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What Is Exposition in Film? How to Write Exposition in 7 Easy Steps

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 7 min read

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From the classic opener “Once upon a time…” to the famous Star Wars sequence “In a galaxy far, far away…”, some 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 to make sense. (Another definition of exposition is the technique of providing this kind of information in a story or film.) Exposition includes anything from character introductions to set details and dialogue, and is most common at the beginning of the story.

What Is the Purpose of Exposition?

The main purpose of exposition is to illuminate the motivations of a film’s characters, as well as the crucial details and circumstances that define their dramatic situation. Effective exposition adds vital, interesting information to the world of the story so that the audience can comprehend the central dramatic narrative. Exposition can also be used to foreshadow an important event, or justify a character’s skills and decisions.

How to Write Exposition With 5 Different Exposition Techniques

There are several ways to use exposition to convey the background of the characters and events in a film. Here are some of the most popular types of exposition.

  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).
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5 Examples of Exposition in Film

To illustrate how effective exposition can enhance a film and captivate an audience, here are five examples of exposition through the years.

  1. “Rear Window” (1954): Director Alfred Hitchcock is a master of exposition, and this film is a perfect example. Hitchcock uses a continuous, three-minute shot to introduce the viewer to Jeff’s neighbors via their daily habits, as well as the mise-en-scène of their apartments. This expository scene gives viewers a taste of the voyeurism that is to come, and drops hints about how each character will figure into the story.
  2. “GoodFellas” (1990): Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed mob movie makes extensive use of voiceover from main character Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) to deliver exposition. However, perhaps the best example of exposition in the film is when Henry leads his girlfriend, Karen, through the back entrance of a nightclub. The respect Henry receives from every person he sees, along with exclusivity and security of their route, tell us everything we need to know about what it means to be a gangster.
  3. “Shaun of the Dead” (2004): TV news and radio are often used as vehicles to deliver exposition in film. But director Edgar Wright puts a unique spin on the technique in this exposition example: rather than witnessing a continuous news segment, the viewer experiences this information in bits and pieces as bored and distracted main character Shaun flips through TV channels and wanders to a convenience store. The comedy of Shaun’s obliviousness, along with the tension of the scene, make for effective exposition.
  4. “Up” (2009): In what is also an excellent example of a film montage, “Up” opens with a series of images that guide us through main character Carl Fredriksen’s relationship with his wife, Ellie. In the span of just a couple of dialogue-free minutes, we experience the joy, love, and loss of the couple’s many years together. This scene is one of the best examples of exposition in recent film history. In fact, film critic Peter Bradshaw called the montage “a masterclass in narrative exposition.”
  5. “I, Tonya” (2017): In this example of exposition, main character Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) “breaks the fourth wall” to deliver key information about her life. The technique works, in part, because these scenes also reveal Tonya’s character in interesting ways, highlighting her resentment and stubbornness as well as her grit and determination to succeed as an Olympic figure skater.

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Step-by-Step Guide: How to Write Exposition With 7 Tips

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In her first-ever online class, Jodie Foster teaches you how to bring stories from page to screen with emotion and confidence.

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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 effective expository writing.

  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.

Want to Become a Better Filmmaker?

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