5 Tips to Make Exposition Invisible

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One of the most important things to think about as you’re telling your story is how to lay out the information for the audience. What the audience knows about your characters creates how they feel about them, so it’s vital that you organize the information in exactly the right way. Exposition is the information the audience needs to know in order to understand your characters and the story.

A hundred years ago it was popular to start a story with two maids working in a foyer talking about the crisis the family of the house was facing. They would then leave and the play would begin. That kind of thing is far from acceptable these days. In fact, you have to do the opposite. You have to make your exposition invisible. Here are five tips to doing just that.

  1. Tell it with Conflict.

    Conflict is vital to screenwriting no matter what part of the film you’re in, but it can be particularly important when you’re trying to convey exposition. In real life, conflict tends to get us to say the things we don’t want to say. It works that same way in a script. It is very dull for a character to say, “As you know, your brother’s coming to stay.” But, if that character is yelling “Why did you invite your brother? We don’t have any room for him.” Then you have excitement and interest. You’ve also started to define your characters.

    Harry Potter learns about his new world in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Photo courtesy Warner Brothers.

  2. The New Kid in Town.

    One of the important rules of storytelling is show-don’t-tell. But, there is an important exception to this. When it’s natural in life to tell. Then you tell. Whether it’s Dorothy entering the land of Oz or Tom Cruise starting his new job at The Firm or Harry Potter beginning his very first year at Hogwart’s having your character actually enter the world provides an opportunity to create “guide” characters who literally tell the main character (and the audience) the rules of the new world.

  3. Make it Visual.

    This one you need to be careful with—a lot of your choices are very clichéd. You’ve seen the moment when the hero picks up a photo of his dead wife and stares longingly at it. That is It’s also so overdone you want to avoid it. But, what do you do if you want to convey that the hero’s wife is dead? Well, that information can be everywhere in his home. Perhaps he hasn’t changed anything since she died. Her clothes are still in the closet, her makeup around the sink in the bathroom. If the death is recent there might be floral arrangements around the house and casseroles in the fridge. If the death happened in the past, those same floral arrangements might be there brown and withered. Use your creativity to make your hero’s past visual.

    Hugh Grant tells Renee Zellweger a real whopper in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Photo courtesy Miramax Films.

  4. It Doesn’t Have to be True.

    Whether you’re writing a thriller or a comedy it’s always good to have characters lie. In Bridget Jones’ Diary,  Daniel Cleaver tells Bridget a lie about the past that colors her opinion of Mark Darcy almost until the very end of the movie when she learns that the truth is virtually the exact opposite of what Daniel told her. For the story to work, it’s not entirely necessary for Daniel to lie, we could find out the reason he and Darcy are at odds without the lie. But, it makes for a better story if Bridget, and we the audience believe Daniel, or at least half believe him.

  5. Flashbacks.

    Of course, you can always use flashbacks to provide exposition. You should proceed carefully when using flashbacks, though, since they tend to go in and out of fashion. Which is not to say they can’t work, it just means don’t use them unless they’re absolutely right for your project. Manchester by the Sea made great use of flashbacks. In fact, at times it felt like half the movie was told that way. In that case, it seemed necessary to tell the story out of order. And that, I think, is one of the keys to deciding whether to use flashbacks. Is it absolutely necessary?

So, there are some ideas to improve your exposition. What are your favorite exposition scenes? Do you have any tips or tricks I missed?

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

13 Replies to "5 Tips to Make Exposition Invisible"

  • comment-avatar
    Alden Cheney October 12, 2017 (5:57 am)

    Regarding flashbacks, I have a screenplay that is all about a strong and unconventional woman. However, she doesn’t appear until the very end of Act II. I’ve considered flashbacks to introduce her sooner, but I like having the male lead mired in self-deception before she shows up. Any thoughts?

    • comment-avatar
      Richard Schneider October 12, 2017 (6:43 am)

      Who is your hero? If it is the strong and unconventional woman the screenplay is about, then she needs to appear right at the beginning. If it is the male lead, then perhaps there is interaction between the male lead and other characters discussing the strong and unconventional woman which creates an image of her in the audience mind. As mentioned above, this can be truth or lies depending on your story and what makes it most engaging.

  • comment-avatar
    Marc Blake October 12, 2017 (6:03 am)

    My recent screenplay the story is told by a narrator who introduces the story which then becomes told in real time. Two or three times, and at the end, the narrator steps back into the film to reground the audience with information necessary to push the story along comfortably.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton October 12, 2017 (6:12 am)

      Interesting. It may work. You need to bring it to a writing group or hand out to beta readers. It’s really a question of whether the reader/viewer feels cheated by the information being withheld. If you give information that late in the film that changes how I feel about the character or the story I’ve been watching for an hour and ten minutes, yeah, I will probably be pissed. One of the rules to mysteries is that you have to give the reader all the tools to figure out the mystery–you obscure them so it’s hard to figure things out but they do have to be able to look back and see that they could have figured it out. This applies to all stories to a greater or lesser degree. If you plant the right seeds what you describe could work…

  • comment-avatar
    Marshall Thornton October 12, 2017 (6:04 am)

    Well, it sounds like the male lead is the main character. In that case, it might work the way you have it. However, it’s rarely good to introduce a new character after the midpoint. She could be talked about, or her influence felt in some other way…or she could have her own separate storyline – if it’s a romance the audience will want to know why he needs her. If it’s not a romance, you might think about telling the story in a non-linear way.

  • comment-avatar
    Jay Tormohlen October 12, 2017 (9:13 am)

    A good way to deal with a plot heavy with backstory, without using flashbacks, is to tell the story with non-linear plot/ structure. The way to make it more organic is to go in and out of scenes from a different time period with something that triggers what happened in previous or next sequence. Examples are 21 Grams, Evening, Social Network, Slumdog Millionaire, Mulholland Dr.; on and on.

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Colmerauer October 12, 2017 (9:29 am)

    One of the best exposition scenes ever is found in the first “Terminator” movie when, during a wild car chase scene, Kyle Reese explains to Sarah Connor who he is and why he’s there all while they are frantically trying to elude the Terminator who’s sole objective is to kill Ms. Connor.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton October 12, 2017 (10:15 am)

      Thank for the comment. Yeah, that’s a good one. The dialogue would be very flat if the scene was in a hotel room. Good example.

  • comment-avatar
    Lilia F October 12, 2017 (11:43 am)

    Thanks for the great tips, just tweeted! Keep em coming.

  • comment-avatar
    Lenore Grandizio October 12, 2017 (3:35 pm)

    The The Third Man is told that way. Orson Wells is an admired friend of Joseph Cotten. Together with Orsen Well’s girlfriend, they try to connect with him. Orsen Wells dominates the first 2 acts of the movie as the other two reminisce about him. Joseph Cotten hooks up with him at the beginning of the third act in a ferris wheel. In the third act he finds out Orson Wells is not the person he thought he was, not by a long shot. The picture works and has become a classic. Just encouraging that a structure like that can work when done well. Good luck

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