3 Ways to Fix Your Overuse of Exposition
Podcast Audio Link: Click here.
Podcast Transcript: Hi, genuine writers! Great to have you here for Episode #7 of The Genuine Writer Podcast. I’m Jeannette DiLouie, author, editor extraordinaire and your regular host here.
Last time we talked, I was busy bashing another writer for asking “One of the Dumbest Book Writing Questions Ever,” criticism which, for the record, I 100% stand by. If you didn’t get to hear that one, check it out. It’s a good one. Or you can read the transcript, which I’ll be sure to link to in the description section. For now though, here’s the five-second recap: Someone on some Facebook platform wanted to know if he could write a historical fiction novel about the Middle Ages without doing any actual historical research on the Middle Ages.
Sorry, but that’s just… No! I can’t even handle that, especially when he wanted to base the whole entire thing off of some TV show. No. No. No. Oh my word, no.
This week, however, I’m going to use myself as an example of what not to do. Not to say that what I did is the absolute worst thing in the writing world – like thinking it’s okay to write a historical fiction novel without doing any actual historical research – but it’s not great writing either. My exact literary crime? Too much exposition in the beginning of a book.
On Saturday, I finished going over my editor’s critique of my almost-ready-to-be-published book, Proving America. (And yes, even writers who are editors need editors too.) Proving America is the third and last book in my Founding America series. Book 1, Maiden America, covers the Battles of Trenton and Princeton in very, very late 1776 and very, very, very early 1777; while Book 2, Designing America, involves the Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. Book 3 then skips ahead about 30 years to The War of 1812, where the British came along and burned Washington D.C.’s government buildings to the ground.
The whole series is fictional, following made-up main characters set in very real situations that I painstakingly researched right down to the weather. Filled with action, adventure, soldiers, spies and love interests, these novels include more than 120 combined pages of historical notes at the end for anyone who wants to delve further into what really happened, how and why. To me, this is the way that history is meant to be told: through captivating stories that revolve around the truth.
What can an editor criticize about such an awesome work? Well, she didn’t tear apart every single page, I’m happy to say. After writing 15 novel-length manuscripts, publishing 11 of them and having her edit everything I’ve published, I’m happy to say that I have learned a thing or two over the years. Even so, she did say that I started too many of Proving America draft 5’s sentences with the words “So” and “But”… that I overemphasize stuff that doesn’t need to be emphasized… and that I had way, way, way too much exposition in my first three chapters.
In thinking about it, she’s probably partially right about the first two complaints. I do have a bad habit of overthinking my transitions, though I’m sure I don’t do it as much as she says I do. While I love her and she’s awesome and I can’t imagine publishing a novel without her help, she has yelled at me before for overusing certain words, only to find out that I used them no more than six times within a 300-page manuscript. Six times. Over 300 pages. I’m not a fan of repetitive language myself, but that’s a little intense.
When it comes to my first three chapters, however, there’s no use arguing. Her criticism is entirely correct. I went way overboard with the exposition. For those of you who don’t know or aren’t entirely sure what “exposition” means in this context, it essentially comes down to explanation. It’s telling who and where a character is, and/or why he is where he is. Exposition is healthy when done right. But it can be exceptionally tedious when done wrong. And mine was done wrong, an error I had to work pretty hard to fix.
No matter what kind of story you’re writing – whether it’s women’s fiction or literary fiction or mystery or thriller – you’re going to want to keep this in mind. Taking forever to establish where your story begins is just not a good idea. For that matter, including pages and pages and pages of dialogue isn’t advisable either, or pages and pages and pages of action. The more varied you can make your story, with ups and downs, explanations and obscurities, verbal interactions and physical/mental exertions, the better. But I do think there are three genres that can use this advice the most: fantasy writers, science fiction writers and historical fiction writers.
Why? Because, more often than not, we’re working with settings that aren’t going to be automatically familiar to the reader. And knowing that, we go overboard trying to familiarize them with all the information our characters take for granted. If we’re working on a fantasy piece, we have this almost uncontrollable urge to, say, detail every stone in the elven lord’s castle. If we’re working on a sci-fi manuscript, we’re driven to relate every single reason how and why our protagonists are out there on a starship, floating through space, right down to the childhood bully who called them mean names in the second grade. And if we’re writing historical fiction? Then we’re fixated on immediately providing at least the last five centuries’ worth of information that led up to the conflict we’re covering.
We mean well; we just don’t write well when we give in to those exposition-related urges.
If you don’t want to spend way more time than you’d like to editing your first three chapters like I had to, here’s how you can break up your exposition so that readers still get the big picture without being overwhelmed by pages and pages of detail:
Figure out what readers really need to know right away and what can be explained later down the road. While there are definite elements that need to be established in the first few paragraphs and even more so in the first chapter, exposition can happen later on too by dropping bits and pieces of info here and there. It doesn’t have to be one giant information dump on reader’s heads. In my case with Proving America, I didn’t need to charge right into explaining the last 15 years’ worth of tension in the American political system. While it was true that the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties didn’t like each other very much, if at all, back then, my readers can find that out in chapter 2 or 3. Chapter 1 should be about establishing the main character, Lieutenant Ashley Slasen, and the main conflict, which is that the British are perilously close.
Use dialogue to explain things a bit. Now, you’re going to want to keep that dialogue realistic. You don’t want your characters sounding like robots relaying crucial information. But it could be perfectly natural for someone to come along and ask your protagonist why she’s dressed like that, or whether the captain said to meet at o’ five-hundred or o’ six-hundred. And was it on the stardeck or in the shuttle bay? It doesn’t have to be a long conversation either; even a quick back and forth can add new details in an engaging, non-droning-on manner. In Proving America’s case, I decided to introduce an annoying minor character a little earlier than I’d originally planned. Instead of Ashley simply thinking about the two war memos that just came in, one of his fellow lieutenants saunters into the picture to tell him about it. I think there might be maybe 10 lines of actual dialogue between the two young men, yet it goes a long way in breaking up the previous monotony.
Cut it out altogether. Just because we writers feel as if readers need to know something doesn’t mean they actually do. While I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to liken a manuscript to a baby, we can share some annoying little characteristics with overenthusiastic parents who want to point out every single little thing their child does. While every single little thing the child does is undoubtedly special to Mommy and Daddy, it’s not to everyone else. Keep that in mind while you’re giving out details. It’s like those three solid pages of historical data I cut out from the first draft of Proving America, well before my editor ever got a copy to critique. I was utterly enthralled with the tiniest particulars about the time period. To me, they were amazing! But if they don’t actually do anything for my story, then they don’t belong there.
There’s so much more we could say about exposition, but it often comes down to each individual manuscript. So let’s leave it there for now in order to keep everything clear. If you want to know if you’ve used too much exposition, I’d love to give you an encouraging, insightful critique on your first few chapters. And if you’re looking for a thoroughly edited, intensely engaging historical fiction series, you can start with Maiden America.
Either way, the information you’re looking for is right at www.InnovativeEditing.com. It’s well worth checking out.