Film & TV

What Is Exposition (Film)?

Written by MasterClass

Mar 25, 2019 • 5 min read

From the classic opener “Once upon a time…” to the famous Star Wars sequence “In a galaxy far, far away…”, exposition is necessary in every film. Writing effective exposition, however, is an art form. Learn how to best introduce characters, backstory, and plot points below.

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What Is Exposition?

Exposition is a literary term that refers to the background information the audience needs to know for the world of your story or film to make sense. Exposition includes anything from character introductions to set details and dialogue.

5 Different Ways to Convey Exposition

There are several ways to convey exposition in a scene.

1. Dialogue.

A conversation between two or more characters allows for simple and effective exposition in a single scene.

2. Narration.

Narration, or voiceover, is a way to communicate a character’s true thoughts and desires, or give omniscient insight into a situation.

3. Mise-en-scène.

Mise-en-scène are props and other things that are seen, but not heard, in a scene. These details, while seemingly subtle, can convey a significant amount of information in a short amount of time.

4. Text or title cards.

Perhaps the most straightforward method, text or title cards can contain all the relevant information your audience will need to know, before the film even begins.

5. Flashback.

There are multiple ways to convey past events in a present narrative, but flashbacks are the most visual as they place your character in context (versus having them simply recount the event, as they might in dialogue or narration).

What’s the Difference Between Effective and Ineffective Exposition?

Effective exposition adds vital, interesting information to the world of the story so that you are able to comprehend the central dramatic narrative. Ineffective exposition is clumsily threaded into the narrative in a way that feels awkward or obtrusive.

In order to understand the difference between effective and ineffective exposition, first look at common ways that ineffective exposition might present in a script.

What to Avoid When Writing Exposition

1.The “exposition dump.”

Films with particularly complex rules or backstory sometimes suffer from exposition dump, which is essentially an overwhelming amount of information presented quickly and out of context. The exposition dump can sometimes feel like the characters in the film are lecturing the audience.

2.Telling a character what they already know.

This falls under awkward and unnatural dialogue. For example, if a brother approaches his sister and says, “As you know, mom is really sick,” the information is said purely for the audience’s benefit. A better way to communicate that the mom is sick would be to show her in her hospital bed.

3.Describing events instead of depicting events.

Another form of “show, don’t tell,” this is especially important since film is a visual medium. Show a character experiencing an event versus simply recounting the event to avoid “telling.”

7 Tips for Writing Effective Exposition

You know the world of your story inside out, but now it's time to put it on paper and share it with audiences. If you're struggling with finding a good starting point or balancing how much information to present, try the following tips for writing effective exposition.

1. Show, don’t tell.

Movies are a form of visual storytelling, which is why one of the basic tenets of screenwriting is to “show, don’t tell.” This means that you should always “show” things to the audience through action or character behavior as opposed to simply “telling” the audience. If you “show, don’t tell” well, you might not even need an exposition.

2. Weave exposition into the rising action.

Good exposition is laid out without impeding the story and is seamlessly embedded within a scene. Move the central dramatic narrative forward at the same time that you lay out exposition. Describe how a bomb works at the same time as the hero is trying to detonate it. Explain how evil a bad guy is as the hero is actively running away from him.

3. Supplement the visuals.

Use narration or voice-over to add to the action that is taking place on screen. While some visual clues are better left for the audience to decipher, others can benefit from the clarity or context that a narrator can provide with supplemental information.

4. Create characters who act as a “stand in” for the audience.

One way to get through exposition in your screenplay is to have at least one character early on who is a stand-in for the audience; Rashida Jones’s character in The Social Network, or Chrisann in Steve Jobs for example, because they ask questions of the main character that the audience might have. He or she will help introduce the characters and the world without causing viewers to be bogged down with excessive or conspicuous exposition.

5. Use arguments to your advantage.

In real life, arguments naturally escalate and romantic partners often bring up past events during fights making it an ideal scene to slip in background information. A fight about household duties between lovers can escalate to the point where the wife brings up her husband’s infidelity from 15 years earlier. This exposition feels natural because we believe that the wife may not be over the past infidelity and would mention it in the heat of the moment.

6. Be brief; less is more.

Only say as much as you need to for the audience to understand the story. Try writing a monologue for your character, exploring his or her entire background and back story. Then, start chipping away at it. How much of this information is important, and how much is ancillary detail? How much can you show in the mise en scène versus having to say out loud? For example, does the character need to tell us they went to university, or can they throw on a college sweatshirt or stand in front of a framed diploma?

7. Give your characters subject-matter expertise.

Let’s say you need to explain how a virus is slowly decimating the entire human race. Instead of having a lay person google the information in a scene, write a dynamic scientist character who has been researching this virus for years, is an expert on the topic, and whose job it is to provide information about the virus to others. For example, you could write a scene where the scientist explains how the virus works to the U.N. or has to go on CNN to explain it to the masses as this feels like an authentic thing that would happen in the world of the story.