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Exposition is one those things in writing with which I have a love/hate relationship. Mostly because while I’m writing, I’m tricked into thinking it’s sheer brilliance. And because I know all about those picky critique partners that will insist that half of it is unnecessary, I make sure that every single thing that I mention in my exposition is a genius epiphany to the discerning reader.
So I start off my new WIP with a pensive scene of my protagonist musing over a piece of toast, and about how today, instead of jam, she’ll try peanut butter. Frankly, I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about yet, as I have no fixed plot, so I pack in a bunch of poor and falsely insightful comments on the nature of spreads and how they relate to people and before I know it, the next few paragraphs are a detailed description of the respective qualities of peanut butter and jam.
Oh reader, you may think it’s dumb...and it...probably is...and since I’m not totally blind, (yet,) I start to despair. Because for some unknown reason, I really, really like my toast analogies. So I make them important. But how? And where do I put them? I can’t just cut them; I wrote them!
So I carefully deliberate, think hard about what I want these toast things to truly mean, and BAM. Epiphany. This is what I do:
At the very end, when the heroine has found herself, she’ll wake up the next morning and on her toast she’ll put—get ready for it—peanut butter and jam! And it’ll symbolize the complete synthesis with her two warring halfs! No longer will she accept anything less than a full life!
Suddenly, IT’S AMAZING. I've turned my lame as crap clueless beginnings into something meaningful.
But then I give it to my crit partner, and I get these comments...
“She really likes her toast, huh?”
“Is this whole story going to be about breakfast?”
“...Maybe you should cut this.”
But I am not discouraged. I am a warrior. I am confident that when she reaches the end, she’ll see the perfect merger for what it is; two halfs of a whole desperate to be brought together. The lovers that are peanut butter and jam reunited at last. Except that I don't get that. I get this:
“Yeah I don’t really get this whole toast thing, seemed pretty obvious to me.”
And that’s when I realize that my toast analogy is the stupidest thing I’ve ever written, and I was under an unfortunate spell of Exposition Blindness. Terrified that I wouldn't be able to write anything worthwhile, I'd taken what was mediocre and tried to force it into awesomeness.
So then I cut it. Depressed, I go through my whole manuscript and cut every single mention of toast. I murder my darling, if you will, and it’s a long, bitter affair because I did everything possible to keep it alive.
But in the end, I’m comforted by the thought that it wasn’t useless. Because with that silly exposition, a character did surface. Whether I knew it or not, even those early choices influenced what shape my imagined person would take, and if I look closely enough, I can see exactly how that character came to be. Through the toast metaphors, here is what I learned about her:
At the start of the story, she’s dissatisfied with her life. There’s something missing. She doesn’t quite fit in with this crowd or the other, and she really just wants to be somebody. Instead of embracing everything she could be, and accepting that to grow she must acknowledge every part of herself, she tries to pigeonhole her personality into just one category, be it jam or peanut butter. It’s the epicurean equivalent of high school cliques. She just wants to find her way, and as the story goes on she keeps growing, until in the end she realizes she doesn’t have to settle for just one thing. She can be both. She can be everything! She can slap on banana slices, or honey, or pickles—
...Okay so it’s not a perfect metaphor.
Either way, this toast thing of hers helped me discover her character. It exposed her weaknesses, her dreams of acceptance, her confidence issues, and it’s when I realized this that I truly became okay with cutting it. Because from then on, I knew her, and I didn’t need to validate my knowledge of her through inconsistent metaphorical means. I could do it through actions that further the plot, and decisions that go beyond breakfast.
So even though in the final product, no mentions will be made of toast, I will know what she likes, dislikes, needs, wants, and cherishes. Editing everything out will make me want to tear at my hair in frustration, though I know the exposition must be destroyed, as surely as it was meant to be conceived.
Next time your crit partner (politely) yells at you to get rid of something, don’t let your being partial towards that detail get in the way of making the story better. And don’t try the whole “But wait! See here? There’s a white flower at his bedside when he’s dying! It’s totally relevant!” Believe me, I am the queen of scattering obscure references to lame exposition so I have an excuse to keep it. All that does is makes the revision process even more grueling than it has to be when I finally come to terms with the fact that it’s needless.
And just remember. No matter what happens, you know all of your character's secrets. They still exist in your head. Because of this, you can expose them with greater mastery than before, and present only what needs to be shown for the reader to get the clearest picture possible. And none of them will have to include absurd toast metaphors.
Besides. Your character deserves a little mystery, no?