by Ginny Lee Overbay
“Exposition means facts—the information about setting, biography and characterization that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.” – Robert McKee, Story
As a writer, it’s tempting to info-dump on our readers as they wade through the stories we create. We know these characters; we have their memories, their feelings, and their thoughts ingrained within our own. If our protagonist acts the way he does because of his abusive childhood, we want to ensure that our readers understand that. In an effort to provide ample motivation, on page four we might add a considerable inner monologue on why our protag is so angry, so bitter, so untrusting.
But what does that do for the reader? It takes away the mystery and makes the story boring. It keeps the reader from filling in the blanks, coming up with their own theories and ideas, and gives them little reason to keep reading. Instead of giving the reader insight into every single thought and action of the characters, give them bits and pieces, revealed through natural scenes and dialogue.
Pick up a favorite book, or turn on a favorite movie. Read and watch scenes, see what’s being said even when no words are spoken. See what’s communicated through a look, or by a character’s action. Listen to the dialogue, and maybe even take out a pen and piece of paper—write down what these characters are speaking to one another, and then what they are really saying.
Not everything has to be spelled out. If you listen to your own conversations, or eavesdrop at your local coffee shop, you’ll realize how little is actually said in real life, while still communicating a lot. Sit at a park and people watch. So much happens in quiet moments, so much is revealed by body language and actions. When writing, don’t limit yourself; there are so many ways to get your point across and let your readers get to know your characters and your world.
Establishing a backstory for your characters is imperative to writing a fleshed out story, but it doesn’t all have to be divulged at the same time. Sprinkling information throughout the story will create much more interest. Robert McKee states that “confident writers parse out exposition, bit by bit, through the entire story, often revealing exposition well into the Climax of the last act.” For example, having flashbacks scattered through the story can reveal small pieces of the characters’ psyches, but without eliminating all intrigue and answering every question the readers may have.
McKee also says the audience’s interest isn’t kept by giving them all the information, but by withholding it. If the protagonist’s biggest secret is revealed in the first act, all the other facts that come to light about him throughout the story will seem minimal, ultimately leading to an anticlimactic ending. Save the best for last. Tease your readers as they go along, but make sure the climax of your story is just that—the highest point.
Another thing to consider is that your readers aren’t stupid; give them a chance to read between the lines and pick up the subtext. Let them think and feel and live within these characters, within this world you’re creating. Maybe some of their guesses will be wrong, or maybe they’ll misinterpret some of the characters’ actions, but they’ll be engaged and involved. Even if your characters are the most compelling people to have ever been imagined, if they are written as flat over-sharers who are exactly what they seem to be, your readers won’t be invested. Give them space to imagine along with your characters, and they’ll find themselves fully immersed in your story.
With all the hours and days and months that go into writing a novel or even a short story, you owe it to yourself to find creative ways to tell your story. The most important thing a writer can do is read and observe. Read good books and not-so-good books; ask yourself what kept you engaged, or what lost your interest. Go outside and see how people act with those they know best, or those they don’t know at all. It’s research, and it will all help you write an authentic, realistic, intriguing story that readers can’t put down.
Ginny Lee Overbay is a Southern born-and-bred writer currently working on her first novel. She has written a feature film screenplay that is in post-production, slated to complete in time for the 2013 film festival circuit. She lives with her husband, daughter, dog and cat in Kentucky. You can follow her on twitter at: http://twitter.com/ginginleelee, or check out the following Kickstarter page for more info on her film: http://kck.st/GPxjLT