The call’s coming from someone called ‘Plot-Critical Caller’, so unfortunately you have to answer.
So you’re sipping your favourite whiskey in the cosy firelit confines of your reading chamber when your phone goes off. Bah! There goes your late-night brooding sesh, and you were just getting into it. The call’s coming from someone called ‘Plot-Critical Caller’, so unfortunately you have to answer.
Someone’s yelling at you from the other end.
“Do you have a TV nearby? Turn on the news! You have to see this!”
“See what? What’s going on? Who is this?”
“Just watch, trust me, you’re gonna want to see this!”
Surely if it were so urgent they could explain right there and then, but no, they just hang up…
You grab the remote conveniently laying on the table by your side and turn on the TV conveniently in front of you. Conveniently, it lands on the news channel.
A bright red BREAKING NEWS banner is overlaid across the bottom of an image that looks like outer space. Pinpricks of stars on a black background, nothing else. And there’s no voice-over from the news anchor or anything…
Then the orchestra blares, and the yellow text of the Star Wars opening crawl starts marching up the screen.
AS YOU ALL KNOW, it reads, THE READER IS READING THIS COLUMN ABOUT EXPOSITION. WHAT’S THAT YOU ASK? WHY, AS WE ALL KNOW EXPOSITION IS THE SUBTLE ART OF INSULTING THE AUDIENCE’S INTELLIGENCE WITH AS BLATANT AN INTERRUPTION TO THE STORY’S IMMERSION AND PACING AS POSSIBLE… OR WAIT HANG ON A SEC, I MIGHT BE GETTING MY NOTES MIXED UP… BUT ANYWAY, BEFORE CONTINUING LETS FIRST GO BACK TO WHERE IT ALLLL BEGAN…
Exposition—all stories gotta do it. The dramatic reveal of Shady Jake’s backstory. A crash course on the political state of play between the Great Big Ol’ Houses. What sort of science stuff is responsible for the multiverse shenanigans in this universe.
Obviously, it’s critical to have some of these things explained for the story to work, but it’s also often an aspect of storytelling prone to some unfortunate heavy-handedness. While amusing to dissect in retrospect, in the moment, bad exposition commits some of the worst storytelling sins. Like nothing else it can break our immersion and take us out of the story, and it can simply make us bored. Why is this character we just met suddenly giving us a rundown of their whole life story? Who asked? And will this be on the test?
I think this is made clear if we consider good use of exposition. It’s the kind of thing you don’t really notice. It’s information we readily take on board that keeps us hooked and propels us through the narrative, uncovering new dimensions and colours to this fictional world. You’re too busy being immersed, eagerly absorbing the backstories and revelations to notice the hand of the storyteller.
But aside from comparing the good and bad, what’s so interesting or important about exploring the workings of story exposition?
Exposition isn’t just those infodumping moments to help walk us through the plot. It’s not about just conveying facts. Those are just the naked iceberg tips, starkly jutting out of the sea. Really, it’s the art of managing the delivery of information in a way to essentially manipulate the audience into thinking and feeling a certain way. To make you believe in a fictional world and better identify with the characters. To get the intended emotional climax at the end. To subtly warm you up to a certain worldview. To simply keep your attention. Or even convince you to buy a product. The principles at play aren’t just limited to movies, books, and TV. Anytime someone wants to get you to believe something, be it through speech, text, or screen, a fundamental tool in their repertoire will be the basic but crucial consideration of what is said, what isn’t, and in what order.
So even if you’re not really into creating stories of your own, I don’t think there’s ever any harm in trying to better understand the workings of the stories we encounter, entertainment or not. But maybe I’m getting a bit too carried away there.
Back to the details. All stories ultimately start as a blank canvas onto which the storyteller paints meaning for you to see. At the start we don’t really know what we’re looking at, what’s going to happen. Or where, when, why, how, or to whom it’s going to happen. But we know it’s going somewhere, so we can’t help but predict how all the individual strokes will piece together into a unified image.
In fact, it is believed parts of our brain have evolved specifically to deal with and understand narratives, so when in story mode our brains take these things very seriously. After all, good stories tend to teach us directly or indirectly something about how to become a better person, which can sure help with surviving and thriving in our social world. So as part of that, when we’re in story mode, we’re consciously and unconsciously analysing every little detail for significance, evaluating it for how it contributes to some bigger picture. Especially when the storyteller seems to draw particular attention to that detail.
So before even thinking about how to present the information, we must consider whether the audience even needs to know it at all. Every bit of detail is a brick building up the structure of the story, or so our brain expects. Finding out that a section of bricks the artist started drawing in the corner of the painting is just a random collection of bricks, completely unrelated to the chateau that’s the actual subject of the painting, is a little confusing. And if you’ve for some reason emotionally invested yourself in said bricks, quite disappointing too.
Generally, movies don’t suffer as much from this problem, as screenplays just aren’t very long. Books however, with their luxury of length, are famous for their proclivity for masterfully not getting to the point and bogging things down with pages and pages of “uh… ok?”. There are after all so many interesting things about this world, I the author have dreamt up! The reader must know all about them! Now!
To keep people engaged and on track, informational leanness and choosiness is needed. Deciding what to include should always be done in reference to the “point” of each scene. How does it start, what happens and how does it end? Who are the characters and how do they change? What should the audience think and feel by the end of it? Only the information necessary for all that to make sense in a believable and engrossing way is required. Nothing more. Easy as that.
Except defining that “only” is, as you could imagine, not easy at all. Storytelling is more than just a sequence of steps. It’s supposed to be art, or something. Stopping to point out some seemingly inconsequential detail can impact the overall effect to a sometimes surprising extent. So really there is no right or wrong answer for what is important enough to include. Yes, everything you’ve read about how to write is bullshit. But I think you can always rely on this trick: does removing the thing in question ruin the logic, flow, or impact of the scene? Or does it strengthen it? (And of course, external feedback is always a godsend.)
Being careful with the dosage and delivery of exposition is also crucial, as exposition is a natural enemy of pacing. This is often because when the story pauses to explain stuff, nothing exciting is happening. One great way to combat this is to combine exposition with something else. Details can be slipped in amidst an emotional argument between friends, where we also learn something about their characters. Or the real classic, having the point of view character be someone who’s learning the ropes in this world, so moments of exposition aren’t just a lesson for us, but for the character too.
And of course, it’s always hard to swallow page after page or minute after minute of dry, exhausting details. Don’t infodump. Break it up a little. Perhaps consider infosprinkling?
Except, sometimes a good infodump is just what we need. Like a juicy revelation about how the dystopia is set up, or the unexpected twist being explained by the villain close to the end, like a car crash in slow motion that we’ve suddenly realised we’re in the very centre of and have been the entire time.
The key here is that by the time the glorious, unapologetic dump comes around, we’re in fact desperately hungering for it. We’ve been given so many puzzle pieces up to this point, but know something critical is lacking, and need that final revelation to put it all together, to see the whole picture in all its splendour. If the relevant questions were planted in the audience’s mind first, answering them (ideally in a way that is satisfying yet raises even more questions—keep those suckers hooked) makes even long stretches of sheer, uncut exposition palatable. I think this is ultimately the main key to good exposition. To make sure the information being “exposed” is the answer to a question that’s already in the audience’s mind, or if it wasn’t, convincing them that it really ought to have been.
But that’s all for this episode folks! Will Shady Jake get his revenge against House Sinister and safely teleport away to his home universe in time for dinner? Find out next time!