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11 Expositional Clichés That Will Kill Your Story


Exposition: it’s a cheeky little b*****. Whether novelist or screenwriter, we all need it: too little background info will mean no one has a clue what’s going on … But equally, how much is TOO MUCH? Well, check out these expositional superclangers from the spec novels and screenplays I read:

11) Random Flashback …

[… Pssssst Screenwriters! See also: dream sequence; intercut; plus all about montages]. 

Do you really need this? REALLY?

Now, look. Flashback (and indeed flashforward) – when used correctly – is a brilliant device for novels and screenplays. It can be dramatic and intriguing. But when used badly, it can be a big flaccid letdown of epic proportions like that bloke you found behind the kebab shop.

Remember: non linearity is about CREATING DRAMA. It’s NOT about filling us in with “background info”. The latter lacks forward-looking momentum; the former has NARRATIVE THRUST (oooooh Matron). Innit. MORE: Good examples of flashback, dream sequence, intercut, montage.

10) Ancient Prophecies.

Yes yes, we all know stories with ancient prophecies CAN work, but you better hope your screenplay’s or novel’s does. Why? Because it’s done so often and usually, it’s possible to take that ancient prophecy out and BOOM! Makes no difference! Instead, we have “The Chosen One” (le yawn).

In other words then, **your** ancient prophecy needs to be integral to the story, like for instance The Dark Crystal’s, which doesn’t just support the 1980s movie, but its entire story universe and all its components, such as its accompanying graphic novels.

9)  Psychic Abilities.

If you have a character who is psychic in your screenplay or novel, you need to ensure it gets them IN to trouble, not out of it. Otherwise, why make them psychic? If s/he is the protagonist, then s/he already knows everything … story over. If not the protagonist, then why doesn’t another psychic character simply tell the other characters what they need to know? Psychic abilities must NEVER be a short cut, with psychic characters “filling in the gaps” for others.

8) The Mysterious Phone Call.

Have you noticed mysterious phone calls only ever come at night? They’re always raspy voiced men who speak in riddles, too. LE YAWN. Sure, it can be nice to have a bit of sudden mystery injected into a character’s otherwise normal life, but this one’s been done to death. Come up with something different, scribes … Or I’ll call YOU and speak in riddles. In the middle of the night!

7) Jewellery (especially rings, amulets, pendants and lockets).

A magic necklace or ring is a very obvious starting point for a supernatural or fantasy story … I’d venture TOO obvious. Tolkien was aeons ago, we need a fresh take on this. If you simply MUST include some jewellery, make sure the characters don’t get a hold of it TOO SOON. Make retrieving it part of their quest, or better still, destroy it and have them think all is lost, making them have to dig EVEN DEEPER for the solution to their problem.

6) The Internet.

Three words: DON’T DO IT. The Internet is boring. Yes, there’s a certain irony in writing that sentence on a blog you’re reading ON the internet, but there we have it. You can get away with having characters on the computer less in a screenplay, but even in a novel you don’t want to go into the ins and outs of web searches or coding or other stuff either … Why? Because we want our characters doing more interesting stuff, which translates as “HARDER stuff”. Simple as. MORE: Top 3 Ways Technology Screws Up Your Story (And How Not To Let It).

5) Big Dusty Books …

[… About The Problem That Everyone Thought Was *Just* A Story. See also: cave paintings; murals; maps and so on].

Ancient folklore was nearly always verbal and passed down the generations via campfire stories, poetry and songs, yet in many horror and fantasy tales, we’ll see that someone very handily remembered to write it all down as a warning or manual for future generations? Do me a favour! GET RID. I don’t think I’ve EVER seen a justified example of this, to be honest. It’s probably possible, but why risk it when it’s such a cliché?

4) Photographs / Home Movies.

Photographs and videos of the characters in the story, particularly families **before it all went to shit** in movies is a very common and frankly, dull device. It’s even more boring in the novel, with it not being a visual medium. Yet photographs CAN be visual AND interesting, as illustrated by INSIDIOUS recently, when the mother reveals the adult son’s own propensity for astro travel as a child, with the ghost woman standing next to him in every picture. Again, from the same prodco, SINISTER used home movies to good (and eerie) effect. The lesson here: if you’re going to use such devices in your stories, how can you twist our expectations?

