Being a Better Writer: When Exposition Stops Being Entertaining

This post was originally written and posted February 2nd, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Welcome back everyone after another fun weekend! Anyone do anything awesome? I did! I spent my Saturday experiencing the sights and sounds of Comic-con, spending lots of money on said Comic-con (seriously, swag!) and then getting killed in an unexpected, but much enjoyed, run-in with Borderlands‘s own Krieg.

Thankfully, being an author, my budget is pretty small and limited, but getting respawned at the nearest New-U station wasn’t too wallet breaking. Now, my wallet slightly lighter and my goodie-bag full, I’m back once again, and ready to start another week off with a discussion on writing.

This week’s topic is one that comes from a reader and, to be honest, it’s a pretty darn good question, because it’s one concerning exposition. This is an area that has flummoxed not just young writers from around the world and across time, but even experienced ones, leading to many heads meeting desks. It’s a conundrum that pops up even in well-received works, be they movies, books, or any other medium with a plot. This conundrum? Well, I’ll let our seeker do their own explaining first. Here’s what they asked:

What do you do, when you’re writing, and the story really needs to get this information across in order to move the plot forward, but the narrative or dialogue to convey this information to the reader is soooooo boring that you don’t want to write it and you wouldn’t want to read it, either?

I’m sure that “think of a less boring way to convey the information” is a technically correct answer, but I hope you have some guidance in this area.

Well, you’re not wrong, that’s certainly going to be the gist of my advice. “Be less boring with your exposition” is certainly a great place to start. However, it’s also akin to telling a new Gears player to “Try dying less.” It’s not a question of being less boring with your exposition, it’s a question of how you do that.

So, today’s topic? We’re going to look at ways to fix dull exposition. After all, we want it to sizzle! Or at the very least, entertain. Our goal is not to have the readers skipping through chunks of dialog and story, after all, but how do we keep them from doing that?

Well, first of all, I’m going to start with the assumption that you’ve already recognize the issue. This isn’t going to be a discussion on exposition itself—its purpose, usage, etc. We’re not discussing that today. Rather, we’re sticking right to our reader’s question of keeping exposition entertaining. Which means that you’ve already recognized that it isn’t.

So, let’s tackle the first thing that I would ask when realizing that your exposition doesn’t hold the reader’s attention the way it should. The question that you should be asking yourself is why? Why isn’t this dialogue or this bit of worldbuilding, plot, etc, catching the reader’s eye? Why isn’t it catching your eye? What’s wrong?

Now, this might seem like a redundant question, but it’s not. Asking yourself what makes a segment of your work boring is an entirely valid question, one you should be asking as you look over your stuff. Because very often, the asking of “Why?” can reveal some important details.

For example, a particular bit of exposition might seem boring to you, the writer, because as the creator of the story, the tension may not be evident. The characters might be trying to go about solving a problem the wrong way, or giving a false explanation that as the writer, we know is false, but as a reader, we won’t. So the exposition seems dull because you already know what’s going on, sort of like peeking at the end of a book first. But as a reader, lacking this knowledge, a seen that the writer sees as dull actually isn’t.

See? Now if you ask yourself why a scene appears to be dull, sometimes you might find that it only appears to be simply because you’re already several pages ahead, but a reader won’t be. And to be fair, this is a difficult level of engagement to guess; it’s one of those areas where you’ll always be plugging away with a bit of trial and error (then again, that’s what Alpha Readers are for: to find these areas and help you identify them).

But what other reasons could exposition have for being boring? Could it be because the information we’re presenting is redundant, that we’ve already covered it before and the reader still remembers it? Or could our boredom come from the fact that the information we’re presenting is already so abundantly obvious that it’s become the equivalent of the trope itself? Is it simply a case of “as you know” dialog recapping information for the reader that the characters already know and acknowledge? Or maybe it’s just slow during an otherwise action-packed scene?

