It’s the age-old problem every screenwriter has to face. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to slow down your script to explain something. There’s no avoiding it, the audience isn’t omniscient and if you avoid this step, you may run the risk of losing them. Exposition doesn’t have to be a burden or even a necessary evil. Here are nine ways to make exposition enjoyable and even memorable.
1. Show, Don’t Tell
The tried and true of all exposition. Movies are visual, so make the exposition something we can see. Slideshows, holograms, drawings, maps, miniatures, these have all been used to make meticulous details more fun and exciting.
2. Make it Dangerous
What if your life depended on just a few lines of exposition? If a forest fire was spotted near your home, wouldn’t you want to hear more information about it? “Dangerous Exposition” has basically become a brand name for the James Bond franchise. How many times has a villain taken the time to explain his plan to our captured hero? We heed his words, because the hero’s life may hang in the balance.
3. Make it a Mystery
Mystery movies basically have two storylines: the storyline we know—the one we’re seeing, and the one we’re trying to figure out. When did a murder take place? Who was there? How did it happen? This is all exposition, and it’s all the detective’s job to figure out. Leave the audience in the dark, shroud your information in mystery and they’ll be eager to listen.
4. Tell About the One Giving the Exposition
Who’s giving the information? How do they feel about it? Does it make them happy, sad, indifferent? How a character delivers exposition can say a lot about that person. Infinity War opens with one of Thanos’ loyal subjects spelling out for us who Thanos is and what he does, but he does it with such conviction and gusto that we learn almost as much about him as we do Thanos.
5. Make it Someone’s Motivation
In the original Terminator, Kyle Reese gives a lot of exposition to Sarah Connor: who he is, what he’s doing here, where the danger is and what the future holds. However, we’re captivated by what he has to say because he came from the future to do so. If someone is making sacrifices to convey information, it tells us that whatever the information is it must be important. Otherwise, why risk telling us?
6. Make it a Secret
This isn’t to be confused with making it a “mystery.” Exposition that’s a mystery makes it a component of the “a” story—the protagonist needs to proactively figure it out. Information that’s a secret can come to us unexpectedly or even reluctantly. “What I’m about to tell you can’t leave this room.” Has anyone ever started a sentence, then stopped halfway only to say “No, I probably shouldn’t tell you this.” Doesn’t that make you want to hear it even more?
7. Keep a Brisk Pace
As is the case for most screenwriting, brevity is key. Trim dialogue and keep the characters moving—just because you have the audience’s attention now doesn’t mean you’ll keep it. Tell them what they need to know, and only what they need to know.
8. Interesting Scenarios
Throw some exposition in the middle of a chase scene. Break up a fight or a heated argument with some new information. Chances are good your audience will be retentive at such an exciting moment, and it also gives them a chance to breathe before the action picks up again.
9. Interesting Information
Who says exposition needs to be boring? When we first learn about the “one ring,” Gandalf and Frodo are just sitting around talking about it. Nothing in the scene is exciting in its own right—they’re just sitting at a table smoking—but the exposition is so interesting that we don’t even notice. At the heart of every story should be an engaging premise—If your exposition needs work, this might be a place to start.