Wednesday, July 27, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 22: Exposition

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Welcome to week twenty-two of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I posted Chapter 22 of THIRST yesterday over on my author website. Click here to read it.



Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:

A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.

Week three was Storyworld.
Week four: maps and floorplans.
Week five: protagonists and main characters.
Week six: side characters.
Week seven: prewriting.
Week eight: plot structures. 
Week nine: Theme.
Week ten: creating a plot outline or list of key scenes.
Week eleven: point of view.
Week twelve: narrative modes.

Week thirteen: how to write a scene.

Week fourteen: Where to start.

Week fifteen: Prologues.
Week sixteen: Dividing Your Book Into Chapters and Scenes Week seventeen: Write Fast and Free
Week eighteen: Dialogue and Thought
Week nineteen: Character and Author Voice
Week twenty: Action
Week twenty-one: Description

Today's Topic: Exposition

Exposition is the fifth of the five narrative modes we discussed back on week twelve. You've likely heard how fiction writers need to "show" and not "tell," well, sometimes you need to tell. And exposition is the "telling" part of the story. It's sole purpose is to convey information to the reader. Exposition can come at the beginning, end, or in between as the glue that connects the other narrative modes together. It can appear as backstory. It can help time pass by in a sentence. It can skip over something too horrible to show (like torture or a gruesome murder). 

Exposition can be dangerous. Why? Alfred Hitchcock said, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.” Exposition is the dull bits of the story. The author might use it too often to (cheat and) tell the reader things he wants them to know. Too much exposition and you risk bogging down your story and making it boring. In if there isn't enough in just the right places it might confuse readers.

How to avoid exposition

The best way to avoid having too much exposition in your story is not to write it. Here are some tips to help you do that.

Write bare bones first drafts - NaNoWriMo is great for practicing this. Write as fast as you can and only write a skeleton of a story. You can go back and add description and narrative later, and then you won't be so tempted to add too much.

Avoid all backstory - Just don't write it. If you find yourself if the rewrite or editing stage and needing a backstory scene, consider it very carefully, because there is often a better way to handle the scene.

Show don't tell - Don't tell us that your main character is a trained in martial arts. Have him run into some thugs and kick some tail. Don't tell us that your side character is a pig. Show him at the dinner table stuffing his face. Showing is about writing the movie version of your story, what would appear on screen. That's not likely some guy telling us interesting factoids about the other characters. Readers would instead prefer to see them in action, being themselves and living through an interesting situation (keyword: interesting). If you have a hard time spotting sections of telling, look for places where you overuse the word "was" (ex: He was doing this and that. He was a person like this.) or words like: felt, saw, heard, know. I'm not saying you should never use those words, but those words often lead to places of telling.

Start late and leave early - Authors have the tendency to start stories way too early. We think, "Oh, but the readers need to know that too!" The same thing happens at the end of scenes. We go on too long, wanting to linger in the moment. Fight it! Analyze your scenes and start at the latest possible moment, then end as early as you can. This will keep your story moving along at a brisk pace that keeps readers turning pages.

Keep it simple (stupid) - Authors have the tendency to complicate things. We've created deep stories, sometimes with amazing storyworlds, and we want the reader to know everything! But that's not necessary. The reader only needs to know what is relevant to each scene. Work hard to give just the facts they need: no more, no less. Don't throw in extra information that clutters the scene and the reader's mind.

Don't talk about what everyone already knows - This is one I struggle with, especially in books with multiple points of view. Take King's Folly, for example. If Trevn discovers something major but Wilek is off elsewhere for several weeks, once those two characters come back together, I want Trevn to tell Wilek all that's been happening. And I did. But I had to be very careful not to overdo it. Because the reader already knows all that. They experienced in in the story once. They don't want to relive it again.

Don't skip the cool parts and tell us about them - I once had a scene where a character was injured in a life and death situation. I ended the chapter on a cliffhanger. Then at the start of the next chapter, I summarized, saying the character was fine. Bad move! I had high tension going, and the reader wanted that experience to continue. Also, don't write a bunch of planning, then skip the play by play of the actual event. Show the reader your cool stuff! That's what they want to see.

Hold back as long as possible - You want to tell the reader something. You're dying to. Fight it! Hold back as long as you can.

Exposition might be necessary when . . .

Trying to figure out when to tell information and when to let the reader figure it out on their own is a tricky thing to do, even for professional writers. Your readers are smart. And it can annoy readers if you constantly state the obvious like they're children.

Sometimes, the amount of exposition you need depends vastly on what type of writer you are and the genre you are writing. Genre fiction tends to have far less exposition compared to literary fiction. No matter the genre, balance is key. So when do you need to use exposition?

When it's relevant to the scene - Save your bits of backstory and exposition for just the right moment. You have a character who is afraid of heights. Don't tell us. And don't put a flashback of the time she almost fell off a cliff when she is sitting in English class. Save it for when she's on a balcony or a tall building, then show us her fear and let her explain.

When the plot demands it - It's even better to save up exposition until the plot demands that it come out. The story won't move forward without this bit of information. As to our girl who's afraid of heights, perhaps she must get the golden egg from an eagle's nest on the edge of a cliff. The story can't move forward until the characters have that egg. But, uh oh. Now our girl must tell everyone about her fear of heights.

