know an amount is too much?
How many details bog the paragraph down and how many are just right?