Five Tips for Writing Exposition

Here are five tips for writing exposition without getting bogged down in, well, exposition…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, let’s talk about exposition. I’ve got to the bit in my book where my protagonist figures out what the villain is up to and there’s a ticking clock and she has to stop him before everything goes horribly wrong. Very much that tipping point from Act two into Act three. See an earlier video for tips on tipping points…

The great danger here is that this could turn into nothing more than a big dollop of exposition, also known, delightfully, as an info dump.

You know those moments in the movies where the villain reveals their evil plan, and this is so common that it’s become a trope in itself. There’s a lovely moment in The Incredibles where Syndrome says, “You caught me monologuing”. Basically, we’re talking about exposition. And in this specific case, how will the villain reveal their dastardly plan unless they tell the hero about it? Now, at this point in the story, the exposition is coming in late. As I said, the pivot between the second and third act, which is to my advantage, because if if you haven’t already, you can go back and leave clues for your hero and the reader to piece together what the evil scheme is, or if you want to invert that idea, your hero can think that they know what the plan is…

And then the villain can reveal a wicked, additional twist that they can take great glee in revealing. I think that’s what’s going to happen in my story. In the meantime, here are five tips for writing exposition; One: Have someone get it wrong. There’s a great moment at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the two Secret Service guys come to Indiana Jones and tell him about the Staff of Ra, Abner Ravenwood, and something called the Lost Ark. And it becomes clear that they haven’t got the first clue what they’re talking about.

So Indy corrects their mistakes. This is such an effective way of getting exposition across that we, the viewer, hardly notice. It not only is Indy’s enthusiasm for the subject infectious, but it also gives him agency, and proves to us and the Secret Service men that he is the right man for the job. It’s a great subversion of an old trope because we’re so used to seeing James Bond stepping into M’s office and being told what the mission is, and it can be very passive with a big info dump. But this is a much, much better way of doing it.  Two: Dramatise it. As with any essential bit of story information, it will always stick in the reader’s mind if you can dramatise it. Don’t tell me that your hero is a witch. Show me the hero doing some magic and include a few telling details. Is she skilled or does she need more experience and practise? Does she work alone or with others?

Does she use magic compassionately or for her own gain? By creating a bit of action and drama you can reveal so much more about a character than just having someone tell us. This can also be applied to a character revealing a bit about their past. Don’t just have them tell us. Show it in a widescreen, full-colour flashback, or a dream, or a crystal ball. Any bit of drama will be better than a dry retelling. Three: Do it with style.

OK, hands up. There are times when you kind of have to just tell the reader, or viewer, a bit of essential information. So if you have to do it, do it with style. Think of the opening crawl of Star Wars. Lucas pinched that from the old Flash Gordon serials, which had to bring the cinemagoers up to speed in just a few seconds… Or sing it in a song, interpretive dance, beat poetry, or have them tell a story with the kind of zingy and engaging dialogue used by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, Victoria Wood, Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, Shakespeare.

You get the idea if you’re going to tell it, make it good. Really good. I mean, extraordinarily good. No pressure. Four: Parse it out. Don’t feel the need to unload it all at once. Think about what the reader needs to know and when. Your antagonist might be a spy, a Nazi, a sous chef and an expert in kung fu. But that doesn’t mean we need to know all this when they’re first mentioned. Have some fun in revealing these nuggets when — and this is the important bit — when they can have the most impact on the story and the reader. To quote Billy Wilder, “Always allow the audience to add two plus two and they’ll love you forever.” Five: “Or… just don’t bother. You know, I’m old enough to remember seeing the first Star Wars, and not knowing what the Clone Wars were, why Darth Vader was in that suit, or even if Stormtroopers were real people or robots. And it didn’t matter one little bit. You’ll be amazed at how little some exposition matters. And as for BackStory, I’m going to let you into a little secret…

There’s no such thing as back story. There’s the story you’re telling and that’s it. The reader doesn’t care what happened before or after unless it directly affects what you’re telling them now. And if it does, then it will be in this story. If it doesn’t, don’t bore them with it. Tell one story and tell it well. Don’t weigh it down with a bunch of digressions. Honestly, I blame Marvel. Ooh, controversial. Right. Well, I hope that was helpful.

Any questions? Pop them below or drop me a line. Until next time, Happy Writing. 

Published by

MarkStayWrites

Author, screenwriter, and co-founder of the Bestseller Experiment podcast.

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