“Oh my, your writing is so descriptive.”
Chances are, if you are reading this post, you’ve heard that accolade before. But is it really a compliment or is it just a thinly veiled criticism that you’re not that good of a storyteller?
Yep. No sugar coating today, folks.
But really… poorly done exposition isn’t bad writing, really, it’s just lazy. And lazy writing doesn’t make for happy readers. I’m going to tell you exactly why it’s so frowned upon and what types of exposition are actually expected in your stories and how to avoid bad exposition.
But first things first: What is exposition?
Exposition, as a literary device, is a passage that gives the reader information about the world, the characters, or the plot. Some examples would be: chapter openings in which the stage is set and the setting is described, or a dialogue between two characters that explains one character’s motivations, or flashbacks that answer the ever-present question- Why?
The thing about Exposition is that it is 100% necessary, but it’s also easy to mess up. Poorly done exposition is as conspicuous as if someone were to hand you a platter of flaming dog shit and say, “hey man, it’s just a prank.” You don’t want to be so heavy handed with your exposition that reading your book is like listening in on an awkward chat around a water cooler. Yes, there is a lot of exposition that needs to happen- especially if you’re like me and love to write fantasy novels. So how do you do it correctly?
What to Avoid
Info-Dumping Dialogue– If your characters are talking to each other about things that they should already know, you’re info-dumping. It’s not realistic, it’s not believable, it’s not fun to read.
Ex) Mel: Hey, Mandy, how are you? I haven’t seen you since you owned that traveling hat shop. I remember how successful you were until that accident with the thief and the three-legged dog. So, now you own a detective agency?
Mandy: I do. I opened it last year, and actually ended up employing the thief. That was Jericho out there in the lobby. How can I help you?
Mel: Well, ever since my husband died I’ve been having trouble with our neighbors. They hate my dragon-breeding business. It might have something to do with their sheep that go missing, but I doubt it. I think it’s personal. You know how I get. I’m not going to back down without a fight. I need those dragons for the upcoming trade show, so I’ll do anything I can to shut the neighbors up.
Mandy: I’ll see what I can do, but I doubt you can afford me, Mel. Since your business has been suffering and your husband isn’t around to help with your dragons.
Mel: You’re a lot meaner since I saw you last at the funeral, Mandy. Say… could you at least introduce me to Jericho? Is he single?
See? Don’t do expository dialogue. It’s boring. Even if you include dragons.
LOTS of Explanatory Text– I can practically hear you say, “But how do you know this is just exposition? What if I need it?”
Do you?! DO YOU?!
No really- ask yourself: “What other purpose does this passage serve?”
If you can’t answer ANYTHING besides world building, then we have a problem. Does it provide insight to the characters history? Does it introduce a plot point subtly? Does it foreshadow something you’ll see later on? Yes? Fine. Keep it. But if all it does is set a scene, find a better way to do it. All scenes should accomplish something. If describing all the pearly dewdrops on the flowers in your quaint town is there to “set the stage,” you can do better. You will do better.
What’s that? Was that a Coincidence?– Just stop. Stop right there. If you’re throwing info into your book in the style of coincidence, then I will just have to take your computer away. Or your notebook. Whatever.
Either way, providing information in such a way doesn’t add to the story and therefore should be SHUNNED. You can see coincidental passages take form in scenes that have: a fortuitously placed news article that includes the perfect bit of info the character needs, or possibly in passersby like NPCs in video games that drop that perfect tip your character needs, or side characters that were created just to pass this bit of info along.
Real life isn’t coincidental so don’t make your characters suffer that boring life… or your poor readers.
What to Do
Show Don’t Tell– This is an age-old piece of advice for writers, but how it applies to exposition is this: long blocks of text telling your reader what’s up is 1) boring, and 2) patronizing. Sure, we can all imagine each glittering scale on the dragon’s back, but instead of pointing out each one, simplify it. Pretend your readers can imagine it and let them fill in the blanks. Let them imagine the shape of the scales or the undulating belly as the dragon breaths. You don’t have to tell them it’s underbelly is a different color than it’s scales… they’ll probably figure it out themselves. Give your readers just enough to set up the scene and then -BAM- make them do the rest of the work. They’ll like it, I promise.
This immerses them more in the story than it would if you described every piece of info right away. Which brings me to…
Break it Up– Okay, you have a super involved alternate reality/fantasy/scifi world that just HAS to be described or else your readers will never understand. That spaceship? You need to give them a layout or it just WON’T make sense. There are passageways, and crawl spaces, and hidden doors—
Yes, I get it. Sometimes you have a world so expansive you have to describe it all for it to make sense. So break it up. For example: JK Rowling didn’t explain the Room of Requirement until the fifth book of HP (I’m pretty sure, don’t be mean if I’m wrong), but she alluded to it in the fourth. She didn’t wait to explain it until Harry came upon it even though he had been in the school for five years. Death Eaters weren’t explained right when Lord Voldemort was mentioned, Harry’s birth place (Godric’s Hollow) wasn’t mentioned until a couple of books in even though the series started with him as an infant coming directly from that home. Enough examples, you get it, just make sure you explain info that’s pertinent to the moment/direct story and you should be fine. Foreshadowing is cool, too, just don’t get too wordy.
Conflict Conflict Conflict– The long and short of it, is this: don’t allow any exposition if there isn’t any conflict included. You need to move your story forward with every paragraph, every sentence. Whether it is dialogue, scene setting, or a flashback, keep your readers guessing about what’s going to happen next. This can only happen if there is SOME sort of conflict. It doesn’t have to be a person vs person kind of conflict, either. It could be environmental (why are the flowers suddenly covered with ash instead of dew drops?), plot-based (he can only talk to the wizard about mundane topics because the wizard lost most of his sanity after a failed spell… or did he?), or character-based (when writing from a first person POV, the narrative says a lot about the character).
See? Not so gnarly. It’s totally doable. I know you can wrangle exposition into it’s useful, clever self. Just don’t let it run wild. It ain’t pretty when it’s wild.
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