Exposition;
The 6 Basic Storytelling Tips

By James Burbidge


So what is exactly is ‘exposition’? Mckee says that “Exposition means facts – the information about setting, biography and characterisation that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.” Well in a broad sense everything you write is exposition because everything you write exposes some more information about the plot, character or world they inhabit right?

Well yes and no. What is generally meant by exposition are the specific nuggets of information – the crucial world building details of your sci-fi universe, the particulars of that giant family argument that affect relationships today, the exact machinations of the villain’s complex plot. This information is usually important but not necessarily particularly dramatic in itself. The trick is to get it across

a)    without boring the audience
b)    without drawing attention to it
c)    in an interesting, titillating, or exciting manner

Tips:

1)    Never reveal anything for audience’s sake only – someone on the page must have a need for that information. Avoid the “remind me again what we’re doing today”s and the “so this is the X you were telling me about”s etc. Remember – there must be a character motivation to get the information, not just a writer motivation.

2)    The hero must seek the information proactively, not be passively receiving it. This ties in to point 1 – if the hero needs the information, then we need the information. If s/he is actively trying to get it (and being obstructed) then you have instant drama that we connect with.

3)    Use the need for knowledge as a page-turner – set up a desire for information and don’t pay it off for a couple of pages. Make the reader want (need) to read on to find out what is going on, what the characters are planning to do, why he behaved so weirdly etc.

4)    Show, don’t tell; use sound, not dialogue. And if you have to use dialogue, make sure it has subtext or hide the information in the subtext. Where possible, avoid the obvious dialogue exposition - “so I’m just going to pick my two kids (8 and 10) up from school” - it’s perhaps the most boring, unstimulating way of getting it across. Try and find cinematic images or use subtext to inform – give the actors something to work with. Look at the first 20 minutes of ‘Up’ for a great example of near silent exposition – they tell an entire life’s story in pictures and pack it with enough emotion to make you well up.

5)    Don’t give the audience too much information – a little mystery goes a long way. Think of the man with no name. Would he be a better character for a whole load of exposition about how his outlaw uncle brutally raised him after he survived a cholera outbreak on his parents ranch? Probably not. Let that two-page character history you wrote inform the script, not overwhelm it.

6)    Disguise necessary exposition. If you do absolutely have to dump some crucial information on the audience/reader try to distract them from the obviousness of what you are doing with action, comedy, a bizarre setting etc. For example a lot of comedy is mined from inappropriate backstory revelations during near death experiences; e.g. the aeroplane scene in ‘Almost Famous’. Or in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ an exposition scene is given tension as Indy toys with eating a date the audience know is poisoned.

 
Don’t treat exposition as some necessary evil, it can be a valuable part of the screenplay; creating tension, comedy, curiosity or desire – all great things for your reader/audience to feel. And remember, any restriction only forces you to be more creative, not less – make your exposition as inventive as possible and you might just write some of your best scenes.

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About The Author


James BurbidgeJames has been out of university for a year now and no-one has walked up and offered him a job - yet.

He is, at the moment seeking shelter and solace in the warm bosom of a Raindance internship and hoping that the recession will have gone away by the time he emerges from the cocoon-like cellar.

At the moment he hones his (already razor-sharp) skills by writing articles and timetables for the above mentioned festival company.

 

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Exposition: The 6 Basic Storytelling Tips