by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Show, don’t tell. It’s advice we’ve all heard over and over again, and it’s good advice. Frankly, it isn’t followed nearly enough.
But the “show don’t tell” mantra is incomplete, because there are certain bits of story information that simply need to be explained verbally to the audience. This is called exposition.
A wife comes home from work and says to her husband, “You know, I really hate my job. I’ve been thinking about quitting for the last six months.” That’s exposition – information that the writer needs the audience to know. This is also an example of really bad exposition, because the character is saying something completely unnatural simply because the writer wants to get that information out.
So how can the writer get exposition across in a way that feels natural, compelling, and entertaining? Here are some of the best tricks I’ve come across for cleverly disguising necessary exposition:
1. Dramatize it.
Ok, that advice we started with is actually the best advice. If there’s a compelling way for you to show a bit of information rather than stating it to the audience, do that. In this case, we can have a scene or two with the woman at work, showing just how much she hates her job. Maybe it’s a montage with the seasons changing outside her tiny window to show just how long she’s hated this job for.
2. Fight about it.
This bit of advice comes from Aaron Sorkin – when you have a complicated piece of exposition that you need to get across, have two characters fight about it. The fight adds tension and drama to a scene that would otherwise just be information sharing. If the husband and wife are having money problems, for example, that would give them good reason to fight over whether or not she stays at her job.
3. Put a pope in the pool.
I think this is a Blake Snyder term. A “pope in the pool” is something odd, funny, or dramatic that’s happening in the background of your scene while the main characters are sharing information. It’s something to distract the audience from the fact that they’re being given otherwise dry information. In Game of Thrones, they called it “sexposition” – info coming out during sex or at a brothel. Same thing.
So say our married couple have this talk about her job while their kids have a food fight in front of them. That serves a few functions – it’s entertaining, it distracts from the exposition, and it gives us a deeper look into the dynamics of this family.
4. Make the scene about something else.
If something else important is happening in the foreground of your scene, an aside conversation that shares exposition becomes a lot more interesting. As a very broad example, say the house is burning down, and that’s the moment the wife chooses to tell her husband she wants to quit her job. Suddenly this scene has a lot more texture and a point of view. It’s not just information, it’s an insight into this character and the way her mind works.
5. Make a joke.
This won’t always be appropriate, but sometimes you can get out exposition in the form of a joke. If the audience is laughing or amused, they won’t be annoyed by the information you’re getting across. So rather than having the wife simply say she hates her job and wants to quit, maybe have her deliver a rant about her cubicle mate Betty who insists on cutting her toenails at work every Wednesday. We get the same info, but it’s delivered in a more human and enjoyable way.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.