or, “Show, Don’t Tell”
or, “Frodo and Sam Walking”
I am a writer, which means I am a creator of worlds. And to tell a story effectively, I have to share that world with the readers. This is not an easy task. This requires exposition. Exposition is one of the necessary evils of writing. Exposition is not action. Action keeps readers engaged. Exposition is the set dressing for the action. In writing, it is always better to show than tell, which is why exposition is a necessary evil for the reader and for the writer.
I struggle with exposition and sometimes wish I could use a Basil Exposition or a recap page or a narration box. But in a novel these tools are not available to me. So I must describe my world and my characters enough that the readers know enough about both to be immersed in the story. I have read stories that were exposition-heavy, which left me skipping pages *cough*Tolkien*cough.* I have read stories that didn’t have enough exposition, which left me wondering what the heck was going on (Writer G was particularly bad at this).
Tropes Are Not Bad:
This is where tropes can be useful, or tropes can be a trap. As long as the audience has a shared understanding of character tropes, then the use of them helps save words and move the story along. But if the audience doesn’t share that understanding, then the use of tropes is almost worse than not describing anything at all.
The use of tropes does not preclude description for characters. This is where show, not tell just doesn’t work. If I wanted to show that a character has, for example, red hair, I suppose I could set up some kind of action scene in which the redheaded character get his hair cut and I could use the phrase, “The evil knight cut off a lock of the hero’s red hair.” But I can’t do that for every single character feature and piece of clothing because that would be difficult to do. It would also slow down the action to the point I’d essentially be writing exposition anyway. Also, to me, there is some utility in describing a character relatively early in the story so the reader already has an image in mind when the redheaded hero fights the evil knight.
Get it Over With:
Likewise I feel there is some utility in describing the setting early in the story. However, this can bog down the story as well (so…much…walking….). I think there should at least be enough description so the reader has a clear idea in their mind of the climate and geography of the place. If an author describes the characters as living in brick houses, my mind is going to place them in a city, especially if the author doesn’t really describe anything else (obviously, other people may not see “brick houses” as housing for city-dwellers). I’ve read some stories where the description of the set dressing is so sparse that when the author does actually state, “CityX is by the ocean,” I am pulled out of the story because I thought CityX was on a desert plain. But showing and not telling is no easier with the setting than the characters. I can use phrases like, “The hero took a deep breath of the sea air to calm his mind.” But likewise with character description, that can get cumbersome.
Now, if reading a whole bunch of exposition bogs down the story, as a writer I find having to write that bogs down my progress. I don’t write in a linear fashion; I write scenes as they come to me. Sometimes I really, really want to write a scene but then I realize as I’m writing that I haven’t described where my characters are and so I slow down on the action for the exposition and description. It’s frustrating and feels like I’m editing myself during the creative process. Sometimes tropes or assumed shared references are helpful but not always.
The worst part of writing to me is when I have to write exposition. When I don’t have a scene in my head, I work to try to connect the scenes I already have written. Rarely does this lead to another action scene. Typically this leads me to describing details that aren’t exactly relevant but can’t be ignored either. But again, I don’t want to accidentally pull a reader out of a story because I forgot to mention the room my characters were trapped in had a window.
In short – sometimes getting from here to there isn’t easy for the reader or for the writer.