How Exposition Can Make Or Break Your Movie Script


Exposition is defined as the descriptive, non-dramatic elements of your screenplay.

Many pundits say that too much can weigh down your screenwriting with too much unnecessary, redundant information that doesn’t advance your screenplay. On the other hand, too little exposition can leave your audience lost, confused or visualizing a different movie than you envisioned.

So in the end, it’s all a matter of balance. Use just enough exposition to keep your audience engaged and “experience” the movie as they read your script.

I strongly recommend using an emotional underpinning to your exposition, so your readers “feel” your script too.

Keep exposition short. Make it elicit an emotional response.

Here are some common types of exposition to use in your screenwriting:

PERIOD

When is your story set? If it’s during the civil war you may opt for more intensive description such as “The blue uniformed British oppressors galloped towards the colonials with their muskets tucked under their arms.” If it’s a modern day setting such a suburban high school, fast food restaurant or a supermarket, you can be sparse. Everybody knows what a supermarket looks like.

LOCALE

The same rules apply; unless the location of your story is someplace unusual. Minimize the exposition as much as you can. Descriptions such as “a shit hole studio apartment littered with empty beer cans and pizza boxes” quickly gets the point across. Not only do we know what the apartment looks like, but also, who might live there. Double duty.

“Outer space” can simply be written as that. Or you can add an emotional layer to it such as “the empty, dark, boundless expanse of outer space.”

CULTURE

This is essential to describe cultures and sub-cultures. Your exposition must be understandable to outsiders, but also authentic to insiders.

Consider this description of a nightclub: “Pretty young things in skimpy multi-colored outfits bop around the dance floor waving glow sticks as they suck MDMA-laced lollipops.”

This contrasts sharply to “long haired louts in ripped jeans and leather jackets punch their fists in the air and mouth the words as the ear splitting rock anthem belts out of the PA system.”

BACKSTORY/ FASTSTORY

This can range from rapidly delivering large chunks of story information in epic tales that span many years, to setting up the background of the story to the present point. This adds clarity and focus to your screenplay.

Delivering this type of exposition can be done through billboards, scrolling graphics and montages.

STORY WORLD RULES

This relates to setting up the rules of your world. This is especially important in declaring the rules of a sport, such as “Hunger Games”, the powers (and weaknesses) of a superhero, such as kryptonite to Superman or a cultural tradition such as initiating newbies to a fraternity. It is also vital to science fiction screenplays, where the technological rules (such as the specific process for traveling through time) must be explicitly stated and adhered to.

FACTS &  FIGURES

This is basically technical data to impress your a audience. For instance, a space ship calculating how much fuel they have left on their mission or triangulating their route, timer countdowns on detonators, mechanical descriptions and surgical procedures. Such exposition adds a layer of authenticity to your screenwriting and shows that you’ve done your research. But don’t lose your audience with excessive technobabble.

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