I came from the town of Wenham, Massachusetts, on the North Shore. It was a town with a population of about 3,000, though it was actually bordered by 17 different towns. Wenham was 9 square miles of swamp with a fudge shop, a library, an ice cream stand and an antique store, in short, there was nothing there. Wenham was once called Enon because there was much water and it made most of its money off of the ice trade. It was the advent of the refrigerator that turned Wenham into an impractical yuppie suburb, a safe place for sure, but one not untouched by a legacy of snobbery and Puritanism. It is perhaps growing up among stereotypical white clapboard churches built atop swamp and knowing that those around me were in their secret hearts the witch judges they came from that planted the seeds for me becoming an editor and writing this article for you about why not to use too much exposition.
Projectile exposition is the most common Narrative Maladies I encounter. Why? Well, you know how they say that haters gotta hate? Narrators gotta narrate. Fiction is, after all, a narrative form. As writers, we are obligated to provide details to and convey atmosphere for our readers. So, our job is to narrate. But how do we know when we’re providing too much information, providing it too soon or not providing it right? There are some factors that we need to consider.
First of all, we have to take into account whether or not our exposition slows the piece down. When we start with a mound of exposition, we actually prevent our readers from getting to know our characters and worlds. Why? Well, let’s say somebody told you that Paris was a city in France. Then they stopped and told you about the GNP of France. Then they told you about the trade goods of France. Then they showed you a blueprint to the Eiffel Tower. What would you think of Paris? Would you think the same of it as you would watching it come to life in a Goddard film? Would you think the same of Paris as you would if you went on a vacation there? Showing how the world works day to day is an almost axiomatically better way to introduce people to it than to say how it works. The exposition is making your reader wait to experience your world and your characters.
Second of all, we have to take into account whether this information is needed immediately. Do we have to know how the protagonist’s fifth birthday party went if he is killing vampires on the top of a subway train full of dynamite? Even if vampires attacked his fifth birthday party and killed his parents, we don’t need to know that right then. Things we need to know: who this man is that is fighting the vampires (and just barely), that there are vampires and that they are on top of a train full of dynamite. We do not need to know about this man’s birthday party and we certainly don’t need to know about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. People will pay attention to the vampire fight on the dynamite train. They might expect you to START explaining what the hell happened afterwards but as long as you know, you can get that info out there.
Lastly, we need to figure out whether a reveal later will be more interesting. The TV series Arrow for example, has a massive back story that it could have laid out immediately. It has a lot of reveals that explain facets of the world and of the protagonist, Oliver Queen’s life. But Arrow decides instead that introducing you to these situations and concepts as they become relevant is a lot more interesting. The character’s back story is told in every episode in a series of very short flashbacks. As these flashbacks come together, you get a bigger picture. If the pilot had just been these flashbacks and the A plot of the show carried on, then it would be a lot less interesting. Exposing people to something directly is better than telling them about it. Surprising them with the depth and breadth of your world is better than surprising them with the depth and breadth of your outline.
But if you’re worried about projectile exposition of other narrative maladies, there’s an easy solution: seek out an editor. We’ve read enough, written enough and worked with enough manuscripts to know these sicknesses and help you ameliorate them so that your story or book can hopefully live a long and happy life.