Monday, 19 September 2016

Exposition: it's about emotion not information

By Candy Gourlay

Have you written The End yet?

Nooooooo I haven't!

Despite recent pronouncements that The End is nigh, I'm still plodding along. I can see it coming, but right now, what's on my mind is EXPOSITION.

See, this book I'm writing, it's got a historical element (meaning, it's context is a real time and place). Also an anthropological element (meaning, it is set amongst a real people who didn't write down their history).

It's a tricky book to write because there's a lot of explaining to do. Nothing about the history or the characters will be easy peasy for most readers. The onus is on me to explain what it's all about. Exposition. But how do I do that without boring people?

This problem of course is not unique to me. All authors struggle with exposition whether they are writing fantasy, history, mystery or any other genre. Exposition, done badly, can turn your book from a svelte, pacey story ...

... to a sluggish, unwieldy tome.

I first heard that old writing maxim 'Show Don't Tell' thirty years ago when I was starting out as a journalist. It's a good rule for a writer to live by. But the more I write fiction, the more I realise that it ain't as easy as all that. Sometimes you just don't have the time to show. Sometimes showing is more boring than telling. Sometimes telling is the only way to get from A to B.

Show and Tell ain't easy. Sometimes you don't have the time to show. Sometimes showing is more boring than telling. Sometimes telling is the only way to get from A to B.

I would argue that Show Don't Tell is a valuable skill that every writer should master - but it's just one of many techniques in your toolbox ...  it should not be a rule for everything.

Exposition is information and information is necessary to enhance the reader's experience. So instead of Show Don't Tell, I prefer this quote from novelist Chuck Wendig:

If exposition is on the menu, then by god, you better know how to serve it right and make it tasty.

(Read Chuck's 25 Ways to Make Exposition Your Bitch post, it's great with lots of rude words. But first finish reading this article.)

Weeds are just plants in the wrong place. Exposition, like weeds, is story in the wrong place. Your job, as author, is to know where exposition belongs. So my first suggestion is:


Story structure looks something like this:

This is the diagram I use when I'm teaching story structure. 

Imagine that jagged line was a washing line. And all the stuff that happens in your story are the washing you hang on the line.

Hanging the right bit of washing on the right bit of line will make the difference between a story that sags and a story that is tight. But first, you gotta understand the washing line. That is, you have to make time to understand structure so that you know where things belong.

Exposition has its place but you, the writer, have to know where that place is.


Photo: Dave Shafer (CC)

When are you most likely to give up reading a book? Whenever there's a massive info-dump. You know, that moment when the author interrupts a perfectly good story to describe something irrelevant in great detail or the characters have a long stretch of dialogue in which they explain the plot to each other or when a character looks into a mirror and describes herself for the benefit of the reader?

'I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing,' says Stephen King in his memoir On Writing. Absolutely! But I would add: bad writing is also rooted in a total disregard of the reader.

A writer who does an info dump is only thinking of getting the business over with. Poor reader. She won't know what hit her. Well, she won't bother to find out because she's probably slammed your book down and returned to liking random cat videos on Facebook.

So drip-feed exposition. Craft it into the narrative so that the reader absorbs it without realising. Little by little should do it.


When something important is happening in your story, you want your reader totally, absolutely absorbed in the moment. Got something to explain? NO! Don't you dare interrupt! Put it somewhere else!

Ring-fence your big moments from anything that might take your reader out of the fictive dream. Keep exposition out.

Do not interrupt. 

Write it on a large piece of card and stick it to the wall above your head. Just don't.


Here's where the Show Don't Tell skill comes in. The best way to make exposition invisible is to not treat it like information.

Why say 'Darth Vader is evil' when you can show Darth Vader blowing up a planet, strangling his own officer and torturing various underlings?

Why say Woody in Toy Story wants to be top toy when you can show him leading a meeting, supervising the toy soldiers and monopolising prime real estate on Andy's bed?

Be on the look out for 'tells' that can be turned into story. Done well, your reader will thank you for it.


The New York editor Sol Stein said, 'Don't take the reader where he wants to go.' Or give the reader 'narrative blue-balls' as Chuck Wendig more colourfully puts it in 25 Ways to Make Exposition Your Bitch.

Stein says, when the reader most desperately wants to know what happens next, don't tell him. Hold back. It will make any revelation that much more satisfying.

