Exposition Blindness

Exposition is one those things in writing with which I have a love/hate relationship. Mostly because while I’m writing, I’m tricked into thinking it’s sheer brilliance. And because I know all about those picky critique partners that will insist that half of it is unnecessary, I make sure that every single thing that I mention in my exposition is a genius epiphany to the discerning reader.

So I start off my new WIP with a pensive scene of my protagonist musing over a piece of toast, and about how today, instead of jam, she’ll try peanut butter. Frankly, I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about yet, as I have no fixed plot, so I pack in a bunch of poor and falsely insightful comments on the nature of spreads and how they relate to people and before I know it, the next few paragraphs are a detailed description of the respective qualities of peanut butter and jam.

Oh reader, you may think it’s dumb…and it…probably is…and since I’m not totally blind, (yet,) I start to despair. Because for some unknown reason, I really, really like my toast analogies. So I make them important. But how? And where do I put them? I can’t just cut them; I wrote them!

So I carefully deliberate, think hard about what I want these toast things to truly mean, and BAM. Epiphany. This is what I do:

At the very end, when the heroine has found herself, she’ll wake up the next morning and on her toast she’ll put—get ready for it—peanut butter and jam! And it’ll symbolize the complete synthesis with her two warring halfs! No longer will she accept anything less than a full life!

Suddenly, IT’S AMAZING. I’ve turned my lame as crap clueless beginnings into something meaningful.

But then I give it to my crit partner, and I get these comments…

“She really likes her toast, huh?”

“Is this whole story going to be about breakfast?”

“…Maybe you should cut this.”

But I am not discouraged. I am a warrior. I am confident that when she reaches the end, she’ll see the perfect merger for what it is; two halfs of a whole desperate to be brought together. The lovers that are peanut butter and jam reunited at last. Except that I don’t get that. I get this:

“Yeah I don’t really get this whole toast thing, seemed pretty obvious to me.”

And that’s when I realize that my toast analogy is the stupidest thing I’ve ever written, and I was under an unfortunate spell of Exposition Blindness. Terrified that I wouldn’t be able to write anything worthwhile, I’d taken what was mediocre and tried to force it into awesomeness.

So then I cut it. Depressed, I go through my whole manuscript and cut every single mention of toast. I murder my darling, if you will, and it’s a long, bitter affair because I did everything possible to keep it alive.

But in the end, I’m comforted by the thought that it wasn’t useless. Because with that silly exposition, a character did surface. Whether I knew it or not, even those early choices influenced what shape my imagined person would take, and if I look closely enough, I can see exactly how that character came to be. Through the toast metaphors, here is what I learned about her:

At the start of the story, she’s dissatisfied with her life. There’s something missing. She doesn’t quite fit in with this crowd or the other, and she really just wants to be somebody. Instead of embracing everything she could be, and accepting that to grow she must acknowledge every part of herself, she tries to pigeonhole her personality into just one category, be it jam or peanut butter. It’s the epicurean equivalent of high school cliques. She just wants to find her way, and as the story goes on she keeps growing, until in the end she realizes she doesn’t have to settle for just one thing. She can be both. She can be everything! She can slap on banana slices, or honey, or pickles—

…Okay so it’s not a perfect metaphor.

Either way, this toast thing of hers helped me discover her character. It exposed her weaknesses, her dreams of acceptance, her confidence issues, and it’s when I realized this that I truly became okay with cutting it. Because from then on, I knew her, and I didn’t need to validate my knowledge of her through inconsistent metaphorical means. I could do it through actions that further the plot, and decisions that go beyond breakfast.

So even though in the final product, no mentions will be made of toast, I will know what she likes, dislikes, needs, wants, and cherishes. Editing everything out will make me want to tear at my hair in frustration, though I know the exposition must be destroyed, as surely as it was meant to be conceived.

Next time your crit partner (politely) yells at you to get rid of something, don’t let your being partial towards that detail get in the way of making the story better. And don’t try the whole “But wait! See here? There’s a white flower at his bedside when he’s dying! It’s totally relevant!” Believe me, I am the queen of scattering obscure references to lame exposition so I have an excuse to keep it. All that does is makes the revision process even more grueling than it has to be when I finally come to terms with the fact that it’s needless.

And just remember. No matter what happens, you know all of your character’s secrets. They still exist in your head. Because of this, you can expose them with greater mastery than before, and present only what needs to be shown for the reader to get the clearest picture possible. And none of them will have to include absurd toast metaphors.

Besides. Your character deserves a little mystery, no?


