Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: Exposition VS. Revelation

Hello and welcome! This article is the second part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

Writing mistakes 2

Today we’ll examine Major Flaw #2: exposition vs. revelation. To clarify my meanings of these terms, exposition is directly telling your reader something, usually through narration or dialogue. Revelation is revealing something through the natural course of the story. As you may guess, revelation is what we want to aim for.

When I wrote my novel manuscript, I thought I was being extremely clever with my exposition. Because the story is in a fantasy world, I needed my readers to understand certain facts about the way that world worked—what countries and creatures were involved and the history between them all. So, I had my main character go to a library and read some scrolls that provided this information. I wrote out paragraphs of exposition as if they were content from the scrolls. And when I read over the manuscript recently, I was bored to tears by my “clever” exposition.

Especially in a manuscript with a complex storyworld, it’s always tempting to “info-dump,” i.e., tell the reader a lot of facts through exposition. You’re excited about the world you’ve created, and you want to tell the reader all about it! On top of that, exposition is an easy way to make sure the readers “get” everything about this unfamiliar world. After all, you don’t want your reader to feel lost—but, trust me, readers pick up on things a lot faster than you might expect.

If you’re like me, you also write exposition to finalize some of the story details in your own mind. It’s great to write out your thoughts when planning a storyworld, but it’s a bad idea to do so within your manuscript. Create separate storyworld documents so you can plan all the details of your world without boring your readers by telling them the intimate details of dwarfish birthday celebrations or the many magical properties of unicorn hair.

Besides writing obvious paragraphs of exposition, I noticed another major way I created exposition in my manuscript: rhetorical questions. My friends, please learn from my mistakes and avoid the rhetorical questions trap. They have their place, but my younger self had no idea how to use them effectively. Instead, I wrote rhetorical questions with extremely obvious answers, all for the sake of steering the reader toward a certain reaction to the story. I’ve seen other writers do this as well.

Misusing rhetorical questions not only comes off as boring, but it’s also insulting to the reader. If you, as the writer, are doing your job correctly, the reader will automatically react to your manuscript the way you want them to. When your main character finds a key, for instance, you don’t have to guide the reader by writing rhetorical questions such as, “Could this be the long-lost key to open the treasure chest?” The reader is smart enough to guess that. Don’t spoon-feed it to them.

The solution to clunky and insulting exposition is revelation (I almost wrote that as a rhetorical question, and then I took my own advice. Hehe). You might have notebooks upon notebooks filled with plans for your storyworld, but your reader does not need to know it all. Readers only need—and, usually, want—to know the information relevant to the storyline. And they want to learn it from the storyworld itself.

When you’ve worked hard to plan the details for your storyworld, all you have to do is let that world reveal itself in the work. For example, reveal the layout of a town by having a character walk through it and describing the sights, sounds, and smells that the character experiences. Readers will notice the details that are different from the real world and will make inferences about your storyworld as a result.

Everything you write needs to move the story forward. Use storyworld details in ways that are relevant to the characters and their desires—because character desire is what drives a story. When you write about your storyworld as if it’s real, as if its unusual details are fact, instead of explaining everything like a textbook, that is when readers will fall in love with your novel, because you’ve made the world feel natural through revelation.

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!

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