Meet the Reader: Story Exposition – Let Me Explain (But Not Too Much)

I recently assessed a screenplay that began with twenty pages of material chronicling the life of the story’s protagonist from infancy to his mid-30s, which is the age he is when the main action begins. These twenty pages were not prologue – a prologue contains elements that are relevant to and pay off in the main plotline. No, this material was simply biography – nonessential backstory without narrative point or purpose.

These twenty pages are symptomatic of a problematic trend I’ve been noticing in a lot of specs and movies lately – an excess of story exposition.

Exposition is the vital information an audience needs in order to understand the action in a dramatic story. Exposition includes material that explains the story’s premise, its characters, and its world and/or setting.

Too little exposition is a problem because with insufficient information, the audience won’t be able to understand what’s going on in a screenplay or film. But too much exposition is also a problem. Exposition is explanation, and explanation is inherently undramatic – because it contains no action, conflict, climax, or resolution; because it does not advance the narrative (although it clarifies the story, it does not push it forward); and because it disrupts the momentum—the dramatic flow and build–of the piece (dramatic storytelling must be dynamic – moving constantly forward at an ever-increasing pace and intensity from inciting incident to inevitable climax. By its very nature, exposition is static, and so, no matter how skillfully it is inserted, it will always slow down a narrative).

For all of these reasons, it has always been a cardinal rule of dramatic writing that exposition should be kept to an absolute minimum – the audience should be given all of the information it needs to understand a story, but not one bit more. In recent years, however, many screenwriters have not been observing this rule. I’ve been seeing more and more exposition shoved into scripts and movies in four basic ways:

1. Extended backstories — in which every detail of the protagonist’s biography and/or the history of the story’s central premise are spelled out in excruciating detail when a simple scene or line of dialogue would accomplish the same task much more efficiently.

2. Non-essential backstories – which, like the screenplay mentioned at the beginning of this piece, provide a detailed biography of the protagonist or a history of the story’s central premise or key dramatic situation, even if little or none of this information is relevant to or pays off in the primary narrative.

These backstories are usually presented either as a long preamble to the main tale or in a long block flashback inserted in the body of the script or a series of shorter flashbacks sprinkled throughout the piece. The preambles are a problem because the main purpose of a screenplay’s opening pages and a movie’s opening moments is to grab the audience’s attention and pull them into the story. This is hard to do if your opening consists mainly of non-dramatic pipe-laying. The flashbacks are problematic because they interrupt the flow of the story, which kills the development, build, and momentum of the piece.

3. Explaining things that don’t need to be explained — I read a script a few weeks back in which a supporting character enters a scene wearing a cast on his foot. Although the fact that the supporting character is wearing a cast never plays an important role in the story (it is simply a piece of character color), the script has the protagonist ask the supporting character what happened. The supporting character reports that he tripped over a hose. The script then immediately cuts to a flashback showing the supporting character tripping over the hose. There were dozens of similar bits throughout the script. And while most screenplays do not do this to the same extent, this is something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately – the over-explaining of non-essential or redundant story elements.

4. Explaining everything — screenplays and movies today seem to be uncomfortable with mystery and ambiguity: every beat, motivation, and moment must be laid out; every dangling thread must be tied up. In the classic Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick is an American expatriate living in North Africa who cannot return home to the United States. In terms of the plot, the only important element in this is that he cannot go home. The specific reason doesn’t matter, so the screenwriters (Julius & Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch) decided not to fill in that particular blank. Instead, they have Claude Rains’ character, Inspector Renault, speculate about the reasons that Rick can’t go home (“Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.”) – speculations that Rick neither confirms nor denies. As a result, Bogart’s character develops a powerful mystique – instead of a run-of-the-mill protagonist with a run-of-the-mill backstory, he is now a man of mystery. We viewers know Rick has a colorful past, but because it is not spelled out for us, we are free to imagine what it is. This makes the character intriguing and alluring in a way that has held our attention for seventy-two years now. If Casablanca was made today, it’s easy to imagine that Rick would not only be given a concrete reason for his exile, but also that it would be explicitly depicted in a twenty-minute prologue or an extended series of flashbacks. As a result, the character would be a lot less mysterious and a lot less interesting.

