Over-Use of Exposition in Creative Writing [or Being 'Wordy' And How To Fix It]

There are a number of pitfalls that young, self-published and unpublished writers will be caught in, and the most common is over-use of exposition. And what is 'over-use of exposition'? Well, it's a fancy term, ironic, and, in a way, self-explanatory. It means 'wordy'. And it's the habit I'm tackling in this article, with a relevant writing exercise at the end, as well as a 'for your novel' activity to apply to your current creative writing project.

The Origin of Wordiness
   We're all taught at a young age not to write stories with 'and then, and then, and then'. We're taught that that is bad writing - no depth, no description, no passion, just a series of events noted down for archival purposes rather than entertainment.
   Instead, we're taught to write feeling, to set the scene and invite readers into it, not just note down something that didn't actually happen in a place that may not exist. What sets a story apart from an account is heart and depth. And the best way to achieve that is with description, because through description, we paint pictures, we invoke emotion, and we create both suspense and tranquility.
   But this is where inexperienced writers - writers who haven't had any professional attention by publishers, agents, proof-readers etc - will begin to flounder. In our desperation to avoid the and-and-and archival records, we over-use description, and that makes a story cumbersome and difficult to enjoy.
   But how can you possibly fix it?

   Take this into consideration: people who cannot read are not stupid. People who can read but choose not to are stupid. Therefore, we can conclude that someone who chooses to read is actually quite intelligent. And, self-deprecation aside, if someone chooses to read your book, you have a responsibility to respect that intelligence, and that means realising that the reader is capable of following a story without you describing every chair, table and tick of the clock.
   Trust them to make connections, to envision things appropriately - and don't try so hard to get your own image into their minds. Guide their imaginations, but don't control them; shine a light along the path, don't drag them by the hand.
   No one will ever have the same image in their mind as you do, no matter how many words you use, no matter how long the description. Short of including illustrations, you have to accept that they will never match, because their images will be shaped by their experiences and exposures, just as yours was. Instead, as the writer, it's your job to shape their image into one that suits your tale, but not to stifle it. Recognise that it isn't important if it's identical or not.

Complete Descriptions
   First of all, the biggest killer: don't assault them with a complete description all at once.
   Example 1
   If you're introducing a city, the reader will picture a city - a busy, noisy, cramped city. Walled, perhaps, depending on the genre. There's no need to mention the clusters of buildings or the throngs of people. They go without saying. Instead, lend the details that set it apart from any other city. If you're introducing a particularly magnificent city, then introduce it as just that: 'a magnificent city'. Their mind's eye will conjure a much more impressive image than they would with just 'a city'. A 'sprawling' city is vast and, perhaps, structureless, while an 'imperial' city is orderly and grandiose. The first words should lay the groundwork, and, to a degree, is almost all the reader really needs. Lay the groundwork, and then add the vital details when they become relevant.
   Unless the buildings are a very tall and closely packed, ignore them to begin with. These are details which can be given once within the city and in the confines of those buildings, rather than at first sight from a distance. However, if the city's walls are engraved, particularly bright, particularly dark, that's a detail worth giving right from the off. After all, the walls wouldn't necessarily be noticed once within them, blocked from the character's sight by buildings or under the assault of the bustle of the city. And if there's a smell hanging in the air, it's not worth mentioning until the character wrinkles their nose against it.
   Example 2
   The same goes for people: there's no need to introduce Emma as a stout woman with rosy cheeks, tatty braids, a white pinafore, muddy shoes and a basket in her arms. It might create an instant picture, but if you're catching more than a passing glimpse, there's no need for it all so soon. Mention the basket when she takes something out of it, or sets it down on the ground. Mention her muddy shoes when she jumps, walks and leaves muddy footprints, or wipes them on a mat or in the grass. If, however, the first thing to strike you of the woman is her jovial expression - like the engraved walls of the city would be - then mention those rosy cheeks, because that will aid the first impression of a cheerful character. If it's her basket, filled with an array of exotic flowers, then mention the basket and its contents. Leave the rest until relevant.

   Applying a full description of a character or place upon its introduction is cumbersome to read and will pull the reader out of the story. It's also more likely that you won't describe it again, having ticked it off your to-do list, and then the world will not longer feel alive. Keep the reader interested by revealing a little more of the picture as you go along.

Activity & Subject Items
   Over-use of exposition, or 'being too wordy', goes beyond mere description. The next pitfall is action. Too many words will impede activity, making it feel as though the character is fumbling and getting nowhere, and this goes doubly so for action scenes or times of tension. The best way to address it is to look at the simple mistakes first, and those are most often needless reminders and reiterations.
   Example 1
   'In her excitement, she rushed straight to her room as soon as she arrived home. She put her satchel down on her desk and pulled loose the buckle. She withdrew a book from the bag.' - We know where she got the book from. Why would she open the bag after arriving home and not take something out? There's no need for mentioning the bag again.
   Example 2
   'They dug up the coffin and pried off the lid. A terrible smell wafted out of the coffin, but they had a job to do. The doctor may have missed something in the victim's wounds. So they hauled the coffin out of the ground, dragged it back up onto the grass, and peered in at the corpse. The smell from the coffin was putrid.' - As soon as you read that first 'coffin', you would not have forgotten that detail. It's not a teapot, it's an evocative sort of thing, which means that there's no need to mention it so often. And, whether you mentioned that the smell is coming from the coffin or not, it's pretty clear that any strange smell, especially a putrid one, would only be coming from there. Unless perhaps someone had an accident in their fright. It's a human thing to do - and, as unpleasant as it is, these kinds of details lend themselves to living worlds

