The Writer’s Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week’s mistake is using too much exposition in stories (often too early).
Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that’s OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer’s Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren’t focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we’re looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, hiding your pitch, or chasing trends. This week’s writing mistake writers make is using too much exposition in stories (often too early).
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Using Too Much Exposition (Too Early)
Before we dive too deep into this writing mistake, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: Exposition is not an inherently bad thing in writing. In fact, it’s a very important tool for writers to use, because it’s how we describe setting and character as well as deliver backstory. So while this post is about using too much exposition too soon, let’s all acknowledge that exposition is a good thing.
However, yes, we can have way too much of a good thing if we go to excess and if we go to excess straight out of the gates. For instance, here’s one way I could start a novel:
Many people considered Hill House a haunted house and would not stay the night in it or avoided it altogether. It was built 80 years ago and had a troubled history that involved deaths and ghosts. The house had many different types of rooms that seemed very foreboding. The grounds also seemed dangerous and lonely.
Not super compelling, and I could’ve gone into much more detail that would’ve made it even less compelling. Instead, Shirley Jackson offered us this as the opening of The Haunting:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors very sensibly shut; silence lay against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Both paragraphs use exposition, but one very clearly uses exposition to build a compelling story, while the other example just wants to deliver information. So let’s talk a little about how to fix the mistake of too much exposition.
Mistake Fix: Use Exposition to Enhance Your Story
Why is Shirley Jackson’s opening so good? For one, she doesn’t stop at using her exposition to describe the house. She doesn’t say what style it is, what colors are used. In fact, all we really know about the house in that opening paragraph is that it is near some hills and has walls, bricks, floors, doors, wood, and stone. Instead, she uses her exposition to set the mood of the story: The house “stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within” and “whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Not every story opening has to be as poetic as reading Shirley Jackson or Cormac McCarthy, but readers appreciate stories that don’t attempt to dump a lot of description and backstory into the first chapter (or any chapter really) of the book. If you need to start off with exposition, think about the reason why your story needs it and why at that moment.
Maybe you need to introduce a character and where they’re at. Think about a few things as you do so: Who is this character and what’s their role in the story? Does our perception of this character change over time? Why is this place a significant location? Is it a comforting location? Dangerous? Exciting? Use your answers to these questions to help flavor your descriptions.
When doing backstory, avoid huge data dumps of everything that’s ever happened and that might be relevant. Rather, make it relevant to the scene. For example, your characters may be in an ancient ruin that was once the site of a great battle. It would make sense for characters to reveal this type of information in this situation. However, they probably wouldn’t list off every other battle ever.
And if you’ve got a lot of great tech in your science fiction, be sure to share in small doses (again, when relevant). If characters have self-driving flying cars, that’s great. Don’t mention them until your characters actually need to use them (or see a news report that mentions them in passing).
Final thought: Use exposition; it’s a tool at your disposal. But use it with purpose and in moderation.
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