Critique Technique, Part 41 — The Dreaded Expository Lump

Old car stuck in the mud
photo credit: Toronto History via photopin cc

Ah, the dreaded expository lump, that moldering mass of minutiae, that exhausting example of authorial excreta, that soggy swamp of supercilious sentences that sends the reader straight into the Slough of Despond. (Yeesh, enough with the purple prose, already!)

You know what the expository lump is, of course: that paragraph or page—or worse yet, pages—in which the author stops the story to tell you everything he knows about a particular character, setting, situation, etc. His intent is good—there are things the reader needs to know—but not all of them, not right now. And not all at once.

Unfortunately, this lump, also known as an info- or data-dump, isn’t the exclusive province of the novice writer. We all risk writing it. As we get better, perhaps our lumps and dumps are shorter and a little less obvious because we’re better at slipping in backstory and key details. But we can still slip into that swamp without meaning to.

New writers make two mistakes. First, they haven’t learned to trust the reader to figure things out. Second, they haven’t learned that the reader is their partner in creating the story, filling in what the writer does leave out. As a result, the new writer takes it upon herself to describe and explain everything.

Stuck in the Mud

Driving a story into an expository lump is like driving a car into a deep puddle of thick, gooey mud. First there’s the sudden loss of momentum, then that sinking feeling as the mire swallows the story car. The drive wheels may still be throwing around lots of mud words and making a mess but the story’s going nowhere. When the writer driver takes his foot off the gas, even for a moment, the mud words flow back into the story tailpipe and the engine vapor locks and dies. The passenger reader is left stranded, wondering how she’s going to get out of the mud, never mind looking forward to dinner at Grandma’s.

As a critiquer, you play the role of the friendly tow truck driver, come to pull the hapless writer motorist out of his self-made morass. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to wade down into that muck yourself to find where to place the hook so you can pull the story car out without ripping the bumper off.

The first thing to do is assess the situation: What happened here? As I noted above, the author’s intentions were good. He wanted the reader to know important stuff! But alas, he misjudged what was important and what wasn’t, like misjudging the depth of the puddle.  Or maybe he didn’t know what was important.

Sometimes pulling our hapless writer out of the fine mess he’s gotten himself into is easy. The puddle isn’t very deep and just pulling the car straight out—that is, deleting the lump altogether—is all that’s needed. At other times, though…

Oh, no! The word mud was too deep and thick. The winch cable snapped! Everyone’s okay, but now what? It’s time for some serious mucking to shovel out all those mud words that are stalling the story.

But here’s the thing: not all mud words are bad. The story needs some of them. The key is figuring out which ones need to stay, which need to be gotten rid of, and which need to be put in a bucket in the trunk to make mud pies with the grandkids later.

Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Deciding when the piece you’re reading is getting stuck in the mud is easy enough. But you may have to get to the other side of the puddle, if not all the way to Grandma’s house—that is, to the end of the scene, chapter, or piece—to be able to recommend what needs to be taken out for good, and what needs to be taken out for now.

Even then, it may not be possible for you to decide or suggest what belongs in either of those categories. That ultimately is the author’s decision, but you can help her decide.

The mud words that need to stay are the ones that give traction (in other words, color, life, and depth) to the story at that moment. Which are they? That’s a tough question. In part it depends on the nature of the story; some genres expect more description and backstory, and hence a slower pace, than others do.

Another part of the answer depends on the needs of the story at that moment. For example, when introducing a character for the first time, it may be important to reveal not just some of his physical characteristics but some of his surface intentions, let’s say, or his perceptions of his surroundings.

Take a look, as I noted in Part 20, at whether a particular fact or detail adds something important to the story. Just as a little bit of salt sprinkled into a dish (although probably not a mud pie) adds to or brings out the flavor, a small, revealing detail or two, sprinkled into the story at just the right moment adds to its piquancy.

The rest of it? Well, there’s no rule that everything a writer knows about a character, location, situation, etc., has to be put in. Just the opposite, in fact. The reader needs to know some of that information—maybe a lot of it—but not all of it, and not all in one big lump.

If the author starts arguing with you about whether a detail needs to be included, find out why she feels that way. That conversation can tell both of you a lot.

Let’s sum up, then. The expository lump or info-dump has two main problems. First, it delivers too much information at one time, most of which doesn’t contribute to the needs of the story at that moment. Second, it slows the story’s momentum, even bringing it to a dead stop. As a critiquer, your job is to identify when that’s happened. Then you can recommend which details should stay and which might be sprinkled in later so they add to the story, and why they should stay or go. Be sure you fit your suggestions to the genre and style of the story. With your help, the author will turn story-strangling mud into a fine, rich loam from which the flower of the story will bloom.

Questions For You

Here are some questions you can ask when you find yourself slogging through the swamp of an expository lump.

  • Has the author stopped the flow of the story, or seriously slowed it down, just to explain something or provide background information?
  • Do I really need that information or explanation right now? Is it vital to the story? If not, why not?
  • Are there any parts of this information that are useful right now? If so, which are they?
  • Have I come across other places in the story where some of this information would fit better?
  • Has the story so far suggested that there are other places coming up where that information could be used?
  • What seems to be the author’s purpose or intention for providing all of this information now? Does he think he has to provide everything about this character, situation, etc., to the reader, rather than letting the reader create some of it herself?

Discuss your findings with the author. Tightening up a piece by removing blobs of unneeded exposition is an easy way to significantly improve it.

How do you tell when you’ve hit an expository lump? How do you help the author fix it? It’s OK to provide all the information you want in the comments box below.

One comment to Critique Technique, Part 41 — The Dreaded Expository Lump

  • SplitSun  says:

    […] Using backstory as front story and spending too much time in backstory mean the author isn’t clear on what information needs to be doled out in little pieces to deepen and enrich the story at key moments. Instead, he delivers info-dumps, which can take the form of lectures by the narrator, or speeches by characters, among others. I’ll discuss info-dumps, also known as expository lumps, in more detail in Part 42. […]

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