Writing exposition is one of the trickiest parts of screenwriting. You can try to hide it, subvert expectations, and make it leaner -- but it still has to happen. So how can you make yours the best?
Have you ever been taken out of a movie or a TV show because the story seems to take a break to tell you a bunch of facts?
Maybe these facts were the science behind what was going on, or a long sob story about a character's dead wife, or even just a treatise on love. Whatever the case, if they're not written well, they can take you out of the story and ruin a scene or even the entire project.
These dialogue breaks are called "exposition" and occur frequently in literature, film, and television.
Today, let's define this term, figure out some strategies for using it to its utmost potential, and make you a better screenwriter.
How to Write the Best Exposition in Your Script
Exposition, or narratvie exposition, is the insertion of information within a screenplay or narrative.
What kind of information is expository?
This information can be about the setting, backstory, plot events, context in terms of history, facts, and other things the audience needs to know in order to absorb the story to its fullest potential.
The exposition of a story is important because it clues us in on what we need to know and care about. It builds on our experience watching and solidifies the plot details that matter within our minds.
Let's diagram each of these things now.
The different kinds of exposition
Sometimes you need to tell the audience what's special about a setting. Maybe it was part of a pirate legend, a paper company in Pennsylvania, or just a haven for Hobbits. That kind of exposition is necessary to let us know about where we are in the world.
Example: In Interstellar, we need to learn a lot about society in a short amount of time. Enter McConaughey giving a great speech about where we are without letting us know he's doing it for the benefit of only the audience.
There are times when you develop a character where backstory is necessary for the present. You need to find a clear way to get this across without laboring the audience with the information they do not need.
In a show like The Office, we need to get up to speed pretty quick on who Michael is as a character. Look at everything they do in under thirty seconds. We get his sense of humor along with his title, a promise for antics, and his history with the company.
At times you need to describe what happened to other people. Maybe you need a character to lie about death or confess to something we saw earlier. Or a killer to talk about their motives. This kind of exposition takes up the brunt of most writers' challenges.
Example: In the end of Scream, we need to hear a confession as to why this all happened. It has to come fast, smart, and not be a chance for our final girl to getaway too quickly. Here, Williamson allows us to steep in teen angst without the story feeling burdened. And we get a big reveal, too. Plus extra conflict for our main character.
If you're writing a time travel movie or an epic, you might need to help the audience in layman's terms to know the significance of the events you're detailing. Whether it's chauffeuring someone in the south or walking on the moon, history matters.
Example: When Bill and Ted go on their excellent adventure, they have to travel through history to understand what makes the world the way it is now, and pass high school. Since they repeatedly meet characters who are crucial to the story, they have to dig into why these people are important so the audience understands the mission.
In a movie or TV show that deals heavily with science, you may need to tackle expository scenes to bring the audience up to speed. these can be laborious adds because they're so burdensome, but there are ways to get this stuff in without it feeling like being in a classroom.
Example: In Back to the Future, we need to learn a lot about time travel and how a time machine works. We get these facts from Doc as Marty plays question master. These facts are important to Marty's overall arc and mission.
Ways to hide exposition
This is really why you came to this article. You want to know how to hide your exposition. Here's the deal, writing is all about practice. You need to write and rewrite over and over to become a better screenwriter. I cannot wave a magic wand to help.
But I can show you the strategies that great writers use to make their exposition more palatable.
Here we go.
Give exposition in action scenes
I love a good set-piece. Action movies do a great job of keeping you on the edge of your seat while sneakily delivering some of the best exposition out there. Think about Vin Diesel and Kurt Russell sharing a beer and talking terrorists in their first Fast and Furious movie. If people are fighting, driving, or running, give them something to talk about. That action will keep the audience entertained while the rest happens on screen.
Example: The Matrix Kung-Fu scene is the perfect distillation of this advice. We have a lot of complicated ideas here. Get them out amongst a battle.
Give exposition in scene devices
We've talked about plot devices before, but scene devices are things you put into your story to get the idea across. Whether its the animated breaks in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, voiceover in Shawshank, or the trippy drug montages in something like Trainspotting.
There are lots of things you can do to show the audience something new and creative while giving them expository beats.
Example: In Jurassic Park, David Koepp had to tell the audience how dino DNA made it to the 20th century and replicated animals. He worked out an amusement park ride that was able to deliver all the complex science and facts in an entertaining way. It even starts with the hubristic Hammond playing a role, which gives us character details too. This cartoon momentarily takes us out of the movie in a fun way and emphasizes that they spared no expense.
Give exposition in plain sight
One of the best ways to get exposition out there is just to put it in front of the audience. Whether you have a character pepper the other character with questions, like the kid in Iron Man 3 or Marty McFly -- or just name a character Basil Exposition, like in Austin Powers -- sometimes just putting it out there in short snippets helps. Try to deliver this stuff in scenes that feel interesting and inventive.
Example: Mean Girls has to catch Cady up to speed on all of high school cafeteria etiquette. They do so with a voiceover that just explains it all. We don't mind it because it's funny and true. We relate as an audience as she learns about cliques, and we're never bored because it's punchy and over quick.
Summing up how to write exposition
Now that you have the tools to write your screenplay, what's your excuse?
We've gone over some excellent exposition examples and given you ways to hide these words in plain sight. What other questions do you have?
Put them in the comments!
Got a great exposition example? I want to know that, too.
Go get writing!
What's next? Check out a long guide on hiding exposition.
Your screenplay's expositional scenes can be like a covert spy sneaking around undetected or a clever magician drawing your audience's eye with tricky sleight of hand.