So what is exposition?
Sometimes it’s described as “on the nose”; dialogue can be on the nose if it reveals information for the audience’s knowledge. Sometimes it’s overly explanatory of back story, characters’ feelings or character personality traits.
Same goes for action descriptions, which can be expositional if they speak too much of character personalities, back story or inner thoughts to explain why characters are behaving the way they are.
The golden rule? Show, don’t tell.
DOS AND DON’TS
DON’T have characters tell each other things they should already know, such as reminding each other about previous events: “Remember last week when we were told XYZ by ABC?”.
DO consider how different situations could get the same information across.
DON’T have characters explain it all. This can be via conversation, or voice over. Whilst voice over can be a quirky way of narrating, it’s not the most original or dramatic way of getting information across and has been quite overdone.
DO consider subtext; can characters say one thing and mean another, or can characters’ actions speak better than words?
DON’T have characters talk too much about their back story and feelings. This is seen a lot in drama scripts. Of course, it can work in moderation; less is more.
DO limit expositional dialogue to dramatic situations, such as arguments, in which the information will serve to heighten the drama.
DON’T give back story, or describe a character’s inner thoughts, in the action descriptions. An audience doesn’t read, they watch. The information is therefore of no use. Readers and audience members should be able to glean information from the behaviours, the actions and the indirectly expositional dialogue of the characters.
DO rework any essential exposition so that it flows well, such as making sure dialogue comes about naturally and that all scenes are essential to the plot.
THE GOLDEN RULES
Consider Elsbeth who talks at one hundred miles an hour, goes into everything in minute detail and is eager to please. Her office colleague Jim (who she really likes) is a man who keeps himself to himself and prefers a quieter life (i.e. he’s not interested in her!) How does Elsbeth tell him her feelings and Jim tell her how annoying she is without being too expositional?
Think about showing their characteristics prior to their meeting/argument. If the first thing we learn about them is how Elsbeth feels and has been feeling for [insert all the back story info here] and how Jim finds her unbearable because she [insert all of her characteristics here], the viewer will be informed but won’t necessarily empathise.
CONVEY PERSONALITIES ORGANICALLY…
Think about other ways in which you can show their characteristics, such as Elsbeth trapping the courier man into a conversation he can’t get away from and Jim tip-toeing around the office to avoid talking to her. This sort of action may seem trivial but it will help the viewer instantly recognise their personalities and have a much better understanding of them both when the time comes for their confrontation.
GIVE NECESSARY EXPOSITION IN A DRAMATICALLY SATISFYING WAY…
If you need to convey some information about a character in order to inform the viewer, consider ways of doing so that don’t involve direct dialogue exchange. Remember, showing is more effective than telling! Often, by creating drama that shows rather than tells, you create a more suspenseful scene.
CONVEY THINGS INDIRECTLY…
Instead of Percy telling a girl he’s just met (and who he fancies) that he goes to a private school but is ashamed of the fact because he gets bullied, perhaps have Percy hide the fact. The girl might follow him one day and see him enter the school? Likewise she might witness him changing out of his uniform as soon as he leaves. Or perhaps they might even get caught up with the bullies outside of school!
MAKE IT INTERESTING TO WATCH…
There are many dramatic ways in which you can get information across. Think about what is more interesting to watch, too. Would you rather watch Percy telling the girl his life story, or would you rather see him get out of a sticky situation with the bullies and see how the girl reacts to the truth in that more organic situation?
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