Script Hacks – Exposition Dos and Don’ts

There are no rules for writing. There are only tools and techniques. The key is to find what works for you. 

These are tools and techniques that help me. My hope is they’ll help you too.

SCRIPT HACKS – EXPOSITION DOS AND DON’TS

Effectively communicating exposition is crucial to setting up the world and characters of your screenplay.

What is Exposition? 

Exposition is the information the writer gives to the audience either visually or verbally. 

All of the characters in your story have a history. Details about their pasts that are important to understanding their personality and present lives. 

Exposition is used to provide the audience with necessary details and information about character and world events that happened before your story began. 

Relevant backstory events that continue to impact the present in some significant, meaningful way. Details about characters, relationships, setting, and situation. 

When should you use exposition? 

Don’t tell the audience something before they desire to know it. Timing is everything.  

Create questions that demand answers. Once the audience is hungry for answers, that’s when you provide the exposition. 

Remember the first time you saw the DeLorean in Back To The Future, weren’t you excited and desperate to hear how the time machine worked? 

How should you present exposition? 

Only present the audience with the minimum details needed in order to understand your characters and participate in the story. Use it or lose it. Always.

Exposition should be invisible, subtle, slipped in quickly and unobtrusively. It should appear to belong in the moment, not simply for the sake of conveying information.

Find ways to bury the exposition into comedic or dramatic situations. If you can find ways to make the “info dump” entertaining, the audience will accept it. 

Film is a visual medium. You don’t have the luxury of getting inside your character’s heads like you would with a novel. You have to make it visual. Show the audience instead of telling them. 

In The Matrix, Morpheus takes Neo on a guided tour of “The Matrix” and contrasts that with a visual display of “The Real World”. 

In Inception, Cobb tells the rules of how the dream-world works and Paris literally unfolds upon itself to visually exemplify those rules. 

How shouldn’t you present exposition?

Here is a list of common forms of exposition you should avoid. I call them…

THE EXPOSITION DIRTY DOZEN 

1) Too much telling, not enough showing. 

2) Out of the blue (is bad to do).

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3) Avoid “As you know” expo. 

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4) Out of place (is out of line).

When exposition is introduced that doesn’t belong in the current situation, it will stand out. Try to make it organic and motivated to the situation. 

5) Premature exposition can confuse.

Often exposition is difficult to understand because the viewer hasn’t met the people yet who are being discussed. The audience has no frame of visual reference or mental picture.  

6) Don’t know? DON’T CARE! 

Exposition can be un-involving when we don’t yet know about the characters or the story. Once we’re hooked or engaged, THEN we’ll welcome exposition. 

7) Lack of imagination leads to tedium.

If it’s presented in a tedious and unimaginative manner, exposition will bore the audience. Such as two people talking without visual accompaniment. 

8) Too much too quick… WON’T STICK. 

Don’t give so much exposition all at once, otherwise it will be difficult to absorb. We just won’t remember most of it. Avoid “info dumps” and “expo overloads”. 

9) More than we need to know. 

Even when it’s spread out, sometimes there’s just too much exposition overall. Don’t give the audience more info than they need. Keep it to a minimum. 

10) No TIME OUTS. 

Characters shouldn’t STOP what they’re doing while exposition is being delivered. Avoid delivery of exposition that slows down the story to an unacceptable degree. 

11) Don’t FRONT LOAD the exposition. 

Not ALL the exposition needs to occur at once. Only include what occurs naturally. Only what needs to be provided at the particular moment. SPREAD IT OUT. 

12) No unfilmable expo.

Only include exposition that can be seen or heard on screen. Don’t hide exposition that wouldn’t show up on screen by placing it in narrative or in character descriptions. 

EXPOSITION RECAP

-Timing is everything.

-Create questions that demand answers.

-Bury the answers with comedy and drama.

-Make the answers visual and verbal.

-Keep the details to a minimum.

-Keep it fast and fun. 

-Avoid the Dirty Dozen.

Oh, and if you’re looking for exhaustive feedback on your screenplay, I can help. 

www.scriptbutcher.com/services

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