That Devil Exposition

hero_art1Exposition is a necessary evil. Exposition is that part of your story that introduces background information to your audience, for example the setting, the characters’ back stories, or any events prior to the start of your story that your reader needs to know. The devilishly difficult part is finding a way to present the information without being obtrusive, awkward, annoying, obvious, boring, or all of the above.

And don’t just think you can just dump it into the dialogue, either, unless you don’t care that your characters sound robotic or brain-dead. (“Remind me what the plan is again?” or “Your half-sister from your mother’s second marriage is at the door.” or “You’ve hated this place ever since you arrived, when was it? Eight years ago?”)

Filmmakers have a huge advantage in the exposition game, as they have more senses at their beck and call: visuals, sound effects and music in addition to narration and dialogue. But the need to communicate a lot of things right off the bat is still a challenge. How can you impart a lot of details quickly and effectively, without hampering the momentum of the story? Here is how a master does it; take a look at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Rear Window James Stewart reveal from Matthew Pennell on Vimeo.

The master of economy. How much did you learn about the fellow asleep in the chair from that simple pan across the room?

In both books and movies, a narrator is an easy way to provide necessary exposition, but he or she must speak so eloquently that we forgive the intrusion. Your narrator can give a long, fully detailed family history, but please make it astonishing in some way, or witty, or evocative, or tragic. Here’s an example of the kind of opening monologue that is extremely long, but so full of outlandish, heartbreaking details that we forgive all: the beginning of The Royal Tenenbaums by Wes Anderson. (I LOVE this movie.)

And then there are some narrator monologues that are more about mood than detail:


               We are floating up a steep scrubby slope.  We hear male voices 
               gently singing "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and a deep, affable, 
               Western-accented voice--Sam Elliot's, perhaps:

                         A way out west there was a fella, 
                         fella I want to tell you about, fella 
                         by the name of Jeff Lebowski.  At 
                         least, that was the handle his lovin' 
                         parents gave him, but he never had 
                         much use for it himself.  This 
                         Lebowski, he called himself the Dude.  
                         Now, Dude, that's a name no one would 
                         self-apply where I come from.  But 
                         then, there was a lot about the Dude 
                         that didn't make a whole lot of sense 
                         to me.  And a lot about where he 
                         lived, like- wise.  But then again, 
                         maybe that's why I found the place 
                         s'durned innarestin'.

               We top the rise and the smoggy vastness of Los Angeles at 
               twilight stretches out before us.

                         They call Los Angeles the City of 
                         Angels.  I didn't find it to be that 
                         exactly, but I'll allow as there are 
                         some nice folks there.  'Course, I 
                         can't say I seen London, and I never 
                         been to France, and I ain't never 
                         seen no queen in her damn undies as 
                         the fella says.  But I'll tell you 
                         what, after seeing Los Angeles and 
                         thisahere story I'm about to unfold--
                         wal, I guess I seen somethin' ever' 
                         bit as stupefyin' as ya'd see in any 
                         a those other places, and in English 
                         too, so I can die with a smile on my 
                         face without feelin' like the good 
                         Lord gypped me.

(opening from film script The Big Lebowski by Ethan and Joel Coen)

If you are writing fantasy, it’s common practice to include either a Prologue or a shorter explanatory paragraph in which the invented world and its politics (warring factions) are established. (ie. “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away…”). But don’t be tempted to go on and on about it. Try your best to make an opening like this as precise and concise as you can.

Above all, the best advice I can give about exposition is this: split it up. You don’t have to provide every little detail right at the beginning. The reader/viewer wants to immerse themselves in the plot, and doesn’t want to get bogged down. Think carefully about what they need to know to start their journey and just give them that. Remember, The Hobbit doesn’t open with an explanation of all the races of Middle Earth. It opens with a description of a hole in the ground. Further informational tidbits can be strung throughout the story, like pearls on a necklace. But take the time and carefully work them into the flow of the narrative so they don’t stick out. Don’t trip up your reader!



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