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You’re happily typing away, your favourite writing music playing softly in the background. You’re totally immersed in your story, thinking of your character and all of the wonderful things you have planned for them. But in order to continue the story, of course you have to explain all the amazing backstory you’ve come up with. So that means you tell the reader about all of it in one whole giant paragraph, right?
NO! Please don’t.
Ask almost any writer about “show, don’t tell,” and they’ll tell you they know how to do it well. Some may admit they’re still working on it. But few realise just how bad we can get with exposition and the amount of damage that it really does to a story. Additionally, many people just see it as a problem to avoid at the beginning of a story – so once they get past the first few chapters, they start throwing in a little bit of exposition now and then until eventually it becomes a lot of exposition.
What if I would have started out this blog post like this: “Today, we’re going to talk about how to avoid too much exposition, and how to give your readers information the right way! I’m going to give you x-number of tips to help you resist explaining things to your readers…”
Okay, well, it’s not awful. It’s informative, but it’s not exciting. Even though this is a blog post and not a novel, blog posts tell a story too. It just goes to show you that no matter what you’re writing, readers want to be excited from the get-go. They want to discover things for themselves, not be spoon-fed. That means holding on to the exposition tightly and releasing it little by little, resisting the urge to let it go like a flood and soak readers to the bone, overwhelming them with lengthy paragraphs of explanation that they’ll forget in a minute anyway.
But there’s a conundrum here. There are things that we have to tell our readers that are central to the story. So, how do we do that without too much exposition?
Let’s dive right in.
I’ll never forget the first writing workshop I went to. It was either late middle school or early high school, but the important thing was that it was a workshop done by one of my favourite authors, Bryan Davis. He gave all of us a little folder full of information about the hero’s journey and more, a folder that I still have today. He talked about something I think I already knew, but that I’d never actually heard explained before.
RUE. Resist the Urge to Explain. It was all about resisting excessive exposition, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s all too easy when beginning a story to want to explain everything (and it may even be necessary to do so in the first draft before you go back and clean it up). But you’ll notice one thing that separates good writers from great writers, and it’s how they give you information.
Brandon Sanderson is an amazing fantasy author. He builds huge, complex worlds with magic systems that are totally different every time. Obviously, there’s a lot of explaining that needs to be done in order for the reader to understand this totally alien world they’re being thrust into. And yet, you won’t find any lengthy paragraphs of explanation.
So how? How does one explain without explaining?
The simple answer: action.
The whole explanation is in the phrase “show, don’t tell,” but many times we don’t stop to actually think about what that means. It means that instead of explaining through a lengthy paragraph that drinking milk is offensive to your character, have someone set a glass of milk down in front of them and show how the character reacts, jumping up from their chair to get away from the evil milk. Instead of telling your reader that your character is scared of going outside, show them how the character gets butterflies in their stomach every time they step out their front door, how they come up with outrageous imaginings of all the terrible things that could happen to them outside.
Action is absolutely number one, but sometimes, action just won’t cut it, either. Like, what if your reader needs to know about the history of a distant forgotten kingdom? In many cases, action can’t reveal that.
But there is dialogue.
Dialogue is still a type of action, technically, but not quite as strong as an actual action/reaction from a character. This is because you can still over-explain in dialogue, so when you do reveal things in dialogue, you have to be careful.
Let’s go back to my distant forgotten kingdom example. Instead of telling the reader this whole paragraph explaining the history of the kingdom, a new character can come on the scene and report some strange sightings out in the west.
“Where the Forgotten Kingdom is?” the main character asks.
New character just stares blankly. “The what?” (It is called the Forgotten Kingdom after all, probably a lot of people have forgotten about it.)
And then your main character can give a brief explanation of the Forgotten Kingdom – but only what fits in a dialogue. It’s still excessive exposition if the character goes on forever talking about this history and it takes the reader completely out of the story. The important thing to remember is that the character is talking. Think about it in terms of real life. People rarely rattle on about something for so long, and if they do, they’re almost certainly interrupted, either by other people or other things going on around them.
So there you have it. The next time you’re sitting down to write and have all this awesome stuff to explain to the reader, remember these three things:
- RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain) – a tip from author Bryan Davis
- Show, don’t tell (use action to give an explanation without stating it)
- Reveal through dialogue (when action fails, have your characters talk about it; but make sure it’s still a natural conversation)
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