Manuscript Revisions – Exposition and Incluing

The trimming and tweaking of exposition is an important part of manuscript revision, and there are as many different ways to do it, as there are to write it. Every writer and writing coach has his own opinion and methods, and even the definitions of what exposition and description are can differ, sometimes greatly. I’m not going to attempt to teach you guys anything about them, since I’m still learning myself, but I can talk about what I am doing and how I see things, in the hope that it might ring some bells.

As you know, I’m a huge fan of simplification, so I separate everything that’s not dialogue into three categories. Of course the lines between them often get blurred, but to master the blurring, I believe we must first understand the distinctions.

1. Exposition 

The presentation of backstory and information that is necessary to understanding the story.

Done well, exposition creates a sense of placement in time and context, and gives the story a dimension of meaningfulness and consequence.

Overdone exposition weighs the story down and buries it, making it seem like a history or science lesson, or a snooty philosophical essay. Overdone exposition becomes an infodump.

Underdone exposition—or the lack thereof—leaves the reader suspended in time, and the story seems ripped out of context and inconsequential.

2. Description 

The presentation of setting and world-building elements, the creation of atmosphere and a sense of physical placement.

Done well, description offers a sense of reality and immediacy to the story, and immerses the reader into the world as if he were experiencing it through his own senses.

Overdone description overloads the reader’s senses and creates irritation and confusion, like standing in an overcrowded room with a thousand people yelling at you and vying for your attention at the same time.

Underdone description—or the lack of adequate description—makes the reader feel numb and isolated, and it robs him of the vicarious experience of the story. He will not be able to get invested into anything that happens to the characters, as the story feels rather abstract instead of immediate.

3. Narration 

The presentation of events, action, dialogue and thought processes; basically storytelling and characterization.

Done well, narration is virtually invisible. It blends in with the action and conversations in such a seamless way, the reader becomes involved into every event as if he were taking part in it himself.

Overdone narration bogs down scenes and slows them to a stop. Often interruptions of action sequences or conversations with detailed descriptions of facial expressions and movements, thoughts and feelings and memories, quickly become tiring and rip the reader out of the story.

Underdone narration—or the lack thereof—makes scenes dry and read like pages pulled out of a script, or like talking heads suspended in a void.

 

When it comes to exposition and description, I believe the devil’s definitely in the details. Nothing really needs to be explained in full, a few key elements are enough to spark the reader’s interest and have him complete the picture. Even Stephen King said in his book On Writing that “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” I’d expand that to exposition as well.

So it’s probably no surprise that I’m a huge fan of Incluing.

The term was coined a while back by science-fiction and fantasy writer Jo Walton (author of Among Others), and has since been used to define a certain way of writing exposition in speculative fiction. It basically means cluing the reader in to the storyworld by inserting bits and pieces of information into the story as it progresses, by dropping hints and scattered pieces, instead of giving explanations or presenting backstory and setting in large chunks. It’s practically the opposite of an infodump.

I was incluing even before I knew what it’s called and how to make it work. Okay, I admit, I did it mostly because I don’t like referencing the history of things or their mechanics in my story, and when I did try to do that, I royally sucked. So I weaseled my way out of it by including all the necessary exposition into descriptions, as if it was there by accident, hints and clues and little nuggets I hoped no one would want to have explained. And whattaya know, while doing research on how to write better exposition and cure my Achilles’ heel, I stumbled upon incluing and a light went on above my head. Made me feel a lot better to find out it’s a legitimate technique.

Incluing is not often encountered in science-fiction and fantasy. Here, setting and backstory often have a great weigh, and are the primary source of the otherworldliness readers crave so much, thus incluing is often mixed with other techniques of exposition and description. Especially in hard science-fiction and epic fantasy, descriptions are often laborious and detailed, and many highly respected novels are very heavy on exposition, and even liked because of that.

Luckily for me, I’m not writing hard science-fiction or milieu stories (discovery/adventure stories), where explanations and detailed descriptions are not just welcome but required. Since what I write is focused primarily on the character’s perceptions of their world and their situations, I can use incluing to its full capacity while practically ignoring other ways to write exposition. But that really doesn’t make my job any easier.

When done haphazardly and taken to extremes, incluing makes readers feel lost in a shifty world where nothing mentioned is ever repeated and nothing encountered is ever placed within context. This is the greatest pitfall of the minimalist style—the reader is rushed through a foreign world so fast, he can’t really enjoy anything he sees. Writers who are incluing must work double shifts to counteract the tendency toward confusion, and make sure the reader doesn’t get lost along the way.

Writing exposition and description is not an easy job any way you put it. But I think as long as we keep our focus on creating the greatest possible enjoyment for the reader, we ought to be well on our way.

To not be a spoilsport, here’s an incluing example from my first chapter, a character description through the eyes of my protagonist. If I’ve done it even halfway right, you should hopefully get a sense of the characters, their past and their relationship, without needing any details:

He used to be a pudgy, obnoxious little brat, his fists always balled, cheeks ruddy with life, his small granite-brown eyes narrowed with determination. He used to tease me when we were kids, just like everyone else did in my one year at school, back when the colony’s gates were still unguarded and I could just walk in anytime I wanted. That same kid is now tall and lanky, his hair has thinned and his face is drawn. He looks ten years older than he really is, his edges smoothed out by the loose khaki overall, his frequent smiles more knowing, and the hard surface of his eyes long crumbled into an inscrutable depth.

