“David stared into the candy machine as his eyes filled with tears. Seeing the multicoloured balls of sugar reminded him of the county fairs he’d been taken to as a small boy.
He remembered his father hoisting him up onto his shoulders, and the way that these interactions formed his personality and insecurities. He knew that by forcing lashings of exposition into this chapter, the author is able to write an emotional breakdown into the next chapter that will make more sense than it would otherwise. The author wants to cheat his way to an unearned breakthrough, and it’s with exposition that he hopes to get away with it.”
As a reader, don’t you hate dense paragraphs of exposition? They’re like a sandwich with too much bread.
When I’m reading a story, I want to live in a moment with the character. I only want to be told what I need to know based on what I’ve observed since arriving at the story.
If you were unfortunate enough to watch the Artemis Fowl movie on Disney+, you can probably remember the 6 minutes of exposition that was dumped onto the audience right as the movie got started.
The lazy screenwriter had no interest in showing you that Artemis is intelligent through a thought-out narrative, instead he forced a dwarf character to look dead into the camera and tell you about it. This is a move that is not only lazy and boring, it’s aggravating once you meet the Artemis character and learn that despite what we’ve been told, he’s actually annoying and unlikeable.
So what should you do? What does a writer write if not the details that make up the story? Well, let’s begin with telling the reader what they actually need to know.
When planning your book, especially after you’ve written the first draft, you’ll have collected a lot of information on all of your characters.
Your main characters may have pages of backstory that you’re desperate to share, because they’re beautiful and took a long time to write. But the unfortunate reality is that most of it should never make it into the novel.
Especially while writing dialogue, your stockpile of backstory and justification will be invaluable in crafting the individual voice of everyone in your book while also staying true to your voice as an author.
But aside from that, the work you’ve put into these pages of backstory should stay with you. There’s no need for a dream sequence or a series of flashbacks that provide unnecissary context to the story.
With the exception of some unique examples, doing this will only hurt your story and drive your narrative into the ground.
Just tell the reader what they need to know and that’s it. Allow us to join the adventure at the most opportune time, then carry us until it’s time for us to leave. That’s all we’re entitled to, and all we want.
No Expository Dialogue
“You’re only saying this because of that time our mutual father held us both underwater! It was your fault then for burning the toast, and it’s your fault now!”
There’s really no need to shove exposition into dialogue in a quick attempt to give us context into a situation.
Read dialogue that’s written masterfully and notice that there’s usually no need to bring anything up that’s not happening in the situation in which we’ve found ourselves.
If you’ve plotted your book well, your audience should already know that the character has a sketchy father and an unfortunate childhood. If you’ve developed the story and given us a look into the character’s past by crafting a damaged personality for your character, then your dialogue should make sense in the context of the scene and the story.
If you’ve given your character a crappy father and you want to communicate the damage, write this into the way the character communicates with their own or someone else’s father. This is far superior to a thought sequence or out-loud musings over a muffin.
Give us a series of informative scenes that slowly reveal a damaged character and allow us to gain context over time. If you’re reaching the end of the third act and you’re justifying absolutely anything the character is doing or saying, then your first act needs to be re-written.
If you’re in the first act and you’re justifying the things your character is doing or saying, ask yourself why that is.
You should be world-building and putting your character into situations that reveal his or her true colours. You shouldn’t be writing dialogue that explains a history for a character we don’t even know or like yet.
Don’t Rush Information
The first act is your chance to build a world and teach us about the characters that star in your story. However, there’s no rush to inform us about everything right away.
Maybe your character is deeply flawed, but is a kind person underneath. There’s no need to contrive a situation wherein the character rescues a cat and forces the audience to love them. (Shoutout to ‘Save the Cat’).
Instead, have the patience to allow your characters the chance to show more of themselves over the arch of the story. It’s ok if the reader misunderstands the character all the way through the first act, they can learn more as they continue to read. It’s the same with people in real life, so why wouldn’t it be the same in books?
I’m often delighted when a character I thought I knew all throughout the book makes a surprising development at the end. As long as the development is earned, the payoff is satisfying.
Characters don’t just twist for no reason, but they can show their true colours with enough development and true care.
Wrapping it Up
Remember that a novel is a really long endeavour, and it’s difficult to hold the attention of the reader the entire time if the excitement isn’t well paced and properly developed.
Packing your book with exposition rushes story elements that don’t need to be rushed, and cheats the reader out of making organic discoveries that would have made them love your character a lot more otherwise.
There’s no need to rush, and there’s never a need to dump information all over your audience in an attempt to make them understand what you’re trying to say.
Have faith in the intelligence of your reader, and trust them to follow the breadcrumbs you’re leaving all the way to the finish line.
Plus, you never know, if you get to the end of your book and there’s still more to be said about this character, you already have material for a sequel.
Audiences love characters they can get to know and relate to. So treat them like a real person, and let time and growth be your go-to instead of an info-dump cheat code.