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Lillia usually arrived to school on her own. The other girls from her hometown got a later train more often than not. She purposefully arrived early to be able to complete homework she had neglected from the night before. Try as she might to complete all her work in the evening, she simply did not have the energy to finish it. There was only so much one person can learn about the different rock layers of the world without losing interest and falling asleep.

Sometimes, she would bump into Clara and they would walk in together, but this only happened infrequently. She recognised a few other girls from her year on the train, but she wasn't friendly with any of them, and neither party even recognised the other's existence.

I'm trying to learn to spot exposition in my writing. Should I restructure the whole section? Is a small amount of exposition okay?

  • Please consider rewriting this so the question can be re-opened, as indicated here. Questions about exposition are helpful to a lot of folks, and it'd be great if we can re-open this. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Nov 7 '18 at 17:06
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Professional writers can write pages of exposition without a problem, this is not too much, and 3 times as much would not be too much.

As a matter of critique; you are weakening your prose with too many fudge factors and emphasizers: with "usually", "more often than not", "Try as she might", "simply", "sometimes ... but infrequently", "even recognised".

I think "purposefully" should be "intentionally".

Bringing up the specific subject of her study feels out of place here; as if geology were the only reason she does this. That seems unlikely, and I feel like you are just trying to wedge that subject in a little unnaturally.

Even though this is exposition and past tense, you should try to make it feel more like the present; i.e. past tense but just happened.

As an example (but of course I'm taking liberties, so trying something like this in your own words):

Unlike the other girls from her town, Lillia took the early train to school, to give herself time to complete her homework. A year ago she'd given up on doing homework after school, it put her to sleep. Taking the early train was getting it done.

Once in a while she'd bump into Clara and they would walk in together. She recognised other girls from the early train, but there had been no friendships attempted by her or them. They had somehow silently agreed to not acknowledge each other's existence.

Today's assignment was on geology, rock layers in the Earth. Reading it on the train, she thought she'd have been comatose in five minutes if she'd tried it after dinner.


Added explanation: So more exposition can be done here. The main problem with exposition that people complain about is when you are dumping facts on the reader, that they feel like they need to memorize. To avoid giving that sense; you have your exposition occur while the reader's imagination is occupied with something else is happening: Lillia is getting on the train, riding the train, starting her homework, arriving at school, perhaps finishing her homework. That "action sequence" isn't a fight or a train crash, but it IS action, mentioned at various points along the way, and it glues together your exposition. Lillia is doing things.

More importantly, this is Lillia in the first half of the first Act, living her status quo life, dealing with her regular problems (getting to school and getting boring homework done without falling asleep, at the price of riding with strangers instead of friends).

What you want to avoid is situational fact dumps about "how we got here" or character history or character description. Those are boring and feel like stuff we have to memorize. But setting description, although stating facts, is welcome. If this were my story, I would add quite a bit about what the station looked like, what the train itself looked like, smelled like, sounded like, whether these are old or new, etc. This is all part of Lillia's world that shaped her and her attitudes, how she feels about these things let's us get to know her.

Also welcome are a few spoonfuls of history relevant to the task at hand, like why she is taking the early train, while actually boarding the early train. This tells us something about Lillia's mindset, that boring homework is important to her and worth sacrificing a morning hour with friends. So is the fact that she is working on geology, you could in exposition (or thought) expand upon that.

It was important because of course, in the adult world, categories of sedimentary rock are probably discussed every hour, she thought, with the sarcasm cranked to eleven.

Most authors will frequently go a page or more in exposition without anybody speaking, Harry Potter opens with four pages of exposition and only two words spoken, and those weren't necessary. But they are almost always exposition about setting, or while we "watch" a character doing something or experiencing something, or both.

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  • "Purposefully" means "with some useful purpose" as well as "with determination and resolve". "Purposely" might be the word the asker actually intended. – David Richerby Nov 2 '18 at 19:15
  • @DavidRicherby, there's also the little-known word "purposively." – Wildcard Nov 3 '18 at 0:23
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When, and how often…?

