Exposition. The word sounds like a sneeze, and just like a sneeze, the occasional occurrence indicates a healthy balanced system, doing what it’s supposed to do. Conversely, repeated and sustained occurrences likely indicate illness. In the case of exposition, too much, too often, definitely serves as a head’s up that you, as an author, are making your story’s plot ill.
All right, enough with the silly analogy. Exposition: the word means the process of integrating pertinent back story in your narrative (very literally exposing the past). Notice the word “pertinent.” While some exposition must make its way into nearly every work of fiction or creative non-fiction (such as memoir), using too much, too often will bog down your writing and sour your readers’ interest. As much as it really feels relevant to you that your main character used to wear a Fruitopia cap as a necklace in high school, the question becomes, does this knowledge make or break your reader’s ability to understand what’s going on in the here-and-now of your story. If the answer about any detail you’re considering including is “no,” then strongly consider NOT including it.
And, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you must go heavy on exposition in order to develop your characters and make them multi-dimensional. From the very beginning, you should be choosing a starting place in time for your story that will allow your character to best define themselves to your reader through your narrative’s present action. If you’re not choosing to place your story in that time-frame, you should rigorously question yourself about why.
Not that you can’t include a few pertinent details about their past, or even longer passages revealing essential back story, once you’ve hooked your reader and your plot begins to unfold some more. But don’t fall into the trap of believing that your reader can never understand your character’s motivations without knowing their entire history. The same rule applies for settings and even the plot itself. You reader may well need to know that a previous owner of your character’s house built a secret passageway between two rooms, but does your reader really need to know much at all about that previous owner? Probably not, unless you’re planning to make them into an important character and/or hang part of your plot on any of that information. Even then, tell what’s absolutely necessary and no more.
Even keeping the word “pertinent” constantly in mind, many of us authors underestimate our readers’ savvy. All too easily, we stray into the territory of over-explaining. What we feel is a clarifying detail actually feels to our readers like a two-by-four to the head, knocking out all the nuance and subtlety and leaving an ugly, painful bruise on an otherwise unblemished story. If you were to make a list of things about your character’s past that you feel are absolutely essential to your reader’s understanding, and then hand that list to a beta-reader, reviewer or editor, you’d watch them cross two or three things off of it, if you’re lucky and half or more if you’ve really gone overboard. Readers want to be nudged, not led by the nose.
Like the best spices, exposition should be sprinkled sparingly throughout your story. Get heavy handed or too liberal with this particular flavoring, and you’re back to where we started, uncontrollable “sneezing.”
Okay, take five and go get a tissue; also, look for Part 2 of this post coming soon!