Wendig says, yes, keep your reader sweating (that's what they want anyway). Then suggests this would be a good time to insert some exposition that needs expositing. This is not interrupting, this is torturing your reader. In a good way.

Try it, next time you're writing a scene. Hold something back.

The reader doesn't always want to know even when he's desperate to know. Suspense is part of the fun of reading.


I have loads more exposition tips but I haven't got any more time, so let me end with this advice.

It's so easy to read books and blogs and lists and believe that if you follow certain rules, you will write a better book. But it is also important to know that every story is different. Your story is special. No one else is writing it.

So as writers, we must learn to listen to the story we are trying to tell. Not just listen. Feel. Because at the end of the day, managing exposition is about figuring out how our stories impact on the emotions of our readers.

'How do you know when to cut?' Someone asked Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting, a YouTube channel on cinema.

'I have to think and feel my way through the edit,' Tony replied.

Tony explained that when he's rewatching footage, he looks for 'moments when he sees a change in the actor's eyes -- like when he's making a decision.' For us writers I guess it's similar to paying attention to the character's emotional arc and how, in turn, it generates emotions in the reader.

'Emotions take time,' he says, and 'editors have to decide how much time to give an emotion.'

It's a great prism with which to review how you craft exposition into your stories. What emotion does the exposition generate? How can I use this piece of exposition to enrich and build emotion or tension in the story? Can it do that in another part of the story? Is there another way I can reveal this information so that it enriches the reader's experience? Would it achieve that better if it were shorter? Should I write more to build on the reader's emotional response?

There's an in-built relationship between the story itself and how to tell the story and the rhythm with which you tell it. And editing is seventy per cent about rhythm. Walter Murch, editor of Apocalypse Now

There are more nuggets of inspiration for writers in the video, so at this point, let me go and write another chapter, while you sit and watch.

Till next time!

Candy Gourlay is the founding member of Notes from the Slushpile and the author of Shine and Tall Story. Her books have been listed for the Guardian Children's Prize, the Carnegie, the Blue Peter and many other prizes. She loves babies, dogs, photography, gardening and drawing. Her last post on the Slushpile was Breaking Bad for Children's Writers


  1. Brilliant , as ever, how you mine the internet for quotes and clips is little short of miraculous. Thank you Candy.

    1. Or does it indicate too much time spent on the Internet? Thanks, Kathy.

    2. Every Frame a Painting is one of my favourite YouTube channels!

    3. Thanks Candy - this is brilliant - not heard of this before
      love it - lucy van smit

  2. Loved the post - Candy. I'm facing a similar problem in my current MG which has got a lot of Hindu myth - where to explain, where to let the emotions run. Thanks!

    1. In both of my books, I have a storytelling character and I use micro fables to get certain points across so that it doesn't feel like explanation.

  3. This is so useful! I am only just getting over my cowardice when it comes to drip-feeding info. Thanks again, Candy; you should write a book about writing books.

    1. I have a fear that if I put too much story in, it will expand so much that I will lose the direction of my original trajectory.

  4. Thanks, Candy. As always you're a clarifier of the things I muddily know and gropingly do.

    1. Ha ha I'm in touch with the idea of gropingly doing and muddily knowing.

  5. So useful - and very timely for me. Thanks, Candy. Brilliant!

  6. Perhaps the trick is to make the exposition as compelling as everything else. Bill Bryson writes books composed of nothing but exposition, and you can't put them down.

    1. Great point, Nick! It's the how of compelling that is a struggle, of course.

  7. Great. I love your point about following "the rules". If it was just about following rules, it'd be easy. I guess the trick is to trust your judgement to know when to break rules which oversimplify things. But before you can do that, you have to hone your judgement by reading and writing, getting things wrong and putting them right. Which is what I ought to be doing now...

    1. Trusting your judgement is a whole new bag of tricks. Building up the self confidence to trust yourself takes time and, as you rightly say, a LOT of reading and writing ... work! Which is what I'm going to do right now! Signing off the internet for the rest of the day!

  8. Great post with lots of useful points and reminders. Thanks Candy :)

  9. I'm in the throes of editing and 'rhythm' resonates. We sometimes do things instinctively then someone comes along and gives it a name. Great blog, as ever. Many thanks


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