I recently received a critique that was a bit… over zealous in its aim to help me. And that’s putting it nicely. In that feedback I received multiple contradictory comments that revolved around backstory and exposition.
Which are the same thing.
By the way.
This person kept saying I had too much exposition while simultaneously asking for more backstory. She wanted so much backstory, she was basically asking for the details of the entire novel in the first chapter. Can you add the barista’s name? And what is the MC’s life story? Where did that scar come from?
Exposition, as a literary device, is defined as “the part of the story… in which the characters are introduced, the background is explained, and the setting is described.” Many definitions claim that exposition takes place at the beginning of a story, but that’s not necessarily true as there are entire lifetimes of backstory to mine for each character, as well as the world of the story. It’s plausible to explain parts of the story throughout rather than just at the beginning.
And it’s important that you do just that.
As many agents, editors, and writers have pointed out over and over and over again, it’s important that the beginning of your story isn’t backstory top-heavy. It slows down your novel and starts it long before the actual action begins. There are multiple resources on this from great sources like Writer’s Digest and Jane Friedman and more.
So why did this commenter and many others mix up backstory and exposition?
In many writer’s groups, exposition and info-dumping are often chased after with torches and pitchforks. And rightly so. But there are moments when exposition (aka backstory) are necessary.
The key is providing only the backstory that is relevant to understanding a scene as it unravels and weaving it throughout rather than dumping it all into one paragraph or three.