Exposition: Telling vs. Showing

Old Manual Typewriter

A writer should show the reader, rather than tell the reader. Help them form a mental picture in their minds. Put them into the story. How many times have we all been told this? Finding a balance between showing and telling is a hard thing to do, but to be a good writer we must strive to achieve that balance.

I’m a person who likes to think big, and in my writing it’s no different. As many of you know, in graduate school, my genre fiction thesis project was the first book in my Playground for the Gods science fantasy series, In the Beginning. But, what you may not know is that my original thesis proposal was for what turned out to be the third book, only in my mind it was the only book and it spans back beyond prehistoric time. While preparing my thesis proposal the feedback that I recieved from instructors and cohorts time and again, was that my proposal would require too much exposition unless I created an epic tomb of unfathomable porportions, way beyond the scope of my thesis requirements, and impossible to complete in the time allowed.

The main problem was that there was a lot of background that I felt the reader needed to understand where the character was coming from in the now of the story. Most of that information was being communicated to my readers through exposition. The story wasn’t taking them back to relive the scene, it was simply filling them in on what they needed to know, because the story I wanted to tell spanned over billions of years. That’s a lot of backstory. That’s exposition.

Robin Conley saw a similar problem in her review of the movie Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, “Almost all of these really big elements deserved a proper set up because they are major story parts that will potentially carry over… The long exposition and set up in the film makes the story drag and hard to stay involved, no matter how many interesting elements there are.” Thumbs DownRobin explains what exposition does and why we don’t want too much of it. Too much exposition is like coming in in the middle of a film you’ve already seen, and filling in other viewers on what is happening, instead of letting them watch the film and figure it out for themselves.

That was the problem with my PfG story – way too much exposition. It happens all the time. And it’s easy to overlook it when you’re the author. Which is exactly what I had done with my thesis. I had that story outlined and plotted, but I kept having to stop and fill in the background details with exposition. And exposition tells your readers something, but it doesn’t provide a mental image for them. It doesn’t pulace them in the scene. Action and dialog accomplish those tasks quite well. And my cohorts and instructors were right, although at the time, I didn’t want to believe them.

My solution was to turn my story into a four part series. Hence the Playground for the Gods series was born. All that backstory, which had come out mostly in exposition, became a story of its own, one that I could show my readers, rather than telling them about it. My original story idea will eventually be book three, and although I did have to write the whole first book instead of the story I set out to tell for my thesis, that story outline is still waiting for me to put it in story form.

Of course, that isn’t the only way to solve problems of exposition, but this can be applied without creating entire novels. You simply expand on some scenes to eliminate exposition and create a longer story, chosing those scenes that are most vital to the story. You can also chose to leave certain information out, thus eliminating exposition without lengthening, and perhaps even shortening your story. It is a delicate balance, but as the writer, you must do what the story needs to achieve it. What works for one story may not necessarily be the answer for another.

So, how much exposition is too much? That’s a very subjective question, but generally speaking, if you’re telling your reader what happened, with a few lines of glib dialog thrown in here or there, then you have too much exposition. Your reader wants to get lost in the book, and for that, they need a story that is told in such a way that they feel like they are there.

We’ve all read stories like that. For me, it’s Anne Rice. I may have never been to New Orleans, but after reading some of her books, I feel like the Garden District and the French Quarter are old frieinds. I can smell the magnolia blossoms, and see the old plantation houses as if I’d been there. That’s the kind of story we, as authors, strive to write, regardless of the genre we write in. It’s the kind of story that has the perfect balance, using exposition only when absolutely necessary to fill in details, providing plenty of action and dialog to fill in the rest. It’s a  delicate balance, but one we must all strive for.

Until next time, Happy Writing!

 

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