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Provide too little expository information, and your story will lack texture. Provide too much (or provide the wrong kind), and you risk weighing down the narrative with excess baggage.1 Writers get migraines trying to decide which facts are vital to story development, and which facts can be left on the cutting room floor.
Next there’s the issue of expository technique. The most straightforward tactic is reportage. With this method, the writer uses authorial overvoice to provide the reader with compact parcels, as needed to move the narrative along A typical example of reportage-in-action would read something like this:
Meg and Walter Clancy had three children. Laurel and Lucy were normal healthy kids, but Jeb, the youngest, was diabetic. He had to have a special diet and needed two insulin injections a day just to stay alive. It annoyed Walter that Jeb was too small and weak to play football. It also annoyed him that Meg was always worrying about the boy. He didn’t think Jeb would ever be good for anything.This paragraph gives us plenty of story-relevant information. Unfortunately, it’s also visible from space as an “info-dump”. Ideally, you don’t want your readers to notice what you’re up to. So let’s explore some alternative approaches.
One alternative option is to use targeted scripting. In the version given below, the writer employs dialogue as a strategic device for layering in information.
“Walter, where’s Jeb?” called Meg.Another option is to use set design. Here, the writer surrounds a point-of-view character with scenery and props that will nudge that character’s thoughts in the right direction to “drip-feed” expository information:
Eyes on the TV, her husband grunted, “Most likely plastering around on his computer.”
“Will you call him down? Dinner’s almost ready, and he needs his insulin before I serve up.”
“What, right now? The Cowboys are on the goal line.”
Their older daughter Laurel called through from the study, “It’s ok, Mom. I’ll do it.”
Ten minutes later, the Clancy family was gathered round the table. Walter stared at his plate. “What the hell is this?”
Their younger daughter Lucy piped up. “Butternut squash risotto.”
“It’s one of Jeb’s favorites,” Meg explained.
“Well, it’s not one of mine,” growled Walter. “I’m off to get myself a Big Mac and a chocolate milkshake. Anybody else want to come? No? Fine, I’ll see you later.”
Meg Clancy was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when she heard her husband’s old Plymouth pull into the driveway. A moment later, the door from the carport flew open, and the twins bounced in, still in their cheerleading outfits. “How was the game?” asked Meg.Of the three methods of exposition illustrated above, reportage is certainly the most efficient. The two alternative methods, however, yield much more engaging results.
“We lost,” began Lucy.
“But Jay and Fraser played great,” finished Laurel cheerfully.
Walt Clancy appeared behind them. “The team needs a new coach,” he grumbled.
Jeb trailed in after his dad. He looked pale and droopy. Meg stiffened involuntarily. “Are you feeling low?” she asked.
“Do a blood test. The kit’s beside the fruit bowl.”
Jeb wordlessly retrieved the black leather case that held the necessary apparatus Meg watched out of the corner of her eye as he pricked the tip of one finger, squeezed a bead of blood onto a testing strip, and inserted it into the small glucose monitor. “Six point three,” he reported.
That wasn’t too bad. No need to worry – for the time being, anyway... Meg heaved an inward sigh, remembering how easy life used to be before the diabetes kicked in - back when Jeb could eat ice cream and chocolate bars just like anybody else, and didn’t have to take insulin shots twice a day.
Being a diabetic was a rotten way to live. But the only alternative was being dead.
1If you’ve done a lot of research, you may be tempted to demonstrate the fact by packing the text with incidental information. If this happens, remind yourself that exposition should serve the story, not the other way around.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.