Diary of a Slush Reader: Exposition: How Much Is Too Much?

One of the biggest issues I’ve noticed with full-length submissions here at New South is that of too much exposition. (Exposition, in case anyone doesn’t know the lingo, is a fancy word for background information.) This is one of those problems that can get kind of sticky, because it’s hard to define what, exactly, qualifies as too much exposition. My instinct is to paraphrase SCOTUS Justice Potter Stewart’s pronouncement on obscenity: I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it. But that’s about as useful to you, beloved submitter of prose, as it was when Justice Stewart said it. So I’ve dug deep and come up with some indicators of exposition that’s gotten out of hand:

  • Doesn’t tell us anything important or useful about the main story
  • Slows the story down
  • Tends to be less interesting than the main story

I believe that this kind of exposition tends to be what an old professor of mine called “scaffolding” – stuff that we as writers need to know in order to build believable worlds, characters, and relationships, but which aren’t necessary for the reader to know in order to understand the story. We tend to fall in love with our characters’ back stories, and because we spend a lot of time working them out, we want to share them with our readers. But just as we get bored when listening to every detail of a stranger’s life story, readers get bored reading every detail of our characters’ life stories.

When deciding what to include in your work in terms of back story, it might help to ask yourself some questions:

  • Why do I feel the need to include this information? Does it really need to be in the story?
    • Which action in the main story does this explain or set up?
    • What specific character traits does this demonstrate about my character? Is there any way I can show this trait through action instead?
  • What’s the most economical way I can think of to get this information to the reader? Can I reasonably work it into dialogue or action? Does it really need more than a sentence or two?
  • Would this bit of background information work better as a second story line? (I bring this up with a fair amount of trepidation, as this particular solution is rarely called for. Sometimes, though, information that is important to the main story but takes a lot of time and detail to explain works better as a subplot set in the past. This is because if you start off telling one story and then switch halfway through the story to your main storyline, the reader will be jarred and confused – they thought they were reading one kind of story and then find out that they’re really reading another kind entirely. They feel tricked and annoyed. If two parts of your story are equally important but very different, it may be better not to tell them chronologically, but side-by side.)

The idea is to get to the meat of the story as soon as possible. Most readers, whether slush or otherwise, don’t like waiting too long for a story to really begin. We want to get to it right away, and the longer you make us wait, the more impatient we’ll become—and the less likely we are to fall in love with your work. You can blame our short-attention spans or Western culture’s tendency toward instant gratification, but that’s the way it is.

Bottom line: figure out what it is that made you want to tell this story—what made you fall in love with it—and show that to your readers as quickly as you can.

Rachel Wright is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. She has also studied at University College Dublin. Her work has appeared in The Stinging Fly and she was a semi-finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in 2009.

Photo by Brendan DeBrincat

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