I’m going to try really, really hard to write this blog post without calling anyone out. But there are a whole lot of writers who put too much exposition in their stories.
Way too much exposition.
I know I’ve been accused of it myself during some of my draft-editing processes, and with good reason. There was information that needed to go.
As a creative writer, it’s very easy to get lost in establishing details… explaining every intricate bit of information we possibly can. I mean, it’s all so important, right?
It’s all so necessary! In our demented little creative writer heads. Which have a tendency to take things far too far.
For instance, we don’t want to just establish what allows our stories to exist. We want to establish the what behind the what as well.
We don’t want to just explain who’s involved. We want to explain every single aspect of why they’re involved and what led them to be involved… all the way down to the drastically disturbing day they stubbed their toe as a five-year-old.
Obsessing to that degree isn’t healthy for us anymore than it's relevant for our readers.
By now, we’ve discussed:
How to not go melodramatically overboard while setting it up
The fact that not every expository detail needs to be dumped into a single paragraph, segment or even chapter of a story.
Now let’s state once and for all that some of those details don’t need to be there at all.
Exposition is important... up to a certain point.
There are aspects of a story’s past or immediate context that should without a doubt be established and perhaps even reiterated throughout a story. But, like any other element of creative writing, exposition can be taken too far. And I’m not referring to yesterday’s Challenge about cutting down word count. This takes that advice one step further.
If expository information doesn’t drive a story further by either setting up plot points or helping readers to grasp what they’re getting into, it’s probably best left out altogether.
Keep reading for two exposition examples – that don’t call anyone out.
To reiterate the rule of thumb for whether to keep exposition in or take it out… It really just comes down to whether it serves a practical purpose that hasn’t already been established enough.
If it does, leave it in. If it doesn’t, take it out.
Say that your main character’s name is Charlie. He’s a college freshman who grew up in a nice, stable home – only to be thrown into the chaos of being part of a campus community. As a result, his previous beliefs and opinions are being challenged, and it’s giving him a crisis of confidence. How does he know what’s true and what isn’t?
In that scenario, readers might need to know about the day his dad taught him to ride a bike. Or how much his Mom liked his girlfriend in 11th grade.
But they probably don’t. So if you put those details in, you should probably remove them.
Here’s another scenario: Zinnia is a police officer with almost a decade’s experience under her belt. She’s used to the job, from pulling over speeders to dealing with domestic disturbance calls, to even the odd murder scene here and there. Though nothing could have prepared her for her partner’s disappearance.
Do readers need to know that Zinnia will never forgive her parents for naming her Zinnia? Or that her partner’s wife died in a car crash three years ago?
They might not. But they probably do. So if you put those details in, you should probably leave them there.
And if you can’t decide on your own which one is which, that’s what beta readers and editors are for.