Exposition is one of the most crucial elements of storytelling, helping readers understand the who, what, where, when and why of a story. It is also one of the elements that is most often at risk of being mishandled. When handled correctly, exposition can be very engaging and bring an audience even deeper into a story. When done poorly, it can bring a narrative to a screeching halt.
One example of exposition done right is the action masterpiece Raiders of the Lost Ark. Early in the film, Indiana Jones meets with two government officials looking for the Ark of the Covenant. During the meeting, Dr. Jones outlines many key plot points, such as their need to find the head piece to the Staff of Ra and where to find the Ark at the burial site, using a chalkboard to illustrate his points to his audience. The scene builds until at its climax, Jones uses pictures in his text books to show the power of the Ark, revealing just how high the stakes are.
This scene works on a number of levels. For one, it gets everything out of the way very quickly. Not a single plot point is missed. For another, it very carefully selects what information goes where, saving the powers of the Ark for the final piece of information, ending the scene on an eerie note. By the end of this two minute conversation, the audience has no more questions, allowing exclusive focus on character development and exciting action sequences.
While it is wise to get exposition out of the way quickly, one must be careful not to make it too lumpy. A massive info dump, no matter how early in a story, can cause your audience to become disinterested. For example, you don’t want to deliver exposition like this.
“Hello Bob. Gee, it’s so great to be working with a two time Nobel Prize winning professor and author who has a beautiful wife and kids and a love of sunflower seeds. As you know, I, Joe, am an architect working at Stanford and am a big fan of yours ever since we met on our Grand Canyon hike last year.”
While this succeeds in getting the information across and even telling the story, the clunky way it is delivered removes us from the action and comes across as forced. The next film we’re going to talk about delivers its exposition a little at a time, and isn’t any worse for it.
The Terminator, takes a very unique approach to its exposition. One of the problems facing the storyteller in this case is in order to understand why the Terminator is trying to kill Sarah Conner, you need to understand the future that he comes from. All of this information is delivered by the character of Kyle Reese, a human resistance soldier sent back in time to save Sarah Conner. Unlike Raiders, not all of this information could be delivered visually. Most of it comes from dialogue.
Once Kyle meets Sarah, the exposition is very cleverly placed. The first scene where we finally understand why the Terminator is after Sarah takes place during a car chase amidst flying bullets and shattered glass. Placing the exposition in the action is not distracting, but is actually quite smart. The audience is in a heightened state of awareness during such sequences, so they’re more likely to hang on to every word Reese says. More importantly, the way he delivers the information shows how desperate and scared he is, so it also helps develop his character and make the audience feel more uneasy.
There you have examples of good exposition, but what about some bad ones? Oh boy, do we have a winner there.
Krull is a 1983 fantasy film which I have a major soft spot for. It’s a lot of fun with some great passion and energy behind it. It’s also an almost textbook example of how not to tell a story. Almost every line of dialogue is expository in some way since the world it seeks to build is so complex, and it never takes the time on more important things like character and goals. Most of the world building and exposition feels like the characters are throwing darts at the audience and hoping one of them sticks. Spoiler alert, not many of them do.
A good example is the weapon of the glaive, seen held by the hero in the picture above. Much exposition is delivered about how the weapon is all powerful and it’s the only thing that can kill the villain of the movie, and that’s it. Basically the scene goes like this.
Pretty Boy Hero “How are we going to defeat the Beast?”
Wise Old Fart “You need the power of the glaive.”
Pretty Boy Hero “The glaive? I thought it was just a legend.”
Wise Old Fart “It is real, and a powerful weapon. Only it has the power to destroy the Beast. Let’s go get it and stuff.”
That is pretty much it. Why is the glaive so effective against the Beast? Is it made out of a metal he’s weak against? Does it have some kind of magic power? How about explaining why it’s the only thing that can kill the Beast? What if the weapon was made for the express purpose of killing him? Maybe we could meet the guy who made it? See a demonstration of some kind? But none of this crucial information is given. All we get is, this weapon is nice, it kills bad things, the end. To add insult to injury, the glaive isn’t even the thing that kills the Beast at the end.
So what did the quest to get it accomplish? That’s right. F***ING NOTHING!
Stories need exposition. That’s a given in any traditionally told narrative. The audience needs to know who your heroes are, what they need to do, where they need to do it, and why it’s worth hearing about. Exposition is one of the best methods of doing that, but like every other element of storytelling, it requires a lot of skill. Clunky can bog a story down, vague can leave the audience needing more, on the nose and it won’t sound natural. One thing to take away from this is keep your exposition interesting. Exposition is something your audience needs to hear, and they won’t pay attention if you don’t make it interesting.