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.
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.
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.
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?