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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?