by Jo Wyton
Jo Wyton is another talented writing buddy from SCBWI. She is a geologist with a thoroughly impractical interest in rocks and an even more impractical interest in getting published. With deadlines looming, she is desperately trying to prop up the pile of unfinished manuscripts on her desk with one hand whilst trying to chase the elusive words 'The End' with the other. For some reason, she’s chosen to try doing that with two manuscripts at the same time. Eejit.
Exposition? Who, me?
Exposition. It’s a word most writers hate. Exposition is boring. Lots of drawn out explanations and backstory that’s guaranteed to persuade a reader to close the book and put it down.
Candy Gourlay’s advice to writers at the recent SCBWI retreat?
Cut it out.
Get rid of it.
Go on – you know you want to… (she’s very persuasive like that you know…)
Advice to hit the delete button usually leaves writers in one of three states:
One: smelling the roses
Two: you can't be serious?!
Three: uncontrollable hysteria
Except don’t just delete it.
Read it – figure out why you wrote it in the first place. Exposition is dull, but it’s usually been written for a reason. Are you explaining the rules of the world your character has found himself in? Or perhaps your character is remembering an important event that the reader needs to know about? The way forward, says Candy, is to ‘break it down and build it in’.
Don't leave your readers feeling the weight of exposition
Disseminate the information as much as possible; hide it away in action if you can.
You just need to find the right way to slide it in, so the reader doesn’t even notice what you’re doing.
Health warning: Thinking about exposition may have horrible side effects. The next morning one retreatee was found to have developed a phobia of her laptop, refusing to write any more in fear of exposition spilling onto the page in an unprecedented bid for freedom. Others collapsed at the dinner table from sheer exhaustion after spending the night searching for exposition in their manuscripts.
If you want to be really sneaky (and who doesn’t?) you can use your exposition even better than that. If you break it down you can use it to generate more story.
Take that small piece of exposition that you think your reader simply can’t live without, and spin it out – create a new chapter, or a new sub-plot, or, a new character. Sometimes, you can go the whole hog and generate a whole new story.
Take any section of exposition in your manuscript, however big or small, and grab some coloured pencils (usually the key to editing – lots of coloured pencils). Draw a box around each separate fact or piece of information you are trying to feed to your reader. Then look at each one separately and think about its potential.
Candy wasn't quite prepared for the level of love some people have for their exposition
Candy used an example from an old version of her novel Tall Story. In it, she had written a few sentences about one of her characters, Andi, and her failure to get on the school’s basketball team. But that particular titbit was too interesting for Candy to leave it hidden away in exposition.
If you’ve read Tall Story in its published form, you’ll know that Andi now gets entire chapters devoted to her trying to get onto the basketball team. For Candy, this one piece of exposition spawned a sub-plot that threads right from the start of the book to its conclusion.
AHA! Exactly the advice I was in need of! I looked down at 2,000 words of a new novel sitting on my laptop, and Hey Presto, Taadaa and Huzzah.
Because here’s the thing: as someone who’s still learning how to structure a novel, I often find I rush it. I write a full novel’s worth of plot in ten pages. But Candy told us to break down what we’ve written and look at it differently.
At the time, I had about 2,000 words of a new novel in front of me. Or did I? What I think I’ve actually got is a 2,000 word plot outline for half a novel. Now if only Candy would offer to write it for me too…
The talk was called Weightwatchers for Novelists: How to Lose Exposition and Add Meaning - 28 May 2011, SCBWI Retreat, Dunford House, West Sussex