   As for action itself, if you're trying to create tension, less is more. And this goes for punctuation, too. Lots of clauses will drag things out and, again, make the scene cumbersome. Use short sentences. Despite what the teachers told you in primary school, short, simple sentences are viable, and can lend a lot to effect.
   'The hunter stared through the long grass. The bear seemed to stare back at him. He could feel his heartbeat in his ears. His hands shook, the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Neither moved.
   He reached slowly for an arrow. Silently, he nocked it, and drew the string carefully back to the corner of his lips. With bated breath, he aimed, and loosed.
   The string's release seemed to scream in the silent air.
   The bear didn't miss it.
   The hunter's blood froze at the deafening roar, and stared in fright at the mass of fur and muscle charging towards him. The arrow struck harmlessly in its thick flank.'
   'The hunter stared at the bear through the long grass, and the bear seemed to stare back. The hunter could feel his heartbeat in his ears. His hands shook, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up as though a chill had passed over him like a portentous breeze. Neither of them moved for fear the other would attack, they just watched one another, closely.
   The hunter reached slowly for an arrow from his quiver, keeping as quiet as he could, and nocked it in his bow. His heart was thumping in his throat like the hooves of a thousand horses, and he pulled the string back to the corner of his mouth. He aimed, and loosed, but the sound of the released string was loud in the still air, and it gave the bear a chance to react. It roared and moved while the arrow hit it harmlessly in its thick flank, and charged towards him, a frightening mass of fur and muscle.'

   Neither are perfect, but there is more tension to the first. Short sentences suggest short breath, sparing little to speak. The use of clauses, commas and similies in the second might sound more impressive, but it loses impact. It feels too leisurely. You'll also notice that the first paragraph is 112 words, and the second is 167 words. It's not all about word-count. This is why I feel that aiming for writing a set number of words a day is a foolish method of tracking progress, but I'll write on that subject later.

Speech & Dialogue
   An issue when writing dialogue is the flicking back and forth between speakers and guiding the reader through characters in a gathering. There is no need to constantly mention someone's name when they speak. Instead, try resorting to other things - 'said Rachael' 'said the barmaid' 'she said as she cleared the plates' 'said the stout woman' - this is also an opportunity to slip in more descriptive detail about the individual rather than delivering it all at once upon the first sight of them.
   If there are only two people talking, you can often tell who said what by what was actually said. And if you feel it's time to remind the reader in case they're getting confused after five or so transitions, throw in a single 'said Rachael' to clear it up, or state a brief reaction before that person speaks: ' Rachael frowned. "Where was it?" '
   Sometimes, in a group of more than two people, it's not actually important to know who says everything. If a question is raised and everyone in the group is behind that question barring the single person who can answer it, then the enquirer doesn't need to be named, it's the person who answers it that matters. And if that still bothers you, if it feels too vague and you're just not comfortable with that, you can always try ' "What happened?" "Well," Liz turned to Emily, "we're not sure yet." ' or ' "What happened?" "We're not sure yet, Emily," Liz replied regretfully. ' something to that effect. There's no need to ' "What happened?" Asked Emily. "Well, we're not sure yet," Liz replied. "You don't even have a clue?" "Not the foggiest, I'm afraid," Liz said shamefully. ' This all makes the dialogue more dynamic than 'he said' 'she said' 'he replied'. They might suck air through their teeth in hesitation, shift their weight in reluctance, their eyes might widen, lip twitch in irritation. These subtle nuances will bring the characters to life, enliven the conversation, and convey the tone of what is said without having to say it, all while revealing who is speaking.

Important Items
   This is perhaps the one time that a full, up-front description is allowed. If there's an item of significance, if it's something - or even someone - that stuns the characters, then stun the reader with it. The reveal of the artefact in The Zi'veyn was worthy of a full description upon first sight. The same might go for a ravishingly beautiful person, or a horrendously violent sight, or an astoundingly awesome one. But, again, only if there is time for it. In The Zi'veyn, when the artefact was found, they had the time to be stunned. Coming upon a silent murder scene or a dead battleground would be sobering, and with none but scavenging animals around, there should be time to be stunned here, too. High up on a mountain and seeing the full scale of an advancing army, standing at the tip of headland over the sea and seeing the dragons breathing the aurora borealis, reading an old book in a quiet library and discovering a prophecy.

Over-Use of Exposition Writing Exercise

Write a suspenseful scene, using sentence structure rather than fancy words to convey the tension.
Write a scene arriving at and moving through a new location, experimenting with playing upon a reader's initial impression of a 'magnificent city' or a 'heaving port', for example.

Identifying Over-Use of Exposition in Your Novel

Read over a conversation from your current work and take a look at the dialogue tags and attributives (he said/she said). See where you can improve the guidance; trim things down, merge two characters' attributives into one ('asked Rachael' and 'mused Emily' into 'Emily mused, pondering Rachael's question'), and try to avoid frequent use of the word 'said'. Try 'replied', 'retorted', 'bellowed' or 'giggled'.


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