Exposition is story information. It’s the facts or bare bones of your tale that the audience needs to know to appreciate what’s going on. There is a lot of skill involved in delivering exposition in story at the highest level. So what are exposition dumps? How do we avoid them?
Exposition dumps are when a lot of story information is delivered all at once in a novel, play, or screenplay. It can leave the audience feeling overwhelmed, or confused, and maybe even break their suspension of disbelief. We’ve got lots of tips below on how to deal with this.
Bad exposition is when story information is conveyed to the audience in way that isn’t pleasurable, or satisfying. It can pull the audience out of your story and make them aware that they are being told information. Good exposition pulls them further into the world and feel natural.
What’s an Example of Exposition?
An example of exposition is when the words appear on the screen at the beginning of Star Wars and tell you all about what’s been happening in Star Wars universe prior to the beginning of the film. This is a classic example of telling rather than showing, and not encouraged.
The above example is a bit of a dump, but it’s pulled off because it’s done artfully and it gives an impression of scale by being set cleverly against the stars.
Is Exposition Bad in Writing?
Exposition is not bad in writing. Stories require exposition in one form or another. The challenge is to work in the backstory in a way that feels natural. An example of bad exposition is when two characters discuss something only to convey information to the audience: it feels forced.
Is Writing Exposition Hard?
Writing exposition is hard. It’s one of the skills of creative writing that takes practice, but like riding a bike the more you do it the better you get (and you don’t forget). Remember to avoid didacticism, show rather than tell, consider unity of time and place, and use less. See our guide below for more!
It’s best to avoid didacticism in your exposition. As responders to a work of fiction we don’t really like to be ‘told’ things. Ever heard of ‘show don’t tell.’ That’s what this is all about. When something is ‘didactic’ it’s like we can sense that we are being ‘taught’ something.
We want scripts to teach us things, but we don’t want to feel that we are being taught.
This is the subtle art of story.
We also want stories to emotionally manipulate us, but we don’t want to feel emotionally manipulated.
It’s tricky isn’t it?
So how do we work it in?
Have info come in via a radio broadcast in the background (ever seen a zombie film?)
Have a poster in the background of the action tell us something.
Introduce a best friend character who is a ‘confident’ for your protagonist. Hamlet’s friend Horatio is someone that he can talk to and explain how he is feeling. We can learn all about the world the story takes place in, and all about how Hamlet is thinking and feeling about the events taking place in the world, by listening to the protagonist talk to their best friend.
Remember that dialogue should also generally advance the plot or reveal character. If your dialogue or your summary passages of your novel aren’t doing either of these things, then the lines may not be earning their keep in your story. Lines like these can bore the audience because they don’t feel relevant to the overall direction of the tale. They also may lack tension.
Remember that tension should go up! And lines which reveal character and advance your plot are generally more likely to be lines that contribute to the rising tension in your story.
You have to find ways to introduce information about your story that feels natural in your world!
If there is a television in the background of your story which has details about a fire that has broken out somewhere in your story world, this might be exposition that will become relevant later in your tale, and this is a satisfying way to work this information into the story.
One important principle to consider is foreshadowing. Skilful handling of exposition is vital to foreshadowing the key events that will become important later in your story.
Check out the Letter Review video below for more on foreshadowing and Deus Ex Machina.
Unity of Time and Place
To avoid bad exposition consider Aristotle’s unity of time and place. Sometimes when a work of art jumps in time more exposition is needed, as we have to find out what’s happened in the gap. Aristotle was a fan of the ‘three unities’. Unity of action, of time, and of place.
It basically means everything happens in one go, in one place.
This technique greatly reduces the need for exposition because it means once you manage to bring your audience up to speed at the beginning you might not have to worry too much about any further exposition.
For example, if your story jumps forward five years at one point, then you will probably have to let your audience know some of what happened in that five years. This is like starting a story all over again in some respects, as you will have to work out ways to work exposition in that feels natural and satisfying.
If you don’t jump forward though, the exposition that you have skilfully worked in to the beginning of your tale will hopefully be sufficient to last the rest of the story.
Is a Lot of Exposition Bad? Use Less
You should avoid unnecessary exposition where possible by using less. Trust the audience. Sometimes it’s great to just watch a world unfold without being given all the pieces of the puzzle. Ever walked into a film late and been surprised by how much you enjoy not understanding everything?
You can start In Medias Res, which just means in the middle of things, and not explain everything and trust your audience to enjoy the game of catch up.
Isn’t this how we experience real life?