Becoming a Storyteller: Don’t Panic, or, The Perils of Exposition

Don't Panic Badge
Don’t Panic Badge (Photo credit: Jim Linwood)

Ideas rattle through the cavernous recesses of my mind perpetually. They seem to come in all the “normal” places–you know, the shower, the car. While listening to a particular artist, while staring at the ceiling above my bed. I dutifully jot down the nuggets of these ideas and go about the rest of my day, as Ideas have the penchant for arriving at the most inopportune of moments.

As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, my Ideas tend to manifest within that genre–science fiction, sword and sorcery, contemporary fantasy, you name it. Despite my unsettled agreement with the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I might be graced with an Idea or two from them.

Aside: My unsettled agreement with the post-apocalypse is simple. I’ll enjoy you if you don’t make me think about my own mortality too much. As a diabetic, I’ve already planned raids against Walgreens and Publix at the first sign of the end of times. So, while I’m wont to enjoy the fun of say The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Battlestar GalacticaFalling Skies, Zombieland or The Hunger Games, I have a tenuous relationship with something like The Walking Dead. (We’re working on it.) But Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, holy shit–we’re not even on speaking terms after what that did to me.

Back to my point. As someone whose Ideas tend to come with a lot of backstory, I find myself in a constant struggle with Exposition. I know there’s a thin line to tread here, a delicate balance to be struck–but it’s hard damn it! In reviewing my novel-draft ahead of some major revisions, I’m finding that much of the first fifty pages lands in the Exposition/Prologue bin–and that doesn’t work. So in my effort to become a storyteller, I’ve gone back to some valuable advice from literary agent and author Lucienne Diver, who orchestrated a “Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy and Paranormal” webinar for Writer’s Digest. Here’s what she said:

Ways to Avoid too much Exposition:

  1. Begin in the Right Place–don’t begin with backstory, but do begin as the elements that will be important to the plot come to a head.
  2. Avoid starting with Flashbacks, Omniscient Narration or Prologues unless completely necessary and put to good use.
  3. Don’t Introduce Characters before they appear. Once they appear, don’t stop the momentum to give us backstory but reveal it as it becomes relevant.
  4. Show, don’t Tell. (Use Body Language and Vocal Cues)
  5. Remember, POV characters are the lenses through which we see the story. If something isn’t relevant to them at a given moment, they won’t be thinking about it and the reader won’t be hearing it.

What resonates the most with me from what Lucienne Diver said can be distilled to one word: Relevance. If it’s not important at the very moment in the story, leave it out. If and when it becomes integral that the reader knows this information, then present it. Not a moment before. I can’t remember where I heard it, or exactly how it goes, but I remember being told somewhere along my writing journey that a reader should grant a story its premise.

I guess the implication there is don’t waste time explaining the premise, just get to the story.

I’m going to try this all with a short story I’ve recently imagined. The story will take place in a “world” I’ve already created in my head for a novel but haven’t fleshed out completely. I’m going to experiment with just diving in and providing only the necessary details along the way. I’ll keep you posted.


8 thoughts on “Becoming a Storyteller: Don’t Panic, or, The Perils of Exposition

  1. I have an epic historical novel in progress and tend toward exposition for similar world-building reasons. Once I’m done with this draft I’ll go back and take out the details that don’t belong–but not until then, because sometimes what shows up on the page ends up speaking directly to the story question in a way I don’t expect. I love that part of revision!


    • That’s definitely a fun part of the process. I guess it’s one of those decisions you have to make in the first draft of a project. To exposition or not to exposition, that is the question.


      • Ha ha, yes so true! The epic 19th century novel is more permissive, I think, of exposition than other forms and genres due to the necessary world building. I expect speculative fiction would be similar but it’s all a matter of craft and taste too. This is my third novel and the first with quite a bit of exposition.


  2. Some very interesting points here 🙂 I am wolfishly in need of useful suggestions such as these and it’s educational to read through them and attempt to weigh up just how many I may already be guilty of without realising it…it provides great food for thought and another week or so of hard editing I guess! Just when I thought I was finally “nearly there!” lol…shows what I know!! 🙂


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