When you've made them curious - Jeff Gerke once said to me, "Don't answer questions that no one is asking." You might have a bit of cool research that you're dying to stick into your story, some amazing storyworld detail, or character information that you want the reader to know. Maybe you've created a childhood memory that explains how our girl came to be afraid of heights. But if the reader isn't curious about this, if it is currently irrelevant to the plot, you need to keep it out of the story. Make your reader want to know before you bother sharing. Carefully plant questions in the reader's mind, so that he will be anxious to learn the answers to the questions you want to tell about.

How to deliver exposition

Keep it short - Especially if you're summarizing or giving the reader a flashback. The shorter, the better.

Pretend the reader already knows - Whether you're writing a story that takes place in Canton, Georgia or a fantasy realm, resist the urge to include random facts about the place or your characters or magic. Write your book as if your reader already knows the facts. Then as you edit, you can insert critical details when necessary.

The dumb puppet trick - This is what Jeff Gerke and others call it when you have some information that needs to come out, so you designate one character as the dumb puppet. In my book Captives, Mason goes to work in the Surrogacy Center. He has never seen such medical equipment and asks Ciddah many questions to learn what's what. The reader learns right along with him. Pay attention when you watch movies and TV shows. Hollywood uses the dumb puppet all the time.

The Pope in the pool - This is a screenwriting trick from Blake Snyder. There was a point in a movie when some boring set-up information needed to get explained by the Pope. So rather than having the hero go to the Pope's office, he found the Pope in a swimming pool. So even though the boring, need-to-know information was coming out in dialogue, the reader was fascinated at the idea that the Pope might wear a swimsuit and swim. The oddness of the scene disguised the exposition.

Make it realistic - Be really hard on yourself when asking if what you've written is realistic. Would people really say that?

Make it a mystery - Whenever you can make information hard for your main character to get, you increase reader's curiosity. The bigger the mystery, the more the reader wants to know. Plant clues and let it come out little by little. That way the reader it discovering along with the characters.

Shards of glass - Think of your exposition as a stained glass window. Throw it on the floor until it shatters, then stick those little shards of glass into the story where they fit best. Look for places where the reader might be curious, where the information is relevant, or the plot can't move forward without the information.

The big reveal - You've made your character curious and saved the information until the best possible moment, then reveal it in a dramatic way. Don't overdo this. You can't reveal everything in this manner or it would become cliché.

Dialogue - You can reveal information in dialogue, but it must be a natural conversation. If it sounds forced, it likely is. (See the Dumb Puppet tip below.)

Monologing - This can be a bit cliché, so be careful, but sometimes near the end of the story in certain genres, the villain has an opportunity to explain the motivation behind all his dastardly deeds. 

Summary - You might feel the need to summarize if a lot of information has come out in your story, but be careful to make that summary timely and relevant or it can look like sneaky telling.

Flashback - You can take the reader back in time and show what happened. This also needs to be done very carefully. And use this rarely, too. A book filled with flashbacks can really annoy readers.

Backstory - I put this one last because it's not a very effective way to tell a story. But it has its uses. If you have some information that you've been saving up the whole book long, backstory might be the right way to share. But probably not.

Assignment time

Look for a place in your novel where you've written exposition and you shouldn't have. Rewrite that scene so that it's active and engaging. Do you have trouble with exposition? What tricks have you tried? Which ones would you like to try? Share in the comments.


  1. What a helpful post! I'm currently doing a load of editing for my WIP (finished the first draft last week!!) and this will be useful for sorting out my descriptions. I totally understand what you were saying about repetition and having a character tell another about their journey. Thanks for the help!

    1. Eek! Congrats on finishing your first draft, Charlotte! Yes, I tend to do that repetition thing all the time! Good luck on your editing.

  2. This was a great post, thank you Jill! Definitely helpful for me :). Also, I was wondering what week you'll be posting about writing the synopsis? I don't know whether to start on mine now or to wait until you (or Stephanie?) post about it.

    1. Savannah, I've been putting together my post on synopses. I'm hoping to have it ready sometime in the next couple of Mondays.

    2. Oh, awesome! I'll wait to write mine then :).

  3. I use Dumb Puppet occasionally, but I think Pope in the pool would be a pretty fun one to try! I'll have to find some way of fitting it into a scene. :)

    Oh, and were the blog contributors supposed to have gotten the email yet? I've been checking and haven't received anything.

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Williamson!

    1. Oh, man! Thought I emailed you already, Linea. I'll try again...

    2. Just re-sent. Let me know if she still doesn't make it through.

    3. It did make it this time! Thank you for resending.

    4. I think the Pope in the pool sounds fun too. :-)

  4. I find myself using exposition more than I should, I think there are some places where I could use the dumb puppet trick though, and other things I just need to show. Thanks for another cool post Jill :)

  5. This post is super helpful since some of the characters in my current WIP have important backstory that I need to share. I used a flashback for it. That seems to be my automatic backstory device. In one of my other WIPs there is a character with amnesia so he was a dumb puppet a lot.
    Also, whenever I have a big reveal I always get impatient to finally share it. I really need to be patient and wait for the right moment.

  6. Awesome post! The funny part is I just realized why my manuscript from last NaNo is so confusing: there is no exposition. Or at least not a lot, lol. I wrote a skeleton draft, so my characters--mostly my villain--have some explaining to do. And considering the nature of this story, Dumb Puppet is probably gonna be my go-to, so I'll need to be careful to make sure I don't overuse it.

    Thanks for the great post!