Q&A: Psychology and Exposition

So. I don’t know if you can help me, but I feel like a lot of the general public’s ideas about psychology are wrong. Should I spend time trying to explain in the book or just portray something more realistic knowing I’ll probably have someone saying it was wrong in a review? I have a psych degree and am working on a master’s.

The simple truth about criticism is, it’s only useful when it’s giving you information that can help you improve your work.

Someone saying, “you suck,” is not useful criticism. It’s something you can ignore. Someone saying, “you’re wrong,” is not useful, especially when you’re working in your chosen field. You have a BS in psychology, and managed to get into grad school. That is your field; you cannot expect to win an applause from someone on the toad licking end of a Dunning-Kruger continuum.

You know what you’re talking about; they don’t. At that point, their criticism will offer extremely limited value. It can tell you, that you may not have clarified enough, but ultimately, when someone goes off about how it doesn’t match what they learned from their favorite TV show, you can stop there. You don’t need to account for them, and you shouldn’t engage in self-censorship to appease idiots.

There’s a disturbing tendency to fetishize a wide range psychological conditions. It’s not okay. It’s extremely unhealthy to the people who deal with these on a regular basis. People consume that media and then expect reality to conform.

In the current climate, I’d actually say, “going with the flow,” is incompatible with your education, or at least the ethical responsibilities of someone who chooses to become a practicing psychologist. You can make the world a better place by taking your education and digging into the details. It won’t change overnight, but there is a real benefit to saying, “no, this is how this stuff actually works.” Especially when you’re talking about the human brain, and how people behave. Something that all of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

There is also real harm in simply accepting the image of a disorder as a fetishistic auteur, who’s “genius” is unimpeachable, and therefore all behavior is acceptable.

The other part of your question, is about exposition balance. You know you have enough exposition when your readers can follow the story, and the background information. You have too much if the story starts to drag. You don’t have enough if your readers are getting confused by what you’re doing. I’ve never discovered a shortcut to finding this balance; it simply takes practice.

There’s no universal truth to how much exposition you can use. Some writers handle it better than others, and can get away with chunky exposition dumps that would choke most.

The old writing advice, “be efficient with your language,” is in full effect. If you don’t need an explanation to keep your readers up to speed, don’t include it. If your audience reports confusion, then you may want to expand some explanations.

However, if your goal is to educate, then you’re also going to want to work as much information into your story as you can. You may want to consider burying exposition into events taking place, the insights of other characters, or even the environment  (when appropriate.)

To be fair, you should be doing most of those things anyway. You don’t need a character to tell you something if you can simply show it. You may need a throwaway line saying, “this is why,” but you can farm a lot of exposition onto the world, and move it out of dialog. This doesn’t specifically help you, but it’s good advice for dealing with exposition in general.

No, don’t worry about writing something that conflicts with, “common knowledge,” when it’s really just a harmful stereotype, or even a flat out myth. Having your preconceptions echoed back to you may be momentarily gratifying, but it’s intellectual junk food. This is your field, show people what you know.


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