Exposing ‘Exposition’ in screenplays

Friday, September 10, 2010

Most of the time I mention the word ‘exposition’ in ScreenwWrite.In programs or at other workshops on screenwriting, the participants seem to be in ambiguity about its meaning and relevance in the screenwriting context.

Exposition comes from expose, of course. The dictionary meanings of exposition are: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/exposition

In stories, (I want to emphasize here that I firmly believe, and always look at stories as purely emotions) expositions come as supportive facts to the back-story. Expositions are specific information given to the audience, or rather meaningful facts that the audience needs to know, to spontaneously take part in, and identify with the events and relationships in the story.

As characters differ from one type of story telling to the other, (movies, short stories, novels, plays, sitcoms etcetera) the writers too approach the characters differently. Each form of story telling has restrictions and also ways to as to how the characters are exposed or revealed. A novelist narrates the personal history and thinking processes of a character through monologues or third person descriptions. Screenwriters reveal their characters through their action and dialogue. They come to life not when they feel and think; but when they act or speak.

Expositions are information the characters in the story already know but the reader or the viewer doesn’t know.

Let’s consider an example: We see two guys, one early 40s and the other, late teens, walk by the road. They both know they are father and son, but the viewer doesn’t. We may ‘mistake’ them for their very physical presence, and the way in which they talk if we don’t know the bare fact that they’re father and son. This ‘mistake’ may be purposefully constructed by the screenwriter, misleading the viewer for some time. But if that isn’t the intention of the screenwriter, then the mistake is on the part of the screenwriter for having misled the viewer to a wrong track, failing to reveal that the two men are father and son.

The cardinal inconvenience dealing with expositions is they are neither conflicting nor restrictive. Expositions don’t contribute much to any dramatic development because they generally are part of a back-story; at the same time the quantum of expositions are too much, again because it voluminously relates to the entire back-story of the character.

Once the screenwriter is taken over by the realization that he or she has failed to let the audience know just by looking that the two guys are father and son for the last sixteen years, the screenwriter takes a plunge to overdo exposition.


Hey son, you know I don’t want to

call you son always.


How many times I have told you I

don’t want to call you papa either- -


I know you always have this tendency to

contradict me.


I told you yesterday too that if I

contradict you it’s because of

you’re an alcoholic.

From nowhere, the screenwriter fills the viewer with abundance of information without caring whether it’s demanding by the story at this point of time or not; not bothering about the contrived nature of the dialogues.

Because exposition is factual bits and pieces the characters already know, there’s no reason for them to talk about it – the father and son know they are father and son. They don’t have to convince these ‘bits and pieces of their own lives’ themselves by saying ‘you know, how many times I have told you, I know you always, I told you yesterday’ or going to the barber shop and tell the barber “haircut for my son.” It’s feeble and not called for. One clearly passes the information but the path taken is unconvincing, contrived. The exposition becomes ‘too obvious.’

Instead if the Father tries to make the son repay 100 Rupees the son owed the father sometime back, and now make him pay for the haircut; and the son is unwilling to give the money, there’s a conflict and makes the son angry. As they argue we discover that once during their attempt to rob a house together, the father got drunk from the bottle of whiskey he’d found at the pantry and the son had to hire an auto-rickshaw to take his father to safety, the son combed the fathers pocket to find the hundred bucks he had to pay the auto-rickshaw guy, and now when the father asks the hundred bucks back to pay to the barber, the son is adamant he doesn’t have to pay up the hundred bucks.

Now we learn they are father and son, that they are thieves, the father is a drinker and annoys his son many ways by his habitual drinking, it also seems absolutely unplanned how we find out they are father and son.

This’s how we should craft the exposition to come off – as if it’s a by-product of a dramatic or humorous scene. The screenwriter may have planned intentionally to deliver the information but the conflict in the scene actually hides the fact that the information is given out on purpose.

On the other hand, if the audience realizes the purpose of the scene or a segment in the scene is created to deliver particular information, then exposition becomes weak and too blunt, as if it is spoon-fed, obvious, engineered.

Screenwriter should first plan what needs to be delivered; and when and how:

01. The lesser the volume of exposition at a given point of time, the better.

02. The more the exposition is a necessity the better.

Some of the situations you can ‘hide’ obvious exposition in dialogues are:

01. Background of action

02. Conflict

03. Humor/comedy

04. Revelations to a confidante

05. Direct interviews/Question and Answer

06. Voice over narration.

I just want you to be cautious about one thing: DON’T give the audience any essential exposition when they are fully prepared to take it. For instance, if they learn a character has ESP to resist high-voltage electricity and as we show the same, a lady is shown as caught up in a live electrical circuit, it seems rather very convenient. The audience is not encouraged to put in any cerebral exercise on the information by themselves, and spontaneously involve themselves by maintaining the given facts.

Alternatively, had they learned in an earlier scene – a scene about something else, let’s say a scene which portrays the lady joins the school as teacher as we see on the TV about the man with this rare ESP and later, when the school day happens and the lady is caught up in a live electrical malfunction causing danger to the lady’s life, the audience spontaneously will crave for the man with ESP to come and save her.

The screenwriter here efficiently encourages the audience to actively take part in the information they have acquired somewhere in the story; and use it at the right opportunity given to them. They experience an intellectual connection to the story and feel being part of it.


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