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  • Writer's pictureJ.B. Manas

How to Avoid Too Much Exposition: 3 Simple Tips

Reading a book, Too much exposition

A number of years ago, I saw a surprisingly wonderful Broadway musical. Why surprising? Well, because it was called Urinetown. And it was fantastic! The opening number was a song titled, "Too Much Exposition."

In the song, Officer Lockstock speaks directly to the audience, introducing them to the show as a group of "locals" waiting in a line gossip about "old so-and-so" being carted off to Urinetown. He explains that the first setting is a "public amenity" (meaning a public toilet), where people have been waiting hours to get in.

That's when a young lady named Little Sally comes in and the dialogue goes like this:

[LITTLE SALLY, spoken]

Say, Officer Lockstock, is this where you tell the audience about the water shortage?

[LOCKSTOCK, spoken]

What's that, Little Sally?

[LITTLE SALLY, spoken]

You know, the water shortage. The hard times. The drought. A shortage so awful that private toilets eventually became unthinkable. A premise so absurd that—

[LOCKSTOCK, spoken]

Whoa there, Little Sally. Not all at once. They'll hear more about the water shortage in the next scene.

[LITTLE SALLY, spoken]

Oh, I guess you don't want to overload them with too much exposition, huh?

[LOCKSTOCK, spoken]

Everything in its time, Little Sally. You're too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.

This was my first introduction to the concept of too much exposition being a bad thing and it always stuck!

Blake Snyder Laying Pipe, Save the Cat, Expositon

The late screenwriting guru Blake Snyder, in his renowned book Save the Cat, called this "Laying Pipe." The idea is that you don't want to have too much setting-up of the story too early, unnecessarily stretching out Act One.

So how DO you avoid too much exposition (as Officer Lockstock advises Little Sally)?

My favorite author on writing is James Scott Bell. In his landmark book, Plot and Structure, he offers three simple rules for handling exposition with pizzazz:

  • Act First, Explain Later - Start out with action and movement. The reader doesn't have to know everything up front. The details can be revealed later.

  • Use the Iceberg Method - If you must share exposition, just give them the tip of the iceberg (maybe 10% of the info) and reveal the rest piecemeal throughout the book.

  • Set Information Inside Confrontation (I call this "A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down") - When you do share chunks of information or backstory, share it as part of debate (internal or external) or during some other action that's happening. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder refers to this as the "Pope in the Pool" technique. The method is based on a scene that required a big information dump. The solution was to have the Pope’s advisers share the information with him while he's swimming (something you don't often see). This made the scene more memorable and unique.

As a writer and lifelong learner, I'm constantly taking workshops. Most authors do, and certain tips stick with us more than others. I know when I begin a new book and I'm working on the early chapters, I always have James Scott Bell in my ear saying, "Act first, explain later." If you're working on your own book, it's one of the best pieces of advice I can share.

Now that I'm back blogging (it's been a minute!), I'll be sharing everything from tips on writing, random musing, the author's life, inside information about the locations and research for my books, analysis of popular movies, books, and TV shows, and more. So, if this sounds fun, don’t forget to subscribe for updates and exclusive content!

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