Exposition works best when:

  • It is kept to a minimum.
  • It is worked into the body of the story, rather than presented outside the main narrative in preambles or flashbacks. (If you must step outside of the body of the story to present your exposition, then do so for as briefly as possible. If you find that your story cannot be understood with the inclusion of pages and pages of backstory, then you must consider the possibility that you have started your tale too late and think about beginning your story at an earlier point in time.)
  • It is presented in an entertaining way.
  • You let the audience do some of the work. (2001: A Space Odyssey never tells us exactly what its mysterious monolith is, exactly what it is doing, or exactly why it is doing it. This leaves viewers free to provide their own explanations and thus makes them part of the storytelling process. This pulls them into the story and keeps them involved in it, which is one of the reasons that movie is a classic. The sequel, 2010, explains everything about the monolith. Who remembers 2010?)

Jaws is a screenplay and film that does an excellent job of presenting its exposition in the ways I just indicated:

  • For the story to be understood, the audience needs to know a little something about sharks. In the script and in the movie, this information is presented mostly by the character of ichthyologist Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Instead of giving us a series of dry, boring lectures, Hooper always presents this information when he is doing something interesting or entertaining (conducting an autopsy, helping himself to someone else’s dinner, cutting open a tiger shark, arguing with the mayor, or eating pretzels).
  • We also need to know that Hooper’s oxygen tanks have the potential to blow up. This information is worked into the body of the story by being included in a sequence in which the story’s protagonist, police Chief Martin Brody, is shown demonstrating his lack of familiarity with all things nautical.
  • The movie requires the presentation of two important backstories. The first informs us that Brody, a former New York City police officer, grew frustrated with his inability to make much of a difference in that crime-ridden metropolis and so accepted the job of head cop on Amity Island, a small New England beach town where one man can indeed make a difference. Rather than step outside the story with a prelude showing Brody fighting crime in New York, becoming fed up, packing up the family and heading north, the film deals with it discreetly in three brief moments. The first shows Brody waking up the morning after the movie’s opening shark attack. Brody notices that the morning sun is shining in his bedroom window, something it didn’t used to do. His wife remarks that they bought the house in the winter and it is now summer. This tells us that the Brody family has recently moved into the home. A brief joke in the same scene about Brody’s attempt to speak with a Massachusetts accent informs us that he is from New York and is new in town. A brief line in a later scene tells us why Brody left New York and came to Amity. That’s all we need to know and the movie doesn’t have to come to a crashing halt to tell it to us.

Jaws’s second backstory concerns the shark hunter Quint’s experience surviving the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis during World War II, a tale that explains the mad fisherman’s hatred of sharks, which in turn motivates his obsessive hunt for the giant Great White that is threatening Amity. Instead of a lengthy flashback or a series of flashbacks (which is probably how the material would be presented today), the script has Quint tell the story in a long, drunken monologue in the context of a scene in which the men are comparing scars. The lengthy speech does bring the narrative to a bit of a halt, but makes up for it by providing the opportunity to entertain us with Robert Shaw’s magnificently compelling performance of the monologue. The (no) movie couldn’t survive more than one of these epic pieces of exposition, but it can handle one of this quality just fine.

story exposition

  • Finally, Jaws allows the audience to fill in some of the expository blanks. The behavior exhibited by the film’s Great White shark is quite unusual for the breed. Some of the characters in the story speculate as to why the giant fish is doing what it is doing, but no concrete explanation is ever given. This allows us to provide our own explanation, which is more intentional, personal, and malevolent than a concrete scientific rationale would probably allow for. As a result, in our imaginations, the rogue shark becomes a rampaging monster, an intelligent and scheming one that is deliberately trying to kill the three human beings who are hunting it. Now, isn’t that a lot more fun than finding out that Bruce is really just hunting for guppies or has a brain tumor or some other utterly mundane rationale?

As a screenwriter, it is your responsibility to tell the audience everything they need to know in order to follow your plot. But resist the urge to give them more than that or pulling them out of the story. And don’t be afraid to invite them in to help tell the tale. Your script will be the better for it, and that’s something that requires no explanation at all.

Check out my new books A Quick Guide to Television Writing and A Quick Guide to Screenwriting. Both are handy primers to the art, craft, and business of writing for the big and small screens.

Copyright © 2014 by Ray Morton 
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