The Art of Knowing What to Leave Out

Be A NovelistGet to the Point

Ever have someone relate an incident to you and they feel they have to give every blessed detail? The story then strings out twice as long as necessary. If you are a “get-to-the-point” personality-type, such people drive you nuts.

You find yourself wishing they would get to the end so you will find out what they’re talking about and why they even started telling the story in the first place.  It can be frustrating.

Know What to Leave Out

The same is true with your novel.  Knowing what to add in and what to leave out, is most decidedly one of the more difficult and yet important techniques in the art of novel-Be A Novelistwriting.

This is especially true when you have a number of flat-out, boring facts that you’re pretty sure the reader needs to know.  In fiction writing, this is known as exposition.  Narrative and exposition are close cousins in the novel writing arena.  The main difference is that narrative can be used to move a plot forward; alas, exposition – not so much.

Adding in large blocks of exposition into your novel is one of the surest ways of losing your reader.

The astute beginning novelist may argue this point by pointing to a long-lasting, ancient classic that does indeed have large blocks of exposition in which to present facts to the reader.  I would quickly answer: “That was then; this is now.”  When you read a classic novel, you know when it was penned and therefore, you understand styles were different and readers were much more patient. Not so with today’s readers.

Tips on Exposition

Here are a few tips regarding use of exposition.

  • Avoid introducing a series of facts in the opening of your novel.  The opening page Be A Novelist(pages) of the novel should be set up to draw the reader in, then capture and hold attention.  (Click here for more great information on starting your novel.)
  • Avoid interrupting an action scene to insert facts.  This is a great way to irritate and frustrate your reader.  If you sense that you are stopping the story flow time and again just to inform the reader of needed information, then your plot is not tight enough.  Characters who are being challenged from every direction (story conflict) will scarcely have time to ruminate about how they were jilted by a high school sweetheart.
  • Do your research. Know more facts and information than you will ever use in your story.  Just because you know the information doesn’t mean the reader needs to know as well.  There is a fine line between what enhances the story line and what is excessive to the point that it slows the pace of the plot.  Regarding research, as well as backstory, here’s what will happen.  The more you know, the more readily you will recognize the perfect spot to drop in a fact here and a fact there.  Novelist and writing instructor, Jack Bickham (Apple Dumpling Gang) refers to this as “a dribble at a time.”  (More about backstory here.)
  • One of the more obvious ways of introducing and including exposition is through character’s thoughts and dialogue.  The only caution here is that you take care not to put into the character’s mouth anything that is for the reader’s information only. This can border on author intrusion. (More on author intrusion here.)

The craft of novel writing revolves around what to add in and what to leave out. Once you know what to add in, then it revolves around where, when, how, and how much to add in.

Is it difficult to pull off? Yes, it is.Be A Novelist

Is it an incredible balancing act? Again, yes, it is.

Is it more fun than a barrel of monkeys?  Well, those of us who get a little drunk on novel writing all shout out in unison: Yes, it is!

Learning how to conquer the challenge of weaving in exposition comes only one way.  Practice, practice, and more practice.  You can do it!


I trust the teaching and instruction given in this blog post was helpful in your goal to be a novelistFor more in-depth writer’s workshops, check out the wide variety offered at the Be A Novelist Website.


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4 thoughts on “The Art of Knowing What to Leave Out

    1. Norma Jean Lutz

      Again, the balance comes only with practice. It’s like asking a world-renown chef how he/she knows the exact ingredients to use in a particular sauce. It comes from years of practice. Stay with it and you will most certainly get the hang of it.

  1. Dennis Langley

    Norma Jean-
    The art form of “dribble exposition” is work! Providing enough information without slowing down the story is a constant struggle. Sometimes my writer’s group will ask me to add more information but it feels like the new details slow things down. Isn’t it okay to leave the reader in the dark for a while providing, the details are explained sometime during the story?

    1. Norma Jean Lutz

      It is okay to “leave the reader in the dark” in some instances. As long at it’s not vital information that will leave the reader confused as opposed to curious. (Fine line, I know.)

      Another route is to simply find an action-filled way to weave in the information. But you are SO right about not allowing facts to slow down action. Unhappy reader is the result!


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