The measure of any screenwriter is how he or she handles exposition. Many writers can craft interesting scenes with quick, witty dialogue. But what sets apart the professional from the amateur is how each approaches exposition. For the beginning writer, this is particularly difficult. Often your gut instinct is to get all background information out of the way as quickly as possible, so you can move forward with your story. While this can work on occasion, most often this approach is a trap, not necessarily for the writer, but for the poor souls who have to sit through page after page of backstory. Many screenplays fail at this point simply due to exposition overload. This is what we are going to fix today.
What is Exposition?
Exposition is simply the facts of the story. It is the information an audience needs to understand your story. Think of it as background information.
Typical Approaches to Exposition
Does this sound familiar? You’ve written your opening scene. It has a good hook. It moves, defines your genre and is exciting. And then the next few scenes just kind of sit there as you introduce the major and minor characters in your story. These scenes are dialogue heavy, filled with lots of useful information. You establish character names, how they are related to the other characters, where they work, what they want, etc… Once you get all of this out of the way, then you’re ready to move on with your story, right? Wrong. At this point what typically happens is that you’ve lost your audience.
The audience has often been waiting… and waiting… for you to get on with the story. This is exposition overload — a flood of necessary information that the audience treads water in while waiting for you to get on with the show. Of course you can make the presentation more interesting. Maybe use a flashback or montage to reveal all this exposition, but that is nothing more than throwing the audience a life preserver. They are still treading water, getting nowhere. Typical feedback for these scripts is something like… “Well, I just don’t get why [insert character name] is doing this. I don’t get their motivations.” This prompts you into thinking that you need even more exposition because your readers don’t understand the story. This is the trap of exposition overload. It’s not that the reader doesn’t understand the facts, they are overloaded by them. The audience fails to grasp the story because they have failed to connect to the story. To remedy this issue requires a different approach to exposition.
Less is More
You’ve heard it a thousand times, with good reason: it’s true. Good exposition requires releasing a controlled trickle of information. Give the audience just enough information to get through this scene, and then, if you like, give them one additional piece of information that will help them understand the story as a whole. Just one little piece of the puzzle. If you’ve done your work well, they will want more, and continue on with your story in order to get it. This doesn’t mean to withhold too much. But if the audience has enough information to understand where they are, they won’t mind adventuring into the unknown.
Most exposition occurs at the beginning of a story. Try moving it to the end. In Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the exposition that reveals all of what has happened throughout the entire film occurs at the very end. This is using exposition as a story element rather than just a story tool. Experiment with your story to see if there are places you can backload exposition.
Fight Over It
Think about different instances in real life in which people bring up the past — retirement parties, briefings, meetings with counselors or psychologists, reunions, job interviews, etc… There are many different scenarios that lend themselves to expository information. Be careful about these or once again you will wind up overloading the audience. Besides, if you take a good, close look at these scenes, they aren’t particularly interesting. The best way to get people talking about their past is in an argument. People who are fighting will bring up the past and use it as a weapon. This is a great technique to reveal backstory. It’s full of conflict, very natural, and reveals exposition without appearing to do so. Just be careful to not let the conflict overwhelm the exposition.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the opening sequence with the bolder and subsequent chase is followed with almost ten minutes of pure exposition. When the FBI agents recruit Indy to go after the ark, and he has to explain the ark and its significance to them; he is explaining this to us, the audience. Normally a talking head scene like this would not work, but the screenwriter knew that the audience would still be recovering from the excitement of the opening scene, and this would buy him enough time to get all the necessary exposition for the entire story out of the way in once single scene. You can employ this technique as well in lesser or greater forms. The greater the thrill you deliver, the more time you buy as the audience rests and resets for the next thrill. This downtime is a natural place to work in your exposition. With smaller thrills, the time you buy is less, but it still gives you a few moments to work in your exposition.
Try to avoid flashbacks and voiceovers as much as possible. These are overused to the point of cliché. They can still be effective, but try not to use them for purely expository reasons.
Don’t have characters tell each other things they should already know. Example: “You know Bob, you’ve been working for this company for five years now…”. Don’t forget that you can get away with this if the characters are arguing, and one of them is dredging up the past as a weapon – “Bob we’ve been carrying you for five years. I’ve got to let you go.”
Montage can be effective for revealing exposition, but once again, do not overuse.
Try to make your exposition as visual as possible. Most people plant exposition in dialogue. Try to minimize this as much as possible.
The audience knows more than you think. Good exposition comes through without directly revealing it. Audiences pick up on it subconsciously.
It is not necessary for the audience to know everything. This is the most important tip of all. While you don’t want to shut the audience out of your story, they don’t need to know everything in order to understand the story. The audience will willingly fill in the gaps, if they want to. This is the art of screenwriting. You have to get them to want to fill in the gaps through your command of story.