3) Diaries.

Too often in spec novels and screenplays, I see a detective character in either a screenplay or novel “following” a missing and/or dead character’s POV via a diary of some sort: not just  handwritten, but also blogs, mobile phone reminders or even social media profiles. And guess what: all it does is “fill in gaps” again and even make choices FOR the protagonist, making them less active. But what if there were pages missing? Or someone had deleted sections of it? This could create questions of its own … and suddenly diaries are back in the game.

2) The Stranger.

Some old geezer or crone will appear and “warn” the protagonist to get out while s/he still can … But they won’t say why. Gee, thanks! But what’s more, that protagonist will say “Ooooookay, that was weird” … but think nothing more of it. This is a huge own goal as we end up thinking a) “Why doesn’t that stranger just say what the problem is?” AND b) “Why isn’t our protagonist more curious? What a dick.” REMOVE!

1) Newspaper Clippings.

So, let’s get this straight: in this age of the web and smart phones, when your average stalker or weirdo could call up ANY STORY IN THE WORLD with a simple click of a button, they instead i) grab a local newspaper ii) cut out the story they like and iii) carry it around with them, or tape it to the wall of a squalid location for our protagonist to find and go, “OMFG look how obsessed this guy is, he must be THE ANTAGONIST!!!”?



Just NO.

IF newspaper clippings was **ever ** a good device – and it’s a big if! – then it’s well past its sell by date now. SERIOUSLY. Get rid!!


The point of expositional devices is they ARE story “short cuts” to help the reader or viewer recognise background “stuff” that’s pertinent to what’s going on RIGHT NOW … However this doesn’t mean they should be a LITERAL shortcut in the actual plot we’re reading or viewing. What’s more, if we read or see those expositional devices too much (either in your story, or stories in general), then they become clumsy, clichéd and ultimately, boring.

So the lesson here is NEVER simply copy what you’ve seen done before and never use those “short cuts”  to make things EASIER for your characters. Instead, use them for dramatic effect, which includes (but is not limited to) creating a “fresh take” on the devices and twisting audience expectations. Good luck!

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15 thoughts on “11 Expositional Clichés That Will Kill Your Story”

    1. OMG, how could I have forgotten news readers??? I saw BATTLE LOSE ANGELES recently and was shocked to discover the news casts go through just about the entire thing … Every house the soldiers go into appears seems to fill us in via this device

  1. Great list! I’d like to add one that I read in scripts and see in movies all the time:

    The magical “hit” to the back of the head that renders someone immediately unconscious.

    First off, physiologically, it doesn’t work that way. You will either piss the person off more, or you will go the extreme and kill/injure/paralyze them. I’ve seen this cliche in virtually every action movie and even some acclaimed Oscar-caliber films.

    I have an ongoing wager with a buddy that no writer will EVER be creative enough to write this cliche and then turn it on its head whereas the villain DOESN’T get knocked out. I’ve yet to see it done.

      1. Love that one ..although even as a kid I used to HATE scenes in films where a man and a woman are running through the undergrowth away from some monster/evil person and it was always the female who fell and twisted her ankle!!

    1. Austin Charlesworth

      In Sledgehammer they parodied Witness and called it Witless (obv). Sledgehammer burst out of a barn and struck a henchman on the back of the head. The Henchman just shouted “Ow! Why did you do that?”

      It’s the only time I’ve seen it done.

  2. Pingback: Screenwriting Around The Web #13 | Amazing Screenwriting Articles | The Screenwriting Spark

  3. Okay – I’m not sure if this is a no no but in my latest script a main character is recounting his involvement in some crucial incident ten years earlier and the flash back plays while he does a V.O over the recollection. I see this done over and over and I kinda like it – I suppose it’s not random and it’s a lot more interesting for the viewer to watch the original incident then look at the character waffle on for ten seconds. Is this Okay?

    1. It’s something that gets used a lot, it’s true Patrick – and depends on the execution, tbh. It can be brilliant or it can be cheesy! So I’m gonna have to say … depends! Sorry 😉

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