In our last post, we covered how exposition serves an undeniable purpose; however like Facebook users to data miners, we authors must guard against letting too much exposition creep into our stories.
We’ve established that all too often, our natural inclinations as storytellers lead us to include far more detail about the past than our readers actually need or enjoy. Now, let’s turn to another common pitfall of exposition, and that’s including too much, too soon.
Imagine you want to make some pasta, but instead of letting the water start bubbling before you add the macaroni or spaghetti or mostaccioli, you dump some of the hard dry noodles right into the cold water. You’re supposed to boil the pasta for nine minutes and you’re waiting and waiting to start the timer, but this pot is taking forever to heat up! You dump in some more and turn the heat up even higher. Forget al dente, at this point, you’ll be lucky not to have to scrape the stuff out of the bottom of the pan!
Similarly, dumping too much exposition at the beginning of a story will hinder the narrative from heating up in a timely fashion and leave readers with a mushy, overcooked taste in their mouths. The only difference between this scenario and actual mushy pasta… we as authors will have no idea there’s anything wrong! We’ll reread what we’ve written so far and think it sounds just fine. Take another bite of that mush and smile like we’ve got Olive Garden leftovers on our plates, when really we should shovel that stuff right into the garbage can!
We don’t actually need to cut all of the exposition we’ve stuffed up front in our first draft, but a lot of it probably should go, and much of it can be broken off and used later when we find ourselves in need of a little something to break up the action, lend a sense of time passing, and remind our reader about details important to our characters, settings, etc.
How can we accomplish this? As we said in Part 1 of this post – BETA READERS! If we ever listen to our beta-readers about anything, trusting them about which pieces of exposition should stay, which should be moved around and which should go, is key to turning out the very best final draft possible.
By the way, no need to send what we’ve written into the ether. We can cut unnecessary exposition and add it instead to a notes section or file for our own reference and inspiration. While not useful or compelling for our readers, every bit of history and folklore we create for our characters and the worlds we build for them can only enrich any future writing about them.
To paraphrase a wise writing teacher of mine, “When you cut 10%, 15% or 20% of the words from your work, all the original meaning remains in the ones you choose to keep.” We should remember this when we’re making smart choices about what to cut and what to keep in terms of exposition.
For further reading on this topic, I recommend the posts “How to Avoid Death by Exposition” by Beth Amos (informative and clearly-written) and “25 Ways to Make Exposition Your Bitch” by Chuck Wendig (crude, hilarious, enlightening and entertaining).