March 11, 2010 / 6 Comments

…And I’ll Use Small Words!

So, one last time. Because some of you are having problems with it.

Take the bowl out of the cupboard and put it on the counter. Take the cereal out of the cupboard. Open the cereal box, open the wax-paper bag inside the box, and pour the cereal into the bowl. Do not overfill the bowl. When you’ve finished, close the box back up and return it to the cabinet. Now, take the milk out of the refrigerator. Unscrew the cap (counter-clockwise) and remove it. Pour the milk over the cereal in the bowl. Watch the edges and make sure the bowl does not overflow. If you plan on moving the bowl to another location to eat, do not let the milk fill the top half inch of the bowl. Once the appropriate amount of milk has been poured, replace the cap (screwing it on clockwise) and return the milk to the refrigerator. Open the drawer and get a spoon. Using the spoon, transfer an amount of the cereal and milk from the bowl to your mouth. Close your mouth around the spoon but do not bite down with your teeth. Slide the spoon out between your lips, keeping them sealed. Chew the cereal in your mouth. Swallow. Return the spoon to the bowl and repeat this process until all the cereal has been chewed and swallowed.

Now, let’s be honest with each other for a moment.

How many of you started skimming halfway through that?

It’s okay. I was writing it and I started skimming. It was boring as hell to write, I can’t imagine reading it was any better.

This is why so much exposition sucks. It’s all summed up right there in that fascinating paragraph. Allow me to explain.


First, that paragraph is something we know. Exposition is boring and pointless if the audience (either watching or reading) knows all the information being put forth. It’s just wasting time while we wait for something to happen. Damon Knight has pointed out that a fact we don’t know is information, but a fact we do know is just noise. No one wants to read a story full of noise. So, as writers, we need to know what our audience knows and work around that. If I’m writing a story set in the late 1930s or ’40s, I don’t need to explain to anyone that Nazis are the bad guys.

Second is the skimming that happened when you read that paragraph. People (or characters) don’t want to sit through something they already know. Can you imagine my doctor sitting patiently while I explain the circulatory system to him? Hell, a first year med student knows more about the circulatory system than I do. There’d be absolutely no point to me explaining it and no point to him sitting through the explanation. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the two federal agents (and the audience) pay attention to Indy’s lesson about Ark of the Covenant because it’s something they don’t know. After all, that’s not their field of expertise. Notice that in the same scene, Marcus isn’t listening with rapt fascination. He almost comes across as mildly bored, and he probably is because he already knows this.

Third, and last, is that a lengthy explanation about how to prepare and eat cereal serves no purpose here. None. This is a blog about writing tips, so a paragraph like that is a waste of space. Nobody came here looking for information like that and the people who are looking for stuff like that won’t be looking here. As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, there’s a reason Indy’s lecture to the feds doesn’t involve Masada, even thought the story of Masada is very cool and the odds are they don’t know it–it just isn’t relevant. He also doesn’t tell them about that cool time when he was a kid and those guys chased him on a circus train. The feds don’t know about that, either, but it’s probably less relevant than the Masada story.

A few times here on the ranty blog I’ve mentioned something I call the ignorant stranger which I came up with while writing a DVD review of Shogun four or five years ago. It’s a simple, sure-fire way to use as much exposition as you want in a short story, screenplay, or novel–you just have a source of information explain something to someone who does not know these facts.

Easy, right? Just remember these two things…

One, your ignorant stranger has to be on the same level as your readers or viewers. The audience is learning alongside them, and they don’t want to wait while the stranger’s educated on what policemen do for a living, where England is on a map, and why you shouldn’t play in traffic. There’s a big difference between ignorance and stupidity, and the ignorant stranger can’t actually be stupid. It’s only this particular situation that has put him or her at a disadvantage.

Two, the source explaining things has to be smarter than the stranger, and thus, smarter than your audience. If what’s being explained is something we can figure out on our own (or something that we’ll never need to know) then the Source is wasting everyone’s time by explaining it. Remember, you want information, not noise. Yeah, maybe for whatever reason this particular Source doesn’t know much about football, noir detective movies, or the eternal mystery that is woman, but on the topic they’re explaining this character needs to be an authority. It needs to be clear the Source’s knowledge dwarfs the ignorant stranger’s on this topic.

So there it is. If anyone tries to tell you only bad writers use exposition in a story, tell them it’s only the bad writers who don’t know how to use exposition. And then look smug while you eat your Captain Crunch.

Next time, by request, I want to talk about balloons.

Until then, go write.

0 replies on “…And I’ll Use Small Words!”

you mean you don't just pour the cereal straight into the milk carton and eat it that way? wow, weird…

exposition is one of my great fails, so the tips are much appreciated! i'm still struggling with the fine line between giving necessary information and giving boring lectures. 🙂

(btw, out of interest, is there a terribly compelling reason why the version of this article on the Brave Blue Mice site refers to finding Oklahoma on a map rather than finding England? are you playing to the international audidence here, or were you maybe worried that we WOULDN'T know where Oklahoma was? 😉

I think exposition is a perfect example of why I keep doing this silly ranty blog. So many gurus and "real" writers scream never to use exposition. What they're really saying is they don't know how or they don't want to spend the time explaining it. It's lowest-common-denominator writing advice.

I think most folks (well, anyone who finds their way here, anyway) can handle it. 🙂

I'm still trying to figure out the BBM feed. Greg explained it to me once, but I am just a caveman and your modern technological devices frighten me. I think it may have something to do with my cat "posting" the first draft of this while it was being written…

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