Friday, August 18, 2006

Writer Tip #15 -- Exposition

Just what is exposition, you ask? As I sat down to write this blog, after covering the pot of chicken noodle soup on the stove to keep it warm for my husband, who is working late tonight at a job he’s had for about a year and a half, I thought it over.

I’m so tricky! That whole last sentence was exposition.

Any time you need to fill the reader in on what’s going on, you are using exposition. Let’s look at some other examples.

Cassidy tied on her apron and went to work bussing the table. This job wasn’t so bad, really, not like the job she’d had in San Antonio as a telemarketer. She couldn’t believe how rude some people could be. But maybe it was best not to think about San Antonio. That was where she met Jeff, with his intriguing eyes and his fascination with dead bodies. “I’m going to write a horror novel someday,” he told her. But then he explained that he was already engaged to someone named Jen. He’d never been serious about Cassidy; he’d really never even flirted with her, but still, a girl could dream.

We started this paragraph out in real time, then drifted in to exposition to explain some of the “why” she is where she is.

As a general rule, it’s best to only use exposition when you really need it. If you can, show things in real time. Perhaps I should have begun with Cassidy meeting Jeff, showing that in real time, then fast forward to her bussing tables. That way, I could have shown her feelings while they were current.

What you absolutely want to avoid at all costs is giving the reader page after page of exposition. In fact, even half a page is a bit much. If it needs to be there, you can break it up with dialogue, spread it over a few chapters, or turn it into dialogue.

Caution!! Don’t turn it into bad dialogue! For instance:

Gil turned to Cassidy. “Why won’t you go out with me?”

“It’s not you, Gil. It’s me. Last year, I lived in San Antonio and was working as a telemarketer when I met this guy named Jeff. He had intriguing eyes and a fascination for dead bodies. He told me he was going to write horror novels someday, and then he told me he was engaged to someone named Jen. We weren’t dating or anything; he’d never even flirted with me. But a girl can dream, right?”

Dialogue shouldn’t be used to tell the reader what they need to know; it should be used to tell other characters what they need to know.

How about this, which is a happy medium:

Gil turned to Cassidy. “Why won’t you go out with me?”

“It’s not you, Gil, it’s me.”

“Is there someone else?”

“Yes. No. I mean, not really. But a girl can dream, right?” She thought about Jeff, the guy with the intriguing eyes she met while working as a telemarketer in San Antonio. He said he was going to write horror novels someday. What was he doing now?

“He must have been some guy.”

“He was. But he was engaged.”

“I’m sorry.”

But now, here’s the real question. Does it matter that she was working as a telemarketer? Does it matter that this all happened in San Antonio? Sometimes an author will spend a lot of time giving their character a background, and then it turns out, they don’t need it. Maybe her telemarketing career will come into play later in the book, but if it doesn’t, it’s perfectly all right to say that she met Jeff last summer in San Antonio. And if that’s not important to the plot, she could say that she met Jeff last summer. You want to give your reader enough details that they feel involved in the story, but don’t bog them down with exposition that’s not needed.

And if you’ve figured out who Jeff is, pat yourself on the back and treat yourself to an Otter Pop.


Annette Lyon said...

I figured it out! I think I'll treat myself to a truffle instead. So who's Cassidy?

Marsha Ward said...

Tristi, you can be a devil sometimes. So when are you gonna feature me in your blog?

Tristi Pinkston said...

Annette, Cassidy is a figment of my own imagination. (Better than being a fig newton) I'd take the truffle, too.

Marsha, you just keep your eyes peeled! You never know!

Jeff Savage said...

This Jeff guy sounds pretty charming all right. I like the whole eyes thing. But I'm sure his facination is not with dead bodies per se, but dead bodies that come back to life!

You crack me up, Tristi! When is your next book coming out?

Tristi Pinkston said...

I'll let you know that publication date as soon as I know it, Jeff.

Katie Parker said...

Cassidy may be a figment of Tristi's imagination, but I am undoubtedly one of the people who was nice to her when she was a telemarketer in San Antonio.

It must have been someone else who was rude and made her quit her job.

Tristi Pinkston said...

You're absolutely right, Katie. In fact, Cassidy asked me to be sure to thank you for being nice to her -- you were the only nice call she had that day.

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