Thursday 9 June 2011

Candy Gourlay Battles Exposition at the SCBWI Retreat

by Jo Wyton
Guest Blogger

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.

Not yet.

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.

Exposition Exhaustion

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


  1. Wow, you actually listened to my talk!

  2. Great post! Now, I'mm off to smell some roses.

  3. Candy, I'm sure you left the retreat early to avoid seeing the horrible effects of your handiwork the next day. Sleepless, exposition-cutting nights were reported all round.

  4. it's a relief to see it make sense. Jo reported it well. I was nervous speaking in front of so many experienced authors - i thought I was incoherent in parts.

  5. Brilliant post, Jo - I've been trying to worm out of Candy what her talk was about - and how you've shown me - what a star you are - both of you are stars!

  6. Actually I don't think I've done you justice here Candy! You weren't incoherent at all - all very useful. And surprisingly entertaining... Such a good weekend.

  7. 'surprisingly'?
    You were expecting Candy to be really, really dull, weren't you, Jo

  8. Great post, Jo! Exposition or how to cram 5 novels into one - why coudln't you just leave me in ignorance??!

  9. Touche Teri! It's not usually fun having people point out you're not doing it right... that's what I meant. Tsk...

  10. I've got the coloured pencils out but so far have lots of doodles! I get the feeling I should try harder. Great post Jo and sounds like it was a great workshop, Candy.

  11. Great post - and brilliant pictures :O)

  12. Thanks this was very interesting! I can really see what you mean and will go back over my story for some creative 'slash and burning'...


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