Filling in the Gaps

IMG_3771Problem: What about all the stuff I need to explain at the beginning, for my story to make sense. I can’t just leave it out, can I?

A common problem for writers is believing that they need to provide certain information at the beginning of their story; details of a character’s past or some background to their story. This adding of information is called exposition and some writers put far too much of it into their beginnings. Your beginning needs to be devoid of clutter: Not too many characters, not too detailed a setting, not too complicated a situation and not too much information stuffed into either the dialogue or the narrative.

What’s wrong with exposition?
Nothing is wrong with exposition in itself and at times it is necessary. It is when it is unnecessary, excessive and delivered all at once in an inappropriate place, such as the beginning, that it can ruin your story. Let’s say you have begun with an intriguing hook (see previous post entitled Hook and Line). If you follow this with a chunk of explanation your reader will feel like someone pinned to the bar by the sort of person who wants to drone out their whole life story before he can even buy his drink, and he will be in a hurry to escape. Your hook will lose its impact.

Try this: – If it helps put all the information you want to include into your story, to unload it from your mind and to discover what you want to explain. Then, after you have written the story, take it out again and see where else you can introduce it more naturally.

Think of it from the readers point of view:
The reader wants to wonder, think, mentally ask questions and look for answers and will enjoy how this process builds tension and curiosity. Too much exposition gives the reader information they haven’t begun to look for and answers questions they haven’t asked. This slows the action, reduces the tension and risks boring or irritating the reader.

Get rid of backstory:
The worst kind of exposition is backstory; adding information about the past, or explaining details in a character’s background, at the beginning of a story. You may feel this information needs to be in the story but its all too easy to add too much, too soon, and in blocks that are too large. The past is gone, and there is no suspense in it anymore, so your writing should be showing what is happening now, without any narrative summary or flashback.

Try this:
Ask, how could I dramatise this information? How could I bring in anything that happens offstage, onstage, and show it happening in front of the reader? For example, Instead of describing in details how a street once looked, you can show that discovery through the eyes of characters as they travel down that street. You can bring in past events and give them relevance in the present without flashback by adding them, here and there, into dialogue.

How do you avoid backstory?
Don’t open with someone in the present who is remembering the past. It’s not easy to grab a reader’s interest at the best of times and you are likely to lose it this way. Show something happening first and the reasons for it can be fed in later. Avoid the use of ‘had’ or ‘had been’. This is a sign that you are using the pluperfect tense and exposition often shows up in this form. It robs your beginning of immediacy. Alarm bells should ring if your story begins something like this:

For the last year Jenna had been avoiding the centre of town. It was there that she had last seen her father and it was there that he had walked out of her life.

Try this:
– Have your story start with action, not with history.
– Accept that your reader needs to know far less to read your story than you needed to write it. That keeping them guessing for a while is a good thing.
– Reduce the details you provide. You can’t describe any scene fully. Concentrate on providing a general impression and a few details and let your readers imaginations supply the rest.

What about the information you need to put in? Where do you put it, then?
The back story you want to include can be fed in at some point during the first half of your story, but not at your beginning. You can manage exposition more naturally through character action and dialogue and let your reader experience events through this as your story unfolds. Explanation interrupts the progress of your story.

Try this:

– Break up the content so you don’t drop large amounts of information into the story at once. Add fragments into appropriate places as you go.
– Consider creating a character who needs to know that information. You could have a character who is inquisitive or on a mission to find out something for an important reason, or is a stranger in town and needs to ask questions. This avoids the phony situation, often seen in old movies, where you have an accomplice going over information that the villain already knows.
– Make a character struggle to discover information. This allows for conflict and tension
– Relate information to action, so, for example, you can see a man is armed and dangerous, rather than having one character tell another that he is.
– Make your character notice something that you want to draw attention to and your reader will notice it, too. If another character is present when your main character vomits in the morning then it would be perfectly natural for that character to ask if she is pregnant, without the writer interrupting to explain this.

Inserting exposition into dialogue:
Writers often drop extraneous information into dialogue to disguise it but it often sounds unnatural, which makes more obvious. Dwight Swain, in his book,  ‘Techniques of the Selling Writer’ gives an exaggerated, but good example:

“Father, is your sister Lucille, whose husband Gregory died last August and left her penniless, coming to visit us?”

The function of dialogue is not to allow a writer to unload extra information but to move the story on through character and action. There has to be a reason for a character to require information, for any to be added, and it has seem relevant to the moment.

Try this:
– Check that your characters only say what is conceivable for them to say at that point in the story. Reduce what you have them say. Pare it right back to what is necessary.

What is the right amount of exposition?
The right amount of exposition is just enough to motivate your reader to be interested in a relevant past.

Try this:
– Make the past important or interesting enough that your reader will be more likely to want to know about it but allow the information to come from characters that act and speak like normal human beings
– Make the background info brief when you do introduce it and include only what you need to. Ask, do I really need it ALL?

If your beginning is not interesting it could be that you have slowed it down with too much exposition and in doing so, buried your hook and lost your reader.

Next Post: Where does my beginning end?


About lesleyjjackson

Author, Short Story Writer and Poet - Offers help to new, confused and blocked writers
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