 

So what’s your exposition writing style? What’s your Achilles’ heel and how do you counter it? Which authors have impressed you the most in this area, and what have you learned from them?

10 Replies to “Manuscript Revisions – Exposition and Incluing”

  1. This an area where I’m still learning and growing as well, and was one of the biggest reasons I decided to switch from novels to short stories for a while, as it allows me to experiment and play around a little more with various styles of exposition and description (though sometimes they can both be at odds with the word economy of the piece, which can be challenging).

    As a reader (even a devout SFF fan), I tend to prefer less description, especially when it comes to characters, so I tend to swing that way as a writer as well, often to the point of questioning myself on whether or not I’ve underdone it. Perhaps that’s my Achilles heel? Sometimes it feels like it! Still, I’m pretty solidly on the incluing train with you when it comes to exposition. However, I feel like dialogue is one of my strengths as a writer, so my work tends to be somewhat thick on that end, and one of my favorite techniques is to let bits and pieces of the world come through the dialogue (hopefully in as natural a way as possible, without making the reader feel like the character is holding their hand).

    Speaking of Stephen King, I’ve just started a beginning to end run through of The Dark Tower, and the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, is thus far a mind-exploding exercise in exposition and description that uses description and incluing in a dizzying dance. It’s always interesting to read the first book in an epic series and see how they tackle the “problem” of exposition, and King handles it in an interesting way. I love him and hate him at the same time, as he reveals just enough of the history of the Gunslinger’s strange world to drive me nuts with speculation.

    Anyway, another great entry with more insight to your process and lots of great info. Well done, as usual!

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    1. Novels do require a lot more description and exposition than short stories, but just like you said, writing little of it can also be hard. Which little should be included and which left out? It’s definitely one of the hardest things in writing short fiction.

      I haven’t read The Dark Tower series, but I’ll keep an eye on it if it’s as good as you say it is. Thanks for stopping by and for the great comment, James! 🙂

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  2. My first drafts are done in a minimalist style for sure. I have read SO MANY books that just do all kinds of info dump, and I get bored to death. Even big time published books (i.e. Crichton) do it. I tend to skip some of that stuff and get into the story.

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    1. Pretty much my opinion too, Jay. However interesting the setting described, after two pages of description, my eyes pretty much glaze over. There’s got to be a more dynamic way to insert information into story, and many authors do it right. So I’m definitely trying to follow in their footsteps, instead of the other camp’s. 🙂

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  3. Excellent points, Veronica. In years of writing, critique and editing, I’d say that information management is one of the areas in which good beta readers are truly invaluable. It’s extremely hard for a writer to assess the correct balance between under- and over-informing.

    Still, all things being equal, I would say that readers–not editors or agents, but actual, realworld readers–are probably more tolerant of exposition, when it’s decently executed, than of being left without a world or setting anchor for long. And one shouldn’t discount the power of *voice* in carrying exposition. Some authors (CJ Cherryh, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Leiber, John Le Carre) can slip in exposition, even in large lumps, and keep the reader riveted.

    As in so many things to do with writing, much of the dogma misses the point. The point is to develop craft, not to blindly follow rules.

    Thanks for such a good post!

    Dario

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    1. You’re absolutely right about readers being tolerant of exposition if it’s interesting and well written. It’s probably the only technical faux pas that is waved away, compared to those who are rarely forgiven, like boring cardboard characters or stark logical errors.

      In science-fiction in particular, exposition is often the subject of debates about quality vs. quantity. I think the choice should always be made with regard to the nature of the story, because however wonderful and exciting the “strange new world” is, it’s rarely able to sustain interest all by itself, and only falls second to the characters inhabiting it, and their challenges.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Dario!

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  4. Great post! I’m hypersensitive to too much description. Even two paragraphs of straight description make my eyes glaze over, so description is very hard for me to write. Like Jay, my first drafts are very minimalist, and sometimes it’s very hard to see that and fix it until I realize it’s been PAGES since we’ve had any description, or realize there’s no way the reader can understand what exactly is happening here because they have no idea of the layout and choreography of the characters.

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    1. We’re much alike in this respect, Jordan. My first draft read almost like a script. 😀
      I’m rewriting it right now (full draft #2) and I have to constantly watch out and include description and exposition in the scenes and not have the reader hanging in the void.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

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  5. Thank you for writing this – I’ve just finished my first draft and, it’s horrifying and somewhat funny to read my first chapters. They just go on and on… oh… there’s another description, long-winded and flower words abound, yes oh… that’s pleasant but can we get on with the story now please?! It’s been a very interesting exercise going back over and trying to find the right balance…

    Your post has been very helpful 🙂

    Thanks, Ange x

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    1. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Angela! I’m glad you found my post useful. 🙂

      My first draft was quite the opposite — it was so dry and lacked exposition to the degree that reading it felt as though the characters were speeding through the scenes like the Flash, and I often wondered huh? where are they now… is this that room where… no? Are they still outside? Wait a moment… what does this place LOOK like anyway?

      Exposition and descriptions are hard to write well. They’re some of the hardest things to learn for beginners. I know I’m definitely still learning. 🙂

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