The problem with this passage is that it is difficult to understand when it is taking place.

"Usually..., later..., more often than not..., early..., the night before..., in the evening..., sometimes..., infrequently…."

You're giving contradictory cues about time and frequency. They might make sense individually in their sentence fragments, but all together in just 2 paragraphs you've muddied the reader's impression of time and place with at least 8 contradicting time descriptions.

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Even if the reader can follow this, they would not be able to repeat ANY of that information back to you. It becomes a blur. Which things happen frequently? Which are infrequent? Is her one friend usually there or not? I can't remember, so hopefully none of this is important because none of it sinks in before immediately being buried by the opposite direction – I'm not retaining any of the details. I'm not even sure what general impression you are trying to tell me about this girl's existence, whether today is "normal" or "unusual" compared to all these other things.

When you say too much, you say nothing.

She purposefully arrived early to be able to complete homework she had neglected from the night before. Try as she might to complete all her work in the evening, she simply did not have the energy to finish it. There was only so much one person can learn about the different rock layers of the world without losing interest

You are giving us contradictory descriptions about what kind of student she is. She purposefully arrives early (she is an eager student), but she neglects the homework and loses interest (she is a poor student). Which are you trying to say?

We are trying to get a concrete idea of this person so we can form an opinion of her, and establish the "start state" for her character – what is her "normal". Without that, her story doesn't begin.

What you are giving us is not exposition – the reader is not more informed, not about anything of consequence. Even worse, because it never settles or builds to a focus it all feels generally unimportant. We are getting filler, not story.

She recognized a few other girls…, neither party even recognized the other's existence.

The contradiction here is obvious. This is the same sentence and you are telling us one thing at the beginning and the opposite at the end.

Don't write without a plan.

It's not considered polite to tell people how or what to write, but you need an outline, or at the very least some notes before you begin writing a scene.

Discovery writers learn to be "in the now". They must develop an innate understanding of their characters, and a clear idea of the story's direction before they start. Even then, they re-write almost the entire story in a second draft once the characters, plot, and tone are concrete. You haven't done this. These contradictions should have jumped out at you.

Plotters, in my experience, work best when writing towards a goal and within certain rules/limits the scene needs to convey. The problem is not about wondering what to write about, but of knowing too much about these characters and the story. Without a clear structure for how to tell the story, it all comes at once – which goes back to your actual question about exposition.

When do you tell backstory, and how much do you tell? The important question is why are you telling it? With an outline, or more realistically a narrative timeline that includes major plot points and a rough character arc, you know what you need to say because you are following a narrative structure, working from story beat to story beat, however detailed your timeline is (it will become more detailed and get corrections as you go).

Exposition is added only when it serves the dramatic narrative, and even then (especially then) it needs to align with, not contradict or confuse, the scene's purpose and direction.

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  • This is a great explanation of the problem with the writing, but fails to answer the question. I think this is a great supplement to @Amadeus answer that really relates the 2 ideas together – Andrey Nov 2 '18 at 17:16
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    @Andrey The answer is: this is not exposition, it is filler, which is the conclusion of When you say too much you say nothing. That answer wouldn't be constructive without explaining why the passage doesn't work as exposition. It is more complicated than quantifying "how much is ok" with a number. If the exposition is working against the scene flow, "none" is the correct answer. – wetcircuit Nov 2 '18 at 17:39
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The amount of exposition appears totally fine to me. But I think you're using more words than you need to in order to provide it. I would cut the length of the section in half, and probably put it into a single paragraph.

You're giving good background and insight into this character, especially that she doesn't really have any school friends. And you let the reader know a bit about how school and transportation to school work here (fairly normal stuff but these things do differ a lot around the world). That's what exposition is for; to fill in gaps.

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  • so a small amount of exposition is okay? As long as I'm not writing multiple paragraphs of it? – klippy Nov 2 '18 at 15:13
  • There's a fine line between exposition and description. Yes, it's okay. – Cyn says make Monica whole Nov 2 '18 at 15:16

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