What is Exposition in Screenwriting? (3 Tips to Improve Exposition)

In this post, we go over what is exposition in screenwriting, what makes bad exposition, and three tips for improving your exposition.

What Is Exposition in Screenwriting?

Exposition is information about the story's universe that is useful to the audience.

Exposition can be facts about the past, the setting of the story, the rules that govern the world, and so on. This is sometimes provided in the prologue of a story.

For example, it can be information about a character's past that helps the reader understand why they behave the way they do.

What Makes Bad Exposition?

A storyteller's job is to "show, don't tell." However, many screenwriters use expositional dialogue as a crutch to save time and work.

Bad exposition happens when characters talk about important events and facts instead of showing the audience through the story.

Bad exposition examples can include:

  • Reading newspapers aloud to force share information
  • Overly detailed title cards that explain backstory and plot points
  • TV and radio newscasts giving obvious background information
  • Bad dream sequences and flashbacks
  • Drawn out prologues

You can tell exposition is bad when its presentation is dull and lacks drama, to the point that it slows down the story. This is especially true when the exposition has no payoff at any point in the story.

No matter how good or bad the exposition is, it's dull and lacks drama. There's no action, suspense, plot, or payoff, and nothing interesting about the beginning, middle, or end. Instead, it's just a bunch of information slows down the story.

For general rules of thumb, avoid using exposition if (1) you don't need it, (2) it doesn't add to the story, (3) or it doesn't flesh out characters or settings.

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3 Tips for Writing Better Exposition

1. Spread Exposition Thin, Not Thick — Trust and Respect the Audience

Exposition works better when it is spread out rather than laid on thick.

You are laying it on thick when you use monologues, lengthy scenes, and dull moments where characters are plainly reading information out loud; even if they are in the background like newscasters.

You can use blatant mediums, like newscasters, for giving exposition. But you want to keep it short and possibly subtle.

Too many screenwriters use obvious dialogue for exposition because they fear the audience won't catch onto any subtle information.

Trust the audience enough to let them pick up on the subtle exposition on their own. The audience appreciates not being force-fed loads of information when you instead spread out the exposition and weave it nicely into the story.

2. Inject Exposition with Compelling, Engaging, and Surprising Reveals

Even though Inception was a good movie, it had too many long scenes explaining things. Ellen Page's character seemed to be there just so the characters could explain the complicated science of dream-sharing technology and dream espionage.

But the script made up for that by putting big plot points next to necessary long exposition dumps.

The scene with Leo DiCaprio telling Ellen Page about dream espionage was getting old until it turned out they were in a dream.

The script does a great job of showing us interesting, surprising, and compelling moments that take our attention away from the large bouts of exposition.

Ellen Page's character worked because the way she was used to deliver exposition was interesting and eye-catching.

3. Having Characters Argue for Exposition

One effective way for delivering exposition is by introducing the information and having two or more characters start debating over it.

This subtle use of a minor conflict is a great way to unload exposition to the audience without stopping the story in its tracks. While also fleshing out how different personalities would react to the given information.

One example of this would be having a cocky character state their opinion over the information and a more timid character opposing the other character's suggestion.

"We can take him! He's not that scary!" - Cocky Character

"Are you crazy? He's been the leading contestant every year for the past six years!" - Timid Character

"So what? His ancient gauntlet doesn't scare me!" - Cocky Character

Here are resources I recommend to get more in-depth knowledge

Storytelling 101 teaches you how to write compelling stories worthy of commercial success. This is best for screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers, videogame writers and storytellers.

Children’s Books 101 teaches you how to write stories that children will love. This is best for aspiring children’s book authors and storytellers.

Owl AI is the revolutionary AI-powered content production platform that helps storytellers, writers, and bloggers of all subject matter easily create highly-polished content.

Success, Money & Mindset Subliminal is a self-hypnosis recording that we recommend to new writers to help with focus, concentration, creativity, and motivation.

Shadow Work Journal: 240 Daily Prompts contains inner work exercises related to relationships, anger, anxiety, self-love, healing trauma, abandonment issues, depression, forgiveness, etc.

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