Providing Background for Your Reader: Keep Exposition Light

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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.

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