Friday, July 31, 2009

The Mysteries of Exposition

by Jean Henry Mead

When your plot first unfolds, you have to decide how to spoon in backstory or exposition, which involves breaking from the main storyline to give your reader information relative to the plot. It’s the author’s way of telling the reader something rather than showing it.

Well-handled exposition provides perspective, dimension, and needed context that contribute to events in the present. A micro history, if you will. But exposition should be handled carefully. Comic strips and soap operas use the technique frequently, but novel characters should rarely use exposition to reveal past events, especially if they’re not relevant to the plot. Mystery novelists should write in a straight line with the story’s conclusion in mind, as though running a marathon with blinders. Forget those spectators on the sidelines. Always look toward the finish line.

An example of unnecessary exposition:

“Remember the key you found?”
“Which key is that?”
“Tied with a yellow ribbon.”
“Yes, I remember it well.”
“You said it was the key to your heart.”
“I’d been drinking champagne.”
“You dropped the key in my slipper.’
“Come now, Olivia, what’s the point?”
“Nothing, Derrick, nothing at all.”

If the above dialogue is a lead-in to a romantic scene central to the plot it’s fine, or if Olivia is planning to kill her lover, it’s okay to leave it in. Otherwise, delete it.

Dialogue that doesn’t contribute significantly to the plot should be eliminated, no matter how much you like it. When the first draft is finished and polishing begins, get rid of any dialogue that doesn’t characterize, provide limited exposition, or carry the plot forward. Any asides, cute expressions, and nonessential chit-chat need to go, no matter how cleverly written. Save them for the next novel and build a plot around them. Editors consider such nonessential dialogue “padding” and if your work is accepted in spite of padded prose, the copy editor will delete it for you. It’s better to do that yourself.


Mark W. Danielson said...

I agree, Jean. Referencing your example, rather than discussing the key in dialogue, there could be a mention of it being found, then later a note about the yellow ribbon, and later, the shoe -- if, in fact, this key is pertinent at all. This way the references become clues rather than in-your-face expositions that may insult a reader's intelligence.

Jean Henry Mead said...

That's true, Mark. I admit that my example was a little over-the-top to make a point. Hopefully no one writes such silly stuff. :)

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