19 Responses to Exposition Blindness

  1. Julie Mar 6 2012 at 5:58 am #

    Biljana, this is such a great post! I tend to worry that, without some exposition, the reader may be confused. I think rather than confused, the correct term might be intrigued. Who wants to know everything there is to know in the first chapter? This is great advice. Thanks for sharing it! And now I’m hungry for toast! 😉

    • Biljana Mar 6 2012 at 1:08 pm #

      Ditto on the worry about confusion. That’s where so much of my silliness comes from. Too many details because damn it the reader HAS to know the colour of her socks!

  2. Amie Mar 6 2012 at 6:11 am #

    Oh, Billy, what timing! (And like Julie, now I want toast.)

    I’m in the middle of trying to work out how to get a story started right now, and I’ve concluded over the last couple of days that some of my exposition has to go — after tying my brain in knots trying to work out what to do without it, I’ve also realised that just because it’s not there, doesn’t mean it’s not influencing the story. Sometimes the best bits of a book are echoes of something that used to be there.

    • Biljana Mar 6 2012 at 1:08 pm #

      Lol how do you think I feel, I’ve been wanting toast for over a week ;). And well said; echoes are badass.

  3. Shellie Foltz Mar 6 2012 at 8:39 am #

    Terrific advice! I love writing my characters and feel character-development is one of my strengths, but I’m not married to every descriptor. If your characters are consistent in the world you’ve created for them, they emerge from it fully for the readers. Good editors are good friends.

    • Biljana Mar 6 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      Exactly! Consistency is the biggest indicator of a solid character. Thanks for reading!

  4. Meredith Anderson Mar 6 2012 at 9:56 am #

    This is a great post. I’m awful at exposition. I seem to revert to it when a scene isn’t going right, which is usually my clue that something isn’t connecting in this scene and I should probably jump forward. But I write it anyway and you’re right, something usually comes our of it. Cutting things isn’t easy, but it certainly has to happen! Thanks for the wonderful words!


    • Biljana Mar 6 2012 at 1:10 pm #

      Same thing with me, if I’m stumbling I start writing nonsense and generally it helps me get through it. Just have to remember not to get too attached haha.

  5. Sooz Mar 6 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Fantastic post, Billy–and one I can TOTALLY relate to. I always, always, ALWAYS have a bunch of stuff (if not ALL) in my first 50 (er…100+) pages that I refuse to let go of…even though, deep down, I know they’re crap.

    But ultimately, my CPs knock some sense into me, and I find that those first 50-100 pages really ARE crap–they were just me getting to know my character(s), and now that I DO know them, I can go back and rewrite those pages as they should be.

    Really great stuff here–thanks for this!

    • Biljana Mar 6 2012 at 1:11 pm #

      Dude remember that partial I sent you to crit? Guess how much of that was exposition left over from when I just started the story?

      (I’ll give you a hint. ALMOST ALL OF IT.)

  6. Olga Mar 6 2012 at 10:10 am #

    I love toast. 🙁 And if my character loves toast, then EVERYBODY NEEDS TO KNOW….or not. It can just be our little secret…

    • Biljana Mar 6 2012 at 1:13 pm #

      I vote our little secret. Especially if I’m in on it ;). I love me some secrets.

      • Olga Mar 9 2012 at 4:03 pm #

        Wonderful! I will tell you so much juicy gossip! Like the time _________ broke her ankle falling off a tool shed or how _________ knows the Care Bears theme song by heart….

  7. Vanessa Di Gregorio Mar 6 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Billy, this post is AWESOME! I am horribly guilty of excessive amounts of exposition (especially at the beginning), and even though I know it will probably be cut, my heart just aches – cause a part of me still loves it. It’s good to know that it’s necessary to get to know your characters, even if the sentences themselves will eventually be thrown away.

    Now, where can a girl get some PB&J….

    • Biljana Mar 6 2012 at 1:15 pm #

      I cannot even remember how many times my heart has been broken from cutting. At the same time, I can’t remember half the things I’ve cut haha. If it’s not missing, it’s not meant to be there.

      And you tell me, there’s none in my house.

  8. Erin Bowman Mar 6 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Fantastic post, Billy!! I’ve totally done this myself — weaved in an ugly metaphor and carried it throughout even when I know it’s a mess. As you point out, this almost always gets cut, but it is never useless–it’s part of understanding your character and their arc. It’s the tool that helps you get there, and there’s no shame in that. Now…off to make myself some toast. With jam, I think. 🙂

    • Biljana Mar 6 2012 at 1:16 pm #

      Oho! Jam, eh? Excuse me while I psychoanalyze you…

  9. Amber Mar 6 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    I cling to so much useless crap and scenes that no longer go along with my story so I LOVED reading this post.

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