The balance between providing audiences with information they need to understand a narrative and progressing the plot can be hard to master. Enter exposition—the pertinent background information about setting, context, and characters that establishes a story’s origins.
“Castle Rock” Credit: Dana Starbard/Hulu
Exposition is the information the audience needs in order to understand the world of a story. Its main purpose is to shed light on people, places, and ideas in a storyworld so that the audience has the tools necessary to engage with the narrative.
This information is what the “audience needs to understand what’s going on” in your script, explains writer Rob Forman (“Spider-Man 2,” “iZombie”). “In literature, the word ‘exposition’ has been used interchangeably with ‘backstory,’ whether that’s about an event or about a character,” he says. “Exposition is not only about the past, but setting a foundation for future events, twists, and character moves.” Exposition in movies and TV is similarly used to provide backstory, although often with more nuance allowed by visual elements.
“At its most basic,” adds writer Marc Bernardin (“Castle Rock,” “Alphas”), “it’s the ‘mission briefing’ scene in any war, spy, or heist movie: ‘Here’s what we’re going to do and why.’ ”
“The Batman” Credit: Jonathan Olley/™ & © DC Comics
Storyworld comprehension: Without the right amount of exposition, the audience may not understand the world of a story enough to make sense of its events.
Plant and payoff: A strong writer can use exposition to entice the audience and make them invested in the narrative. Plant just enough details to keep audiences interested in a later payoff.
Show, don’t tell: Although it’s easy to simply have a character monologue for a bit and explain things for the audience, it’s often more engaging to convey exposition in context. A strong exposition example takes place in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party provides necessary context about characters, relationships, and the dangers of the ring—no monologuing necessary.
Intrigue the audience: Include details so that the audience has just enough information to have a narrative foothold. “Confusion is a very potent thing,” says Bernardin. “It’s like salt in a recipe: You definitely want some. Too much and the dish is inedible. Too little and it has no taste. Drama demands the audience not know everything all at once, but just enough so they’ll follow you further into the story. Knowing when and how to disseminate it is the difference between confusion being tantalizing and being frustrating.”
Don’t give too much away: “I feel like it’s a cliché to say audiences are increasingly savvy,” explains Forman, “but the answer is often less [exposition] than you think. I’ve seen a lot of first drafts—and I’ve written them, too—that just don’t trust the audience.” Keep genre and other technical elements in mind; a high-fantasy film will likely require more exposition than a character study. “Ultimately, it’s the job of the writer to figure out, through trial and error, how much information is absolutely necessary, and to find a way to communicate the information in a way that doesn’t feel quite so obvious,” Forman says.
Keep things exciting: However you choose to get your exposition across, the main thing to keep in mind is that it should never be boring. “Exposition can be deadly dry if it’s just a recitation of information, so—if at all possible—bury it in a character scene,” suggests Bernardin. “The ability to execute exposition artfully is a skill that separates good writers from great writers; it’s something I still work on in every project, in every draft,” says Forman. “For me, writing exposition more often than not comes down to scene work, making sure your scenes aren’t pure information passing.”
Don’t be afraid to break the rules: There are always exceptions to the rules about writing effective exposition. For example, Bernardin cites the scene in “Inglourious Basterds” when Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) monologues about his squad of Nazi hunters to the soldiers he’s about to kill. His monologue is far from dry information passing, since the scene moves from humor to tension and finally brutality.
Self-reflexive exposition can also be used to comedic effect, as in “The Great Muppet Caper.” “[Diana Rigg’s] character, Lady Holiday, is talking to Miss Piggy, who she has just hired as her receptionist,” Forman says. “[Diana] goes on a 40-second monologue about an upcoming lunch with her brother, telling Piggy his position inside her company, his personality, failings, her suspicions about him, that she wouldn’t put it past him to steal her most prized possession. Piggy interrupts, ‘Why are you telling me all this?’ [Diana] replies: ‘It’s plot exposition, it has to go somewhere.’ And, really, it does! The whole thing sets up the plot, but is in on the joke.”
Similarly, in the pilot episode of “Barry”, where the titular character (Bill Hader) emotionally confesses his entire backstory as a hitman to acting instructor Gene (Henry Winkler). Gene is so bowled over by what he assumes is a performance that he admits him into his acting class.
Play around with different approaches: Dialogue between characters, title cards, flashbacks, and props can all convey exposition. Experiment with different approaches to see what fits your narrative best. Good exposition is all about balance and striking the right tone, which only comes through trial and error. Writing and rewriting with these goals in mind is critical to the success of your exposition.