“…nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”
-Lockstock from Urinetown the Musical
Beginnings are wonderful. In relationships, new jobs, first day of school, we are so full of optimism and hope for the future. Everything seems as if it is in place and no matter what is in the past, somehow this time will be different, better. We feel the love.
I can’t think about beginnings without thinking about exposition. We have a love/hate relationship right now.
Exposition: (in a play, novel, etc.) dialogue, description, etc., that gives the audience or reader the background of the characters and the present situation.
Beginnings are particularly difficult for me and I’ve probably rewritten the beginning of my WIP a hundred times trying to get it just right. Maybe that’s overworking it, but hey, I’m in a learning place. How and when you decide to lay out all the dirt on your characters’ pasts and current situation is a big deal. You can’t give too little, otherwise the reader will have no interest. You can’t give too much otherwise we’ll be confused or yet again bored because why should I care when I already know everything about them? It’s a delicate balance. The general rule I go by: Lay out information as it is necessary to the current situation.
The way you give information is also important. You can use narrative, dialogue or even action to convey what’s important to the story. Sometimes you have to tell the way things are in narrative form because if you were to use dialogue it would only sound contrived and the reader will be able to see those heavy strings the writer is using to manipulate her characters like puppets. But again, the key is to give the information as it becomes relevant.
One speculative fiction book that I think does a masterful job with exposition is THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. If you haven’t read it, do so and then read CATCHING FIRE, and then hold your breath until the next book comes out. But anyway, when the book opens there is a lot going on. It is set in a futuristic North America with twelve districts and a ruling Capitol. There used to be thirteen, but during a rebellion, the Capitol destroyed the thirteenth district. From thereafter, as a reminder of the horrors that rebellion causes, the Capitol forces each district to give two tributes, a boy and a girl to enter an arena and fight to the death, while the entire country is forced to watch on live television.
It’s a heavy burden to lay out all the necessary information without it seeming choppy or contrived or an information overload. This is why prologues in sci-fi and fantasy are so common. It’s just easier. In fact Collins could have written something similar to the above for a prologue and glossed over the beginning like a breeze. But the way Collins weaves it into the plot is just so much richer and rewarding. She deftly exposes the information throughout the entire novel as it becomes necessary.
Would you spill all your dirty laundry on a first date? Would you tell your coworkers everything you know and do well on the first day of work? Hopefully not. If so your first date is probably the last and your coworkers aren’t likely to be your friends. You might have a problem with too much exposition. On the flipside, if you are too evasive you will also have a short relationship because there will be nothing to hold on to.
Pace yourself. Ask, does my reader need to know this now? Does it make sense for me to reveal this information now? If it’s necessary, find a way to weave it in. If it can be saved for a later time, wait. Pay attention to the books you read. How do they tell what is needful? When do they tell it?
Another factor that goes into exposition is at what point in time you decide to begin your story, but I’ll save that for another post. I wouldn’t want to give an information overload on my post about exposition!
Happy Nanowrimo! Feel the love! (You’ll need it for later.)