All about Exposition
I’ve been talking a lot recently with Bang2writers about exposition and its place within their stories, whether novel or screenplay. As I’ve heard some common misconceptions, I thought it useful to put exposition under the microscope and really consider WHAT exposition is and HOW we can use it, framed as questions to answer. Enjoy!
1) Isn’t exposition a **bad** thing?
No. Exposition in all stories – whether novels or screenplays (or something else) – is 100% necessary. Exposition is basically just the background information a reader or viewer needs in order to be able to understand the story.
However, many spec stories don’t provide **enough** exposition, so narrative clarity is an issue: the reader or editor does not know what is going on, exactly – the story is like a jigsaw puzzle, with various pieces missing.
In the same way, something is “missing” in-between the writer getting the story from his/her head and to the page. Sometimes, this is because the writer knows more than the reader: this particularly happens in historical-based works, like novels set in particular wars, or biopics.
Like anything in this writing lark, skilful exposition is about BALANCE!
2) So why is “expositional dialogue” a **bad** thing?
Expositional dialogue refers to characters telling the reader or viewer what the writer thinks we ought to know, for example how the storyworld works or the character’s place within it. For example:
CHARACTER 1: Hello James, my son-in-law.
CHARACTER 2: Hello Margaret, my mother-in-law. I’ve just come to give you this letter which will become important later on in the story. Why do you hate me so much?
CHARACTER 1: I can’t believe you really need to ask, after what happened two years ago at Christmas when you set the dog on fire and vomited all over Granny.
CHARACTER 2: OMG, when are you going to get over that? I said I was SORRY.
CHARACTER 1: Until you have divorced my daughter I will NEVER be happy.
Okay, the above is massively exaggerated, but you get my point. Dialogue DOES help a writer to tell the story and/or reveal characters’ motivations and/or worldview, but only in such a way that it presents said story via the *illusion* of characters “just” talking.
The dialogue should never OVERTLY tell the story – at worst, it becomes like my example.
In addition, we need VISUALS and BEHAVIOUR to tell us the story. We absolutely should not find everything out about characters and the story via dialogue. Your novel or screenplay becomes “dialogue-led” and rather theatrical, like a play.
3) So if I’m not allowed to tell the story overtly via dialogue, how am I supposed to do it??
Frustratingly, this depends on the story you want to tell, your writer’s voice and the medium you are using. But given we’re making generalisations, I’ll give it a go:
i) Novels: Dialogue is obviously an important element of any novel. I’m thinking here of two of my fave authors Roddy Doyle & Sarah Dessen, who use it to great (and very different) effect. However, I think most readers would agree character and description is still the ultimate key to “good” novel writing.
Whether the psychological or visual is your *thing* in novel writing though, good characterisation and description is about ensuring your reader is a part of the storyworld too, rather than simply a “witness”.
ii) Screenplays: In comparison to novel writing then which can employ many different devices, screenplays need to be VISUAL. Whilst it’s true some screenwriters are celebrated for their dialogue, it’s important to remember this is the case because they are also excellent at all the other stuff TOO. Remember, SCREENplay, not screenPLAY!
However, just as importantly, if we don’t want acres of dialogue? We don’t want acres of scene description either. Remember, BALANCE!
4) Surely I set up the world of the story and the characters FIRST?
Whether novel or screenplay, many writers erroneously believe that “Set Up” is about introducing us to the characters and their storyworld first, THEN plunging us into the story.
No, a million times, no.
Readers and audiences are smart and are capable of decoding story quicker than ever before: they want to be introduced to the characters, the storyworld AND the actual story (aka “what’s going on”) HAND IN HAND.
This is what industry pros mean when they say “hit the ground running”. Readers and viewers will not forgive anything less!
5) If I’m writing a mystery or have a big reveal, don’t I leave everything to the END?
No. “Backending ” (ooh Matron) everything to the resolution creates what I call “Scooby Doo” endings, where a character usually has to reveal what’s been going on with a “summary” of sorts like this:
“This happened … and then this happened … and then you did this … so I did this … and OMG THIS!”
The above is simply not dramatically satisfying. Solving a mystery should be “step by step”, not leaving everything hanging (snarf) until the end.
6) What does Set Up / Pay Off mean?
Put simply, a “Set Up” is a kind of clue to what will happen at the end. This is never more obvious than when we’re dealing with Dramatic Irony in a story – ie. something happens, or someone does something, which has some kind of direct effect on the ending *for some reason*.
However, you still need to use Set Up/ Pay Off even without Dramatic Irony, otherwise whatever solution your characters use to get themselves OUT of the situation will simply come out of the left field and feel like a CHEAT.
To illustrate, in 2008’s Journey to The Centre of The Earth, our characters have a number of problems in the first half, including nearly killing themselves via an explosion of magnesium sulphate in the rock surrounding them and falling through muscovite.
In the resolution then, the muscovite and magnesium sulphate comes into play! Our characters despatch the dinosaur chasing them via more muscovite AND use the magnesium to create an explosion that propels them OUT of the volcano. A good, straight-forward demonstration of set up/ pay off.
7) Isn’t exposition what the characters know, but the audience doesn’t?
Frequently writers who say this believe they have to “give” the exposition TO the reader or viewing. This is bad, as it’s often “spoon feeding”.
Generally speaking, your protagonist will need to go on a journey in your story. This means they will often NOT know any more than your intended audience. As s/he learns about the storyworld and the situation then, the target audience will too.
Secondary characters however MAY know certain things about the storyworld and situation. This means the protagonist usually has to get this information FROM them … But don’t make it too “easy”!!! Try and ensure it’s visual (like in point 3), rather than “just” via talk.
8) Should I make the exposition **obvious** in say, a single scene or moment?
This depends. If you mean you SPLURGE all the background info into one scene or moment to “fill us in on everything” (aka “Information DUMP”), then NO, absolutely not.
If you mean should you draw attention to IMPORTANT elements of exposition via a line of dialogue here or there, then YES: go for it! Industry Screenwriters are often asked “Can I get a line for that?” to ensure certain visuals are not missed by the audience.
Again, for illustrative purposes, consider War of the Worlds (2005). Important elements of exposition regarding how the aliens got to Earth are referred to several times, such as when …
- Ray theorises with his kids after the first attack or
- He meets the camera crew outside his Ex’s ruined home and she shows him the video
- Or when Harlan rants in the basement about getting back at the creatures
These instances don’t count as “expositional dialogue” because they’re a) very short moments and b) are “hidden” within what the characters are DOING.
9) What is the best way to handle exposition?
This may seem like complicated stuff, but this is the simplest question of all, with the most straightforward answer …
… In small doses, step by step, across the ENTIRE narrative.
That’s all there is to it. Dole it out, piece by piece, giving one thing (so your target audience can understand what is going on), but holding the rest in reserve.
Take this approach, step by step towards the resolution, until you LITERALLY run out of information to give. Remember that notion of the jigsaw puzzle: piece by piece!!
Exposition can be one of those “how long is a piece of string?” questions. So it’s probably more useful to think about what NOT to do …
- Think it’s a bad thing (you need it)
- Only use talk (especially in screenplays)
- Forget to set up, so you can pay off
- Keep your target audience “out of the loop”
- Think you have to have it all “upfront” either
- ‘Back-end’ important info to the resolution (ending)
Instead, mete it out, piece by piece, across the entire narrative. For more about this topic, check out Top 5 Storyworld Mistakes Writers Make.
Want more on exposition?
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