How do I know if I have too much exposition?
a comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory
As a basic rule of thumb: if your exposition distracts from the main narrative, then it’s too much.
That sounds a lot simpler than it actually is, though, doesn’t it? Because it’s difficult to tell when we’ve pulled the reader’s attention away and when we haven’t within our own work.
That’s why beta-readers are so helpful because getting a fresh eye can do wonders for helping see things in our work that we’re too close to notice. A good beta-reader (or two or seven) is an invaluable tool for a writer. Find a few friends or family whose opinion you trust and listen to them when they have feedback on your work. Their word isn’t gold–you don’t have to make every change they suggest–but it is still important for your development.
But that’s not really the issue, right? This post is about what you can do to help your own work improve!
First, if you’re fretting over this and you have not written your novel yet…then stop reading this post and go write your book! In your first draft, you should write all the words. (Maybe not all, but lots.) It’s okay to write four pages of exposition in the middle of scene in your first draft because in this version, you’re just telling yourself this story. You’re organizing notes, thoughts, outlines, etc. into a narrative. It won’t be perfect, and that’s great. You can’t move onto the next stage of book-making until you’ve got a first draft, so through caution to the wind and write!
This post is mostly for those of you who have finished work and are going over it prepared to edit, rewrite, scramble it up, and starting making that mess-of-a-first draft into a finished, wonderful product.
So…it’s time to edit your book
Zoom in on a section of exposition and take every fact you’ve written about and ask:
Does this advance the plot? Do we come to a deeper understanding of a main character because of this?
If the answer to both of those is no, then cut it (in this draft. Don’t worry. You still have those words written in previous drafts!) Do this as you read through for any section of exposition you find.
Then, when you’ve shaved off the irrelevant bits, start asking yourself: Is there a more subtle way to weave this into the action or dialogue of the narrative? If no, but it’s still important, then leave it. If yes, then try to do some rewriting where you have these cultural tidbits revealed in the actions and speech of your characters.
Allendra was from the southern tribes. Their main diet consisted of crop, food produced from the land. Wildlife beyond the occasional crow or squirrel was rare, so the southern tribe had come to view their abundant crops as a gift from the gods. They were vegetarians as a matter of, not only happenstance, but religion. That religion had been instilled in her by her parents, primarily her mother, and even though she’d left her homeland and was wandering new, unfamiliar territories for the sake of her own people, her mother’s hypothetical approval still drove Allendra’s actions. When presented with meat, Allendra did not know what to do. She was out of her league here, in this strange culture. And she didn’t know how to turn away the offer without being rude.
“Street vendors?” Allendra said, lifting a brow. “But they’re all selling…bloody things.”
Randa laughed. “Oh, Ally, don’t betray yourself as such an alien. That’s meat! Everyone around here eats it. It’s good for you.”
“I haven’t…I don’t eat…It’s just…” Allendra stumbled over her words. She didn’t want to be rude. Her mother would slap the back of her head if she was rude to this new hostess. And yet…what would mother say if Allendra waltzed up to this vendor and took a bite of the meat? Allendra shuddered to think.
The gods wouldn’t be too thrilled, either, but it was the image of mother’s disappointed face that made Allendra turn away from the street vendors and keep walking. Homesickness filled her gut. “Sorry, Randa. I just can’t.”
See you can do to make cultural facts fit into the story or character development. Here are some ways to think about that, as you attempt to change flat exposition into engaging storytelling:
Could this worldbuilding exposition be used to:
- Invoke an emotion in a character?
- Create conflict between characters?
- Create conflict within a character?
- Add tension to the main plot?
- Add tension to an important subplot?
- Create a funny or awkward situation?
- Motivate a character’s actions?
- Prevent a character from taking necessary action?
Basically, ask yourself this main question: How can I show the importance of this cultural element, rather than telling the reader how important or relevant it is?
Sometimes, exposition is needed. It’s not evil and it has a lot of power to get bullet points of information to your reader quickly. However, you–the writer–always need to make sure you’re letting exposition have power by using it sparingly. There are always multiple options on how to present information to your reader. It’s your duty to make sure you consider them all and use the one that best fits your narrative.
And now that you’ve finished this draft of editing and rewriting, set your novel aside for a while. A week, a month, a year…whatever you need. Come back to it later with a fresher perspective and see how your edits fit together. If you find that some of the exposition that you cut needs to be put back, then you can always do that. You can see the flow better, and do more editing to help your new rewrites fit effortlessly into the narrative. You are the writer. YOU HAVE THE POWER.