I’ve long struggled with dialog and narration. I’ve never considered myself very good at them. As a result, I’ve been constantly trying to improve my skills in this area, and learned a lot though mistakes. For the next few Friday blogs, I’ll be sharing some of my hard-won lessons with you, starting with one of the worst culprits for creating terrible dialog and narration: Exposition.
Exposition: The Ultimate Story Tar Pit
Exposition is a key component to establishing your Act One. Readers need to know the Who, What, Where, When, Why in order to have context for the events that will unfold. However, when employed poorly, exposition can bog down a story. Don’t believe me? Try reading THIS from a previous story of mine, Shades of Grey. I apologize in advance for making your eyes bleed.
As you can see (once your eyes recover, that is) I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when it comes to dialog and narration. This page highlights on a tendency that I’ve seen many writers fall prey to, which is to excessively explain their world.
The history of oral hygiene, and other fascinating facts
I love world-building. In fact, I compulsively create settings. Why, in the back of my mind I’m working on one as I type this. It’s a condition. Or an addiction. I’m sure I can quit anytime. The REAL problem is it can be tempting, especially when I’ve put these countless hours into crafting a world, to explain every little detail to the reader. Why are the shoulders covered at all times except at weddings? Why are mirrors and jars of honey brought to funerals? Why is the maple leaf considered a good-luck charm?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter WHY, just that those details are there in the visuals. Not in the dialog. The attentive, detail-oriented reader will observe these elements and enjoy making their own theories. The rest of the readers won’t particularly care — and they certainly don’t want me to tell them about it!
The problem isn’t the world-building — that’s an important part of having a believable and consistent story — the issue is letting go of the need to explain the details instead of demonstrate them. How many of us brush teeth before going to bed? I’m going to assume, for the sake of my hygiene-conscious sensibilities, that the answer is most. How many of you would turn to your friend, significant other, or apathetic cat, and explain to them not only WHY you brush, but HOW you brush and how LONG you’ve brushed and how your society has a HISTORY of brushing? Unless you have small and remarkably inquisitive children, I’m guessing this is not a regular occurrence. Such events should be equally rare in our stories!
Even an outsider to a culture will often hesitate to ask why certain things are done. Whether to avoid looking stupid or just simple shyness, most of us will hover in the background, observe, and then attempt to mimic what everyone else is doing. As a writer, it’s important to trust readers to figure things out on their own and let them play the role of the attentive foreigner, not the precocious toddler.
Investment vs Invested
How often have you started reading a comic, particularly a fantasy comic, that began with a variation of this:
Often a very dry, text-heavy history lesson at that! How often did that history lesson have very little to do with the plot or characters that followed it? How long (if ever) did you have to wait before there was pay-off on that information? How could the writer have SHOWN you that information through the actions, mannerisms, and attitudes of the characters? Finally, how many of you were so bored by the dry lecture opening that you quit right then and there? I’ve heard more than a few readers tell me that they’ve given up on a large amount of comics because they couldn’t stand the lecture at the beginning. As writers, we put these kinds of pages in there because they feel very important to the story we’re writing, but often they’re useless to the story the reader is consuming.
The eye-bleeding page I shared with you at the start was put in because I realized that I’d forgotten to include all that exposition earlier. It felt critical to me that the reader understand this involved system I had constructed. When Cory was going through it years later, he said to me, “If you changed one line of dialog in the page that comes after this one, you could take out that exposition dump entirely and nobody would ever realize it was gone.” That’s how little all that information, that seemed SO IMPORTANT to me, mattered to him. Did it impact how the characters thought, felt, or behaved? No. Did it add dramatic irony for the reader, to heighten the tension? No. Did it even add crucial context, key to understanding future events? Nopeity, nopeity, Nooooooo.
The only person it mattered to was me, because I’d spent all that time and effort thinking about it. I assumed that writer work invested meant reader interest investment. It didn’t.
Where to put the details
Every time I feel the need to explain, I take a step back. I brainstorm how I could show that exposition through behavior, surgically removing explanations unless it is the basis for a plot-point in the future. Show it, don’t tell it. Assume less is more. My LeyLians let me know when my exposition levels are coming up short. That’s one of the incredible benefits to making a webcomic. Reader questions help us calibrate our stories in real-time. If I find the same kind of questions coming up, I can identify the weak spot and take action to give just enough information in future pages to address the problem. Having people interested enough to question me is a far better situation than readers that were too bored to read past my introduction.
Best of all, my world-building efforts don’t have to be in vain. Instead of trying to cram them into the story, I document those details in a note-book, preserving them for back-of-the-book extras later. Now they’ve become exciting goodies for the readers that DO care about the effort I’ve put into the story, in a place where the information doesn’t disrupt the story I’m trying to tell. I’ve added depth to my story AND additional value to the readers. Both the ones that love extra detail AND the ones that don’t.