Today I have a Tip Tuesday / guest post on exposition by the lovely Laura Lascarso. Laura has written a number of things for Lit Rambles including tips #66, #69, #83, #94, and the guest post "Will You Be Mine?" featured in February. She also has a debut YA coming out August 2012 called COUNTING BACKWARDS that I can't wait to read. Check her out!
I love writing exposition, but I hate reading it. Too much exposition kills the tension and pacing of the story. And it wastes a reader’s time. It’s like having to eat all the weird little fortified bits in my Lucky Charms before getting to the marshmallows, like wading through lumpy gravy to get to the meat, like…you get the picture.
But, says my writer self, the scene with the unicorn won’t have any meaning if the reader doesn’t know about the princess’s deep-rooted fear and loathing of the mythical creature.
Maybe true, maybe not. Perhaps it would be more gripping if, instead of embracing said unicorn, the princess were to pick up the nearest blunt object, intending to bash it over the head, leaving the reader to wonder if the princess was in fact, a crazed unicorn slayer. Now we have micro-tension.
This is to illustrate the internal dilemma on what to include and what to leave out in terms of exposition. To help my writer self be more objective about deciding, I’ve employed this strategy.
First, I open a new document called EXPOSITION. In it I say everything I want about my main character. Every little thing—fears, loves, dislikes, nervous twitches, strange affinities, familial relationships, life-altering moments. I do the same with lesser characters if I think it will be relevant later. This is also a good exercise in warming up to my characters and getting to know them on a more personal level. In some of my earlier stories, this document was also known as Chapter 1.
Then, I begin my story with the assumption that the reader knows everything I’ve just written about my characters. For my opening scene, I try to really focus on dialogue and action/reaction, sneaking in tiny bits of character revelation and backstory where I can. As I write my story, I try to weave in pieces of exposition where it is relevant. That last bit is key, because there is always the urge to write something like, the princess looked up at the cloud, which was shaped like a unicorn, the same one who gorged her elder sister just a few weeks ago. It’s too easy to look up at the sky and have a flashback. Save your big reveals for places where you can garner the most possible tension.
You will probably find that you only needed a fraction of the exposition you originally wrote. That’s a good thing. It means you’ve found other ways to convey your information in a show, don’t tell fashion. Or it could mean that your character is so strong that the reader doesn’t need to know the lesser details. If you’re still unsure about what exposition is needed, you can give your story to an astute beta reader and then ask them if they think such and such is important to the story or if they could have done just as well without it. We writers often tend to over-explain ourselves, which gives the reader the impression we don’t think they’re smart enough to figure it out on their own. But readers are smart. Way smart.
One last bit of advice—save some exposition for later. Many novels drop off in character development after a hundred or so pages, perhaps because the author has nothing left to reveal about their character. Save a few secrets. They’re good for both tension and plot twisting.
And that’s how I deal with the exposition blues. Have you ever had them? Feel free to strum your guitar and lament.