Each one of these cases could be a reason why we’re finding our exposition dull. Perhaps you already recognize one of them as one that you’ve fallen into. But here’s the thing, you still need to ask “Why?” because knowing why is what’s going to help you identify the tools you’ll need to shore up, adjust, or even flat out do away with a dull section of exposition.

After asking why, there’s one other thing to consider with regards to what seems like dull exposition: what is the pacing for this segment like?

Pacing we’ve gone over before. More than once, actually. And I doubt either of those will be the last time I tackle the topic. Why? Because pacing is vitally important. Just as no runner can sprint for an entire marathon, no reader can keep up with an endless, never-stopping barrage of action. We need to give our readers time to breathe. Time to pause, slow down, and reflect.

Which is why when looking at our exposition, we need to take pacing into account. Are we breaking the timing of our work by splitting up two scenes with exposition that should be instead together? Is our slower, explanatory dialogue serving a purpose by letting the reader take a breath, or are we breaking up the flow? What might seem like boring dialogue in one setting—for example, say another bit of long exposition between two characters just after a prior long, drawn out event—could come as a welcome bit of breathing space in another location—such as giving the reader a chance to “digest” a particularly climactic scene.

Let’s side-note on that term for a moment. Digest. Earlier, when I mentioned characters recovering information that the reader already knows? Sometimes you can totally do this, and have it not be dull at all. For example, post-big reveal, it can be useful from multiple standpoints to have your characters “react” to the reveal. While they’re in essence providing summary exposition, not only will this allow the author to ease the reader into digesting a sudden “shock,” but also tie up a quick summation that can draw the reader’s attention to or away from certain aspects of the reveal and allow the characters to react, grow, and plan the next step of their journey.

For example, an excellent use of this can be found in the pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, following the death of Dobby and the escape of the main characters from the Malfoy’s basement. Think about the chapter after that pivoting climax. What do the characters do? Honestly, from a removed standpoint they don’t really do much—mostly just recap what has happened so far, react to it, and then make plans to move ahead.

All of which could be boring, except it’s properly paced. The characters have just undergone a harrowing ordeal with plenty of tension. Now we, as the readers, are subject to the character’s reactions, a summary of the exposition so far which both cements concepts for the reader that have already been addressed and perhaps draws attention to those that they missed, and gives the characters time to plan their next move.

Now, had this exposition happened elsewhere, in another setting, it could have bored the reader to no end. Say, for example, the characters had all sat around and done this before the climactic scene at the Malfoy’s. The reader would have had a much higher chance of being bored, because it’s A) information they’ve already been collecting and B) nothing is happening. But because of the pacing, a reiteration of information and exposition the reader already knows isn’t boring but rather a moment to take a breath and relax.

Cool, huh?

Now, another sub-section of pacing here that I’ll mention: Pacing does not mean that something needs to be action-packed in order to be exciting. Tension, suspense, etc, all of the different elements that demand engagement from a scene, these all go into pacing. Just because your scene doesn’t have fifty-foot Michael Bay-style explosions does not mean that your scene can’t leave the audience wanting a moment to slow down, switch tone and pace for a moment, and refresh. A great analogy at this moment, I almost feel, would be to consider a scene like a flavor. Too much of one flavor gets old and stops being fresh. It doesn’t matter what flavor it is. Pacing is like parsley and a well-spread meal with different options. When you’re diving into your exposition, make sure that your exposition simply doesn’t become more of the same thing you’ve already fed your readers.

So what if it isn’t either of those two? What do you do if what you’re trying to get across is still boring your readers?

Well, maybe some other aspect of your work needs to be shored up. For example, how are your characters? Good exposition will often be mixed entirely with, or be very dependent on, the characters themselves. If your characters are engaged with exposition, dependent on it even, and let their own attitudes, thoughts, and even follies run into it, than exposition can be made to be fascinating even if the material presented isn’t that intriguing, simply by virtue of the character. Is a bit of back and forth dialogue exposition still coming across as dull to your readers? What happens if you make the characters foils to one another? Or have a bit of tension between the characters?

