Cutting exposition isn’t always the smart play

First off, here’s the cover for Oh the Places You’ll Go. Still needs some added lettering of course but I think the image works for a story about traveling through maps.

Earlier this month I solicited beta readers from my writing group. Normally I’d have submitted it for feedback in one of our meetings but at 8,000 words it would take around three sessions to finish and that’s a minimum of six weeks, assuming I read every meeting. I wanted quicker. The results were helpful but showed I’d made some mistake revising from the original.

The premise is that when countries die — annexed by bigger nations, split up by secession — the passion of their inhabitants doesn’t disappear. If you have, say, a 10th century map of Burgundy, you’re within those borders and you have the knack for “traveling,” you can will yourself back there. Ditto the Ottoman Empire, the Confederate States of America, the USSR, etc.

When I read the first version of the story to the group, several points kept coming up in the feedback. It’s too talky and expository. Not enough happens once my protagonists go back into the past. A map of the future that plays a role in the plot wasn’t imaginative enough.

I solved that last problem by setting the story in 1970 so the map is our time. From the 1970 perspective a world where part of Pakistan is Bangladesh, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have broken up, etc., is radical change, and I didn’t have to strain my brain to come up with it. I worked to have encounters with other travelers and to reduce the exposition. This is one of the standard bits of writing advice, of course: don’t assume your readers need everything explained. If the story is strong they’ll wait until you explain the rules. Don’t bog down the opening with exposition. Resist the urge to explain unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Judging from the feedback, I took it too far. My betas were completely confused by some stuff that I never explained — I was hoping it would be understandable by inference — and other stuff they needed much earlier in the story than I covered it. I shall rewrite accordingly.

This is why beta reading matters. I’m sure there are writers brilliant enough to do without it, but for most of us — particularly in specfic, where readers may not know how the world operates — it’s essential. I’m so lucky to have such a cool group.


Leave a comment

Filed under Short Stories, Story Problems, Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.