Sort of sounds like something you need to see a doctor for rather than a term from Ursula Le Guin’s book, Steering the Craft. But that’s what she calls it, the “Expository Lump,” that huge mound of information we (or maybe just I) tend to pour onto the page in order to bring our readers up-to-date on the historical background of our characters.
We think: Gosh, they just have to know that protagonist George, way back when his parents sent him to visit his aunt in Paris at the age of seven, had gotten himself separated from her and ended up at the top of the Eiffel Tower all alone. They need to know how the incident had freaked him out to the point where now, ten years later, he’s still afraid to ride in an elevator alone, still afraid to look out the window of their New York apartment. Not only that, but the episode caused a rift between Aunt Cheree and his mother and they haven’t spoken in years. So, George has never met his three younger cousins. And since Aunt Cheree was close to Cousin William, twice removed on their mother’s side and had convinced William to shun George’s parents after the incident too . . . well, George doesn’t know that side of the family either. So he doesn’t know that a cousin he’s never met is touring the states with her high school band and staying in the very same part of New York City that George lives in.
If we explain all that in graphic detail, up front before anything else happens, then our readers are bound to understand why George is killing time in the lobby, hoping someone will ride up the elevator soon so he won’t have to do sixteen flights of stairs (again). And if we explain all that expository stuff up front, then our readers might also anticipate the identity of that totally hot stranger who ends up riding in the elevator with George—the stranger he falls instantly ga-ga over.
Such is the expository lump and the thinking behind it. Pretty boring, huh? Pretty hard to gag down. The “Expository Lump” is just like it sounds—it’s akin to eating way too much in one sitting. Or shoving everything into the garbage disposal at once. Or dumping the whole bottle of hand soap into the funnel instead of trickling it in a little at a time. Pretty soon the funnels going to overflow, the disposal will just up and quit (trust me, I know) and our stomachs . . . well, we know how that’s going to turn out.
Le Guin suggests we treat the lump for what it is: “as you write the scene, ‘compost’ the information, break it up, spread it out, slip it into conversation or action-narration or anywhere you can make it go so it doesn’t feel Lumpy.”
But it’s not easy. It takes patience and a different kind of hard work to figure out the proper doses and the right times to administer them. And we still have to make sure that, whatever device we choose to deliver the information, it doesn’t end up sounding contrived.
“Thanks for riding up in the elevator with me!” George extends his hand toward the hot elevator stranger, “I’m seventeen year old George and I’m afraid of riding in elevators alone because back when I was just a wee lad, my Aunt Cheree lost me at the top of the Eifel Tower which turned Mom into a raving lunitic and so, to this day, she hasn’t talked to my aunt and won’t let me go to Paris ever again and . . .” On and on and on it can go!
Except that, in this case, it might just work. You’d have that hot stranger tossing an incredulous look at George, “Mon dieu! I have and Aunt Cheree, too!”
But . . . you get my drift. We don’t want to drive up with our backhoe, scoop up our expository lump and drop it, fully formed, into someone’s dialogue. Or their internal monologue. Or even those letters George sends to his other cousin out on the west coast.
My first novel was like that. Being relatively new to the art of novel writing, I’d dropped lump after lump after large, looming lump into its beginning. Composting came much later, after the piles of exposition had solidified and gotten harder to spread. In fact, I’m still working on it. But I’m making progress . . . I noticed how, what was originally lumped into my chapter four, is now sprinkled throughout chapter twenty two!
And working the lumps out of my second novel is proving much easier since I now know to do it. Something I’ve found helpful is to write like a reader, constantly asking myself, “how much do I need to know about this right now?” It also helps to keep all my other tools handy: rake, pick, shovel. But never the backhoe.