My name is Drew Chial and I have a problem: I’m addicted to exposition. I talk too much and so does my writing. I need to learn to give people space to get a word in edgewise. I need to learn to do the same thing for my readers. I need to ask my friends more questions and give readers more room to fit their own imaginations in. I need to stop assuming my friends want to listen to me “tell it like it is” and stop thinking my readers won’t notice the information I show them.
Readers don’t like to be led by the hand. They’d rather come to their own conclusions.
When I was a screenwriter my focus was on what I could capture on camera. Film is a visual medium. If the audience couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist. Now that I’m writing a novel, I’m no longer burdened by the constraints of the silver screen. I can insert annotations into the action. I can give biographies for characters who were dead before the production began. I can tell what a character is thinking while leaving the audience blind to their surroundings.
My narrator is unrestrained by cinematic convention. He can pause the movie and give commentary at any time. His humor doesn’t have to come from observations in the spur of the moment. It can be scripted, like a standup routine. He’s free to philosophize, allowing me to write chapters that read like blog entries, where the narrator talks about a subject with no clear sign of what spurred the thought.
Chapters like these were my favorite part of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Once the husband and wife narrators were revealed to be liars and cheats, their reasoning was fascinating. This worked because Flynn’s characters were living in the media spotlight. Their circumstances made it dangerous for them to externalize their thoughts. I’ve blogged about how certain situations force writers to reveal what a character is thinking, but in my work in progress I used exposition without giving my narrator a reason.
My narrator became a bad weather friend, cornering the reader in a booth, venting at them all night long. He lost interested in progressing his story. His focus was on flashbacks. He needed to unload all the details before he decided where to go next.
It’s easy to blame my narrator, but I was the one who set him up for failure. I didn’t write character bios before diving into my novel. I wrote them into the text. I didn’t draw out a timeline. I had the narrator review it aloud. I didn’t chart out character relationships. The narrator name drops everyone to let the reader know where they stand.
My Quick Fix for Excess Exposition
I write a lot about darlings on this blog. Darlings are expressions the author can’t stop using, descriptions that run so long they turn poetic, and asides that derail the flow. I’ve written about methods for sparing darlings, by copying and pasting them into new documents. Let me elaborate on one of my favorite techniques for repurposing them.
The first chapter of my work in progress starts with Murphy, the narrator, drinking his problems away. He describes the setting and its occupants before segueing into what ails him. He’s a lawyer about to be disbarred for sleeping with a client. His legalese and heavy emotions dwarf the situation around him.
Murphy’s romantic rant was fun to write. It was a portrait of a selfish prick who considered himself a realist. There were some real zingers in there. Going back, I found the chapter was a lot of fun to read, but it felt like I was cheating. The lawyer’s brazen tone left no room for the readers to weigh in on his situation.
Murphy’s lines might not have been as clever as I thought they were, but there was useful information in his whining. Cutting the entire monologue was not an option. I needed to funnel some of it into the scene.
This roadside bar had one other patron. There was no way to repurpose Murphy’s musings into commentary on his surroundings. This is when I realized he could vent his frustrations to the bartender.
This created an opportunity for comedy. The bartender didn’t need to be the stone-faced cliché we’re used to seeing in these type of locations. You know, the bearded biker, stuck in an endless cycle of wiping down the bar. He could be engaged in the discussion, eager to quote the findings of recent psychological experiments. Too bad Murphy isn’t looking for insights. He just wants acknowledgement.
This exchange sets a precedent that any biases the reader might have about small towns don’t apply in Pilgrim Valley, a place whose very name is a lie.
With a tense change and a few edits, Murphy’s exposition became the subject of their conversation. This exchange is still a form of exposition, but it feels more organic. It makes it harder to spot the writer lurking behind the scenes. I don’t have to hand the audience the setup directly. They get it by way of a courier.
By making the bartender a good listener, I can launder information to the reader. Here’s another place to exploit the freedom of the medium. Characters in books can have much longer conversations than they do in films. By providing a reason for Murphy’s excessive drinking, I can reveal information without resorting to a flashback.
Exposition isn’t always a measure of last resort. Sometimes it provides a break from the action, but when there’s more commentary than there is story, writers need to smuggle their exposition into their scenes.