Friday, March 20, 2015

Grappling with the Facts

Photo by Reck via Flickr
Even experienced authors struggle with exposition from time to time. To begin with, there are issues having to do with ratio and proportion.

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.

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.”
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:
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.

“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.

“I’m ok.”

“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.
Of the three methods of exposition illustrated above, reportage is certainly the most efficient. The two alternative methods, however, yield much more engaging results.


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.


  1. Reportage is rampant in a lot of first chapters. Writers tend to cram in everything she thinks the reader should know up front. It can be a serious turn off. I don't mind "telling" from the character's perspective as much. If an author talks to the reader throughout the whole story, their books quickly go on my discard pile, not my keep forever shelf.

  2. I was recently at Left Coast Crime on a panel about doing research, and this was brought up. It takes a lot of cutting and a lot of 'impartial' reading to limit one's research to what moves the story forward. As far as showing, not telling -- that's another place where you need to decide how much of the information is necessary for the story, and how much is simply avoiding a short narrative passage that could do the job just as effectively. Michael Connelly is an expert at sticking in "tell" that seems perfectly logical for the character, even though the character's probably NOT going to be thinking about the layout of Parker Center at the time.
    Too much "show" can slow the pace as much as too much "tell." And there's the challenge for the writer!

    1. You nailed it, Terry. It's the balance that makes show and tell work. Much as I have encouraged writers over the years to "show, don't tell," showing can on occasion drive what should be a short, to-the-point scene into the realm of long and cumbersome.

  3. The info dump is the bane of writer's, Debby ... I think we (writers) get caught up in trying too hard to provide all the context and backstory we can ... but at the cost of the story. The readers don't really care about all that stuff ... they just want the story to unfold and see what the characters are going to do. As someone once said, "Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story."

  4. Good post, Debby, and you are so right about being engaging. A writer can even do a bit of narrative summary, as Terry suggested, and still keep that engaging. Make the reader want to read it all, narrative summary and scenes.

  5. My new book, still unpublished, has an iffy beginning. I cut two chapters down to a couple of paragraphs, and I don't know how to do it any better. When I get back to my story after taking a break, I'll look at it again and use these examples to help me even more. So thanks, Debby. This is a really timely post for me.

  6. debby turner harrisMarch 20, 2015 at 7:06 PM

    Many thanks, everyone! One issue I didn't think to address in this article (which is probably just as well, since it would have compounded the length) is the fact that the rules governing exposition apply differently when you compare 3rd person point-of-view with 1st person point-of-view. I probably ought to do a follow-up article for April...

    1. Great idea! I look forward to reading it. :-)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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