Exposition

Hi, my name is Genre Salmon and I love exposition.

I always feel like I should be signing up for some kind of twelve-step program called Wafflers Anonymous or Twelve Steps To Brusque Economy Of Language, but it’s true. I admit it. I love exposition. I love old-fashioned books that start with two or three pages of it.  I love reading page after page of description and inner monologue. Assuming, of course, that it’s written well – dull exposition is awful. But hand in hand with my passion for lyrical, evocative prose does come an enthusiasm for that prose being quite descriptive. And lengthy.

It may be because the first story I remember being read to me – and one of my two absolutely earliest memories – is of my dad reading me The Hobbit when I was three, to take my mind off a burn. He started reading the Hobbit aloud when I was, I think, four. So I imprinted early on pretty prose and extensive waffling on. (And I liked Tom Bombadil. Shut up. Tom Bombadil is fun if you’re little.)

And all, all, all the writing books and blogs and so forth seem to be categorically against exposition. Show, don’t tell. Never infodump. Don’t give away too much in the first chapter. And I know it’s good advice, I really do, but it’s so not what I do. Nope. Not at all. At least not in my first draft.

In my first draft, I info-dump like crazy in the first couple of chapters. I write down everything I think of that I want to put in, at least in part because as I have previously mentioned, my memory is such utter crap that I can completely forget entire chunks of backstory overnight. I just shove it all in there. Then, if I get to a spot later on where this piece of information would fit, I shove it in there as well. I once found the same minor revelation in three different places in the same text, which was actually kind of fun because I’d shown the different results of early, middling and late reveals and I could see which one I liked best.  Then when I’m done, and I’ve worked in little niblets of information throughout the narrative and figured out what who should know when, then I go back and cut most of the info-dumping from the first chapters.

If you have trouble pacing yourself early on, it’s an approach I recommend. You’ve got all the bits you wanted to put in in one place, including all the stuff you don’t need to leave in at all because the reader doesn’t actually need to know it but you-the-writer do, and when you’ve got more of the basic structure down you can nip back and start picking out choice tidbits of exposition and seeding it through the story a tiny bit at a time without forgetting anything.

I understand other people often get the same effect via ‘planning’. Or ‘outlining’. I’ve never bothered doing an outline more detailed than a list of bullet points to keep the plot vaguely on track, but it’s presumably also a useful way of keeping track of what’s going on and what your back-story is. (Anyone?)

Anyway. I exposit and info-dump and have my characters talk way too damn much all the time – in the first draft, anyway. Because you can always cut, but a character nuance forgotten can be gone forever.

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4 thoughts on “Exposition

  1. I start by writing down key scenes and background details in a “notes” file, in any order in which they occur to me – in fact I frequently start by writing the end. Then I start the actual story file and I copy the bits from the notes file into the story file in a logical plot-order, either cutting them out of the notes file as I go or changing their colour once they’ve been used, so that I can see at once which ones I haven’t used yet. Then I write the linking bits which join the key scenes together.

    And despite what it says in the writing books, I almost never go back and revise or rewrite anything in any major way. Instead, I polish each paragraph with maniacal attention before moving on to the next one.. I once spent 40 minutes on a single word, saying not just “I need a word which means so-and-so” but “I need a word which means so-and-so and which has three syllables and makes a dying-away sound.”

    There’s nothing wrong with lots of conversation, so long as it’s lively and convincing. It’s like listening to a good play on the radio. Even exposition is OK if you work it in carefully – you can have your character reading a newspaper article, for example.

    • I have two fictional modes – either I hardly rewrite at all, or I have to do a buttload of it. Fan-fiction tends to be type 1, original tends to be type 2 because I’m really not so good at plotting and world-building yet. Either way, the one thing I know I *am* probably going to be rewriting is the first chapter or two, especially in original, when I don’t know the characters yet and I’m never quite sure where to start. Sometimes the first chapter gets cut altogether, as it turns out to just be preamble to the main story. It’s how I get myself to stop dithering and start writing, by settling it with myself that chapter one is *definitely* getting a rewrite, so it’s okay if it’s not perfect for now. Otherwise I’d just sit there dithering forever, trying to come up with a perfect first sentence and failing.

  2. Your exposition method sounds like a great strategy, especially if it works for you! I currently have an inner monologue/info dump that only lasts for about a page and a half at the beginning of my novel, and I’m trying to find a way to get to the action even sooner, because I feel like in today’s market (and especially in self-publishing) you don’t get much more than a couple sentences to convince someone to keep reading. It’s definitely a challenge to fit in all the necessary expository details and properly hook the reader. But then, perhaps your work is more like Tolkien’s, with exposition is so good it *is* a hook. I feel like I need to cut back on mine in that particular instance because it’s not quite doing the heavy lifting necessary for that part of the book.

    • I try to cut it back during rewrites. I put in a big chunk of everything that I need to know or that I think needs to go in right at the beginning, then try to seed it through the story as well. Then I can go back and cut it from the beginning. What I can’t cut because it’s in somewhere else, or haven’t decided isn’t necessary after all, I try to break up into smaller lumps. Almost any reader will forgive you three or four sentences of exposition tucked in here and there, if it doesn’t interrupt the story too much. What bothers them tends to be big blocks. It’s like putting vegetables in your toddler’s food – the smaller the pieces, the less likely they are get thrown on the floor.

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