Crud, you don’t even need that. Good characters can, by virtue of personality and attitude, make a completely mundane explanation for something an activity that is far more intriguing. Going back to our Harry Potter example Dumbledore could, arguably, be considered a very expository character. But then look how much amusement was to be had in his simply inviting himself into the Dursley’s home and explaining the opening chunk of the The Half-Blood Prince‘s plot. In all honesty, that’s what he’s doing. But through the strength of his character, what would normally be dull becomes a laughter-filled stretch of almost absurdly comic proportions—all on the strength of Dumbledore’s character and personality.

If you’re finding that a bit of exposition just isn’t cutting it, consider the characters you’re choosing to deliver it. Are they best suited to being the ones to discuss it? Would that dialogue or information be more interesting if presented by another character, or perhaps in another place? In a new scene entirely?

All right, sometimes we get down to this last one. When a scene just isn’t working. When we can’t make it engaging in any way. When we’ve tried all of the above and the exposition of the information just isn’t needed … It’s time to cut it.

The scene, I mean. Put the explanation, the information, whatever it is, elsewhere. Maybe it’s not working because several paragraphs worth of information could easily be covered in one line by a character elsewhere in the story. Maybe it really is just superfluous information that no-one really needs, even if it is really cool.

In the interest of the story, this is the point when you have to amputate. Save it in a word doc somewhere if you have to, with hopes that maybe one day you’ll try again as you cut it from the story entirely. Or don’t. But sometimes, the best way to build a solid structure is to raze the existing one to the ground. If you try, and you try, and you just cannot make some particular exposition entertaining, then maybe it’s just not vital enough to the story to be there.

Because let’s face it: Sometimes we want to include details because they’re cool, or because we like them. But sometimes these details have little to nothing to do with the overall story. Or they don’t actually work with the story. And odds are, if you’ve tried all of the above methods for making them work, and they still don’t, the problem isn’t that you’re not finding the solution, but that there really isn’t one.

This is the point where the backspace key, along with a large selection of text, becomes your blunt, to-the-point friend. Maybe what you were trying to accomplish just doesn’t mix with the story you’ve made. Maybe it’s just not vital to the plot. Whatever the reason, there comes a time where, as some of us like to put it, you have to kill your baby.

This is not unusual. Somewhere between seventy and eighty thousand words were cut from Colony just in the course of writing the first draft. I expect another twenty to thirty to get wiped out by the Alpha Readers. For those who aren’t familiar with the conversion, that’s around two-hundred and twenty to four-hundred book-bound pages erased. But they had to go. The story is the better for it. Amputation of dead prose is something that every author will do a lot of (the average author, in my experience, cuts about a 1/3 the content of each book before publishing), so you’d best get used to it early.

The Finish
So, let’s summarize. If you’re having issues with your exposition no longer being as interesting as you hoped it would be, check the following: First, why is it boring? Is it because you know what’s going to happen? Or is it unnecessary information? Second, could the pacing of your exposition be the problem? Would it better suit the reader’s mood and the pace you’ve established to place your exposition elsewhere? Third, are your characters not putting their own personalities, attitudes, and development into the exposition? Would another character suite the explanation better? Can the addition of something intriguing make the exposition more entertaining? And, if we’ve tried all of these, is it really worth keeping this exposition, or do we need to finally bite the bullet and cut it from our work?

Odds are, one of these steps is going to hold the key to fixing your problem. And if it doesn’t, well, then the final one is probably the simplest, most honest solution. Writing is a lot of work, with a lot of spots that can slow you down, snare you, or even trip up a story. And, you know, practice makes perfect. And with enough practice in pacing, using character, and—naturally—cutting, you’ll find that exposition does start to flow a little easier, and often takes on a life of its own.

So, until next time, have a great week, and keep on writing!

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