Providing Background for Your Reader: Keep Exposition Light


We have all likely been in conferences, churches, or classrooms where the speaker felt it necessary to give a 30-minute historic preamble before making his main point. Maybe this has happened to you: as an audience member, you found yourself repeatedly checking your watch. You were sure the point could have been made just as well without the entire history of the Greco-Roman empire. You lost interest because the speaker took too long setting up his premise, and never got to the actual point. Don’t let this happen with your readers!

What we’re talking about here is narrative exposition, which is an important part of every book, whether short or long, fiction or non-fiction. For example, it might include information about the setting, introductory information to your topic, historical context, or a character’s backstory. Exposition sets the stage and builds the foundation for the entire book. Without it, readers would be lost. However, if a book is too exposition heavy, the readers will lose interest. Usually, most of a book’s exposition takes place within the first few chapters of the novel, although there are several alternative narrative structures as well!

As a non-fiction author, you are probably writing a book because you are an expert in your field. You know about your subject. Perhaps you have been in the industry for years or you have spent hours perfecting a hobby about which you are writing. You may want to begin by expounding on the problem before you give your solution. However, unless you are writing a scholarly thesis for a niche audience, you will need to first draw in your reader. Break up the research by providing antidotes or personal thoughts. Once the reader is hooked on your idea, he or she will be willing walk with you as you make your points; just don’t dump them on the reader in the first few chapters.

If you are writing a novel, you have probably gone to great lengths to develop your character and your setting. However, in order to transfer your passion to your reader, you cannot drown them. This is not to say you cannot include all the necessary details, but you must be very aware of how you organize and present your material. For example, don’t introduce a character like this:

John stooped when he walked into the room. He was 6’3″ with broad shoulders and a thick neck. He was 46 and had black hair that swept over his black eyes. John was used to stooping because he had grown up in small village in . . .

This is heavy exposition; it feels like the author is going through a checklist of necessary expeditionary points. It also makes for boring reading! All this information may be important, but it can be spread out and embedded more naturally into the text. Light exposition feels more natural. When we first meet someone, we don’t need to know their exact height and complete childhood background. That can come later.

The bottom line is that overly heavy exposition takes away from a narrative. It bogs down the reader at a critical time when you want to be grabbing his or her interest. If you need expositional information, make sure to only give what is necessary; if there are ways to spread it out throughout the novel, do it.

Be willing to admit that the reader does not need to know all that you know. Your years of preparation and research will help you write, but do not need to be included in your book. Ease of reading and quality of narrative will always trump superfluous information and tangents. (Who knows, perhaps that information would be perfect for book number two!)

This post written by Kerry Wade, Assistant Editor.


Mapping Your Manuscript

“When most people think of an ‘editor,’ they generally think about someone who weeds out all the bad grammar, misspelled words, and typos from a manuscript.  That is only partially true. This is copy editing. A good copy editor knows the rules of grammar and uses them scrupulously to polish your manuscript.

developmental editor, on the other hand, reads a manuscript and asks good questions. She (or he) gets at the heart of your book to make sure it has all the right components, and that it flows seamlessly and logically from start to finish.” (Excerpted from our blog, “Why Your Book Needs a Developmental Editor”

Editors will often begin by mapping out a book in order to see the whole book at a glance. This simply means going through the book and writing the titles of every chapter, heading, and subheading and how many words are in each section. For example:

Chapter 1: Title
Heading 1

200 words
Heading 2
6000 words
300 words
287 words
350 words
Heading 3
3000 words

Chapter 2: Title
4000 words

Chapter 3: Title
500 words
Heading 1
200 words

This shows the editor at a glance, “Wow, Chapter One has multiple headings and subheadings and Chapter Two has none! Why? Could Chapter One be split into more topics? Why is Chapter One so long?”ams-k-m_road_intersections

These kinds of observations can help you, the author, know where you needs to work on consistency and organization. Chapters should be relatively the same length; an extremely long or short chapter must be a purposeful stylistic choice.

However, mapping out a book is not just about evening out the word count. This at-a-glance technique allows you to look at how your ideas build on one another and ensure your thoughts flow smoothly from chapter to chapter.

Putting away the actual words of the story and looking at the novel in this condensed structure allows you to step back and gain a new perspective. When an artist is working on a painting, he or she will often hold the painting up to a mirror. The reversed image allows the painter to gain a new perspective and look at composition rather than details.

As an author, you can map out your own manuscript. Let yourself experiment. What would happen if you shuffled around some chapters? Take away the emotion connected to your writing and allow your manuscript to be malleable. Is this map the fastest route? Does it build the most suspense? Is this detour unnecessary? Mapping out your book allows you to ask the important developmental questions and easily move things around. You’d be surprised at how helpful this tool is!

While you are writing, make sure you are always pulling back to get the big picture. Whether you use this tool or your own method of organization, it is important to take your reader on the best journey possible. Many books have great ideas and compelling story arcs, but they take meandering roads full of detours. Be open to redrawing the map of your book, it might just be the thing that turns a great idea into a great book!

Post written by Kerry Wade, Assistant Editor