Exposition is an essential party of good dialogue. It is a necessary component of the how the story – not the plot – of a movie is communicated. It helps the audience understand where character came from prior to the movie starting and how that past will affect how that character move through the story from scene to scene.
Dress up that naked exposition.
While the exposition is not a part of the dramatic action of your story, it does explain to the audience why events matter. As an explanatory tool, it doesn’t advance the story. It advances the audiences’ understanding of the story. At times, information is absolutely necessary to give the proper context to events. It’s the writer’s job to find ways to insert this otherwise inert information into a story in ways that disguise it’s real purpose.
For the audience to process this information without being pulled out of the story, the exposition must be cloaked as something else so that it does not appear as a naked ploy by the writer to tell his or her audience information that wouldn’t come out of a character’s mouth.
One of the great screenwriters, Ernest Lehman, put it like this:
“One of the tricks is to have the exposition conveyed in a scene of conflict, so that a character is forced to say things you want the audience to know. As, for example, if he is defending himself against somebody’s attack, his words or defense seem justified even though his words are actually expository words. Something appears to be happening, so the audience believes it is witnessing a scene (which it is), not listening to expository speeches. Humor is another way of getting exposition across.”
What to do with exposition.
Sometimes, exposition is absolutely necessary. When you’ve come to the decision that there’s no other way to provide necessary information to reader, here are some suggestions.
Sometimes, what you the writer think is necessary information isn’t. In fact, sometimes, omitting that piece of information can make a character or event more mysterious and intriguing when it’s left up to the audience to interpret for themselves what happened. If possible, in early drafts try to err on the side of omission. Let your first readers tell you if they need to know more about certain things or not.
Save it for later, wait as long as possible for maximum dramatic impact.
The longer you can withhold exposition, the more it moves from a piece of information to a mystery that the audience wants to understand. If you can hold onto exposition until later, the reveal can feel more like shift in the audience’s understanding of the story at that moment then as a piece of information to help the context of the story. If done right, it can inspire an audience to reflect on early scenes in a whole new light and possibly even want to re-examine the whole movie.
Make it a weapon.
As Ernest Lehman said, if you must deliver exposition, search for a dramatic purpose that disguises it’s real reason for being there. Using exposition as a weapon almost always works. Use the exposition in an argument by allowing one character or another to bring up necessary issues and information from the past as ways to hurt the other person or damage their argument. Now that exposition is being used to advance the dramatic action of the scene, but it’s doing double-duty relaying past information to your audience without them even realizing.
As writers, we’re filled with information about our characters and stories. Most of the time, no one but us cares about this. Often, as we write exposition it turns into a monologue. Usually this is because we want to show off how much work we have done. The reality is that exposition doesn’t have to be a monologue nor should it be. Be ruthlessly critical about your exposition. Give the audience the absolute minimal information necessary. Make it “snackable.” You want the audience to easily grasp it and plug it into what’s going on in front of them, so that the story can keep moving forward.
Find someone to deliver it.
There are people whose job it is to deliver information. Teachers, Reporters, Scientists, Coaches and many more. They can be main character, supporting characters or characters in a single scene. If you find yourself needing to provide an audience with information and can’t find any other way to do it, don’t be afraid to create a character in your story who can say the necessary things in a context that seems natural and normal to the world of your movie.