Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“How do you include important back story in dialogue without it sounding unnatural? I’ve gotten feedback for one of my plays that my exposition is ‘too on the nose’, but I want to make sure the audience understands the background of the story so they can follow what’s happening.”
We’re going back to basics a little bit this week so please bear with me if you already feel confident with exposition. I think it’s always useful to revisit the fundamentals even if you’re a seasoned vet because you tend to stop thinking about this stuff as you get more experienced.
This is an issue most playwrights come up against when they first start writing. You want to convey information to the audience to be sure they understand your story, and yet people are telling you not to use blatant exposition.
So, what is exposition?
According to the first website in Google, exposition is:
“Writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain.”
Does this sound entertaining to you?
No. It sounds like a legal brief or a dishwasher instruction manual. Nobody wants to hear this recited on stage.
But how do we avoid it? How do we get across our vital plot-points and backstory without giving the audience information? They need details; who the characters are, where they came from, what they’re doing here, why that guy’s covered head-to-toe in purple paint and swinging a dead mongoose at passers-by.
The trick is to give your audience the information in an interesting and entertaining way. How many Hollywood films have you seen where the lead character has to give a briefing to other characters about an earthquake or alien invasion? If this is done well, there will be opposition from other characters, new ideas being suggested, unanswered questions which could lead to disaster. Crucially, there will be interaction between characters; they will reach a decision through conflict.
It should never just be the main guy/gal standing up front and saying:
“An earthquake hit the city at 11pm last night. It was a six on the Richter scale and five thousand people are presumed dead. This is an unprecedented disaster. However I did some dubious maths involving weather balloons and GPS and I believe a second, even bigger earthquake will happen in forty-five minutes’ time. The only way to save the world from imploding is for Dwayne Johnson to dive down to the bottom of the ocean and pull the tectonic plates apart with his bare hands. Also my wife was at home with the kids in the middle of the danger zone. And my career is in the toilet due to some questionable decisions and corner-cutting. I can see none of you believe me, so I’ll be forced to go it alone, probably with one or two close friends who buy into my theory, even though it’s clearly insane, because I’m super-passionate about it. And by the way, I’m a recovering alcoholic with a tendency to crack under pressure. Also, my wife wants to divorce me and I hate my daughter’s boyfriend.”
This is boring. Why is it boring? Because the entire plan has already been decided, no one is questioning our hero’s theory or offering a different point of view. There’s no conflict, and we’re telling the audience way more than they need to know at this point.
It’s much better if we reveal the wife and kids are in danger later on, once the plan is already underway, so that our team of intrepid idiots has to split up at a crucial point. It’s also better if another character brings up the hero’s shady past and alcoholism as a way of casting doubt on his theory. This would give us much more opportunity to create conflict, which would make the scene a lot more interesting for the audience.
If you’ve been writing plays for longer than five minutes and have spoken to at least one other human being about it, you’ve undoubtedly been given the advice “Show, don’t tell.”
By way of example I’ll write a piece of terrible dialogue riddled with exposition. Please understand this is deliberately terrible, I’m usually better.
Tracy is in her kitchen.
TRACY: I can’t wait for this fridge repair guy who I called earlier to get here and fix my fridge, because my fridge broke yesterday and I have no idea what’s wrong with it. Damn my stupid husband for buying a cheap, second-hand fridge.
Enter Jason, a fridge repair man.
JASON: Hello miss, I’m here to fix your fridge because we spoke at length on the phone earlier and you told me the fridge broke yesterday and you’d like to have it fixed. I have the necessary expertise to do this work because I am a professional fridge repairman.
That’s the end of the example, it’s me talking again (see what I did there? More exposition, you really could have figured out that was the end of the example for yourself without being told).
So, how could I make this very short scene less expositional?
Let’s try using the “Show, don’t tell” approach.
Tracy is standing in her kitchen, the fridge door is open but the light inside the fridge is not on. There is food piled up on the counter next to the fridge and a puddle of water on the floor. Tracy is pacing up and down, frequently glancing at her watch.
Enter Jason, wearing overalls and carrying a toolbox.
JASON: So the fridge just packed up last night?
TRACY: That’s right.
Jason kneels down and examines the fridge.
JASON: Have you had it long?
TRACY: My husband bought it second-hand about a year ago.
JASON: This fridge must be fifteen years old, I’m amazed it lasted this long.
Me again. See what I did there? First of all, I showed the fridge was broken by leaving the door open, piling the food up next to it and putting a puddle on the floor. This removed the need for Tracy to explain what the problem was.
By all means tell your audience stuff, but make them think they’re figuring it out for themselves. The audience are actually smarter than you might think, they can put two and two together in most instances and come up with the appropriate number. They don’t need to see your sums and working out.
Secondly, instead of Tracy declaring out loud how her husband bought the fridge second-hand she’s now explaining this to Jason. This works better because it feels more natural; information is being exchanged between characters to further the plot, as opposed to information being fired at the audience out of a cannon.
Interaction between characters is a great way to deliver back story and plot points without spewing out big chunks of information. Use one character’s ignorance to inform your audience. Make sure the character has a valid reason for wanting to know and the other character has a valid reason for revealing the information.
For example, it would feel a bit weird if Jason asked; “Are you poverty-stricken?” out of nowhere.
Instead he can say “If I was you I’d start looking for a new fridge.”
To which Tracy could reply; “Afraid that’s not an option at the moment.”
This tells us Tracy is short of money, but we arrived there in a natural way that makes sense within the world of our story. Best of all, we used interaction between characters and effective subtext to inform the audience of an important plot point.
Another useful piece of advice in avoiding exposition is to start your play as far as possible into the story.
In our fridge example, imagine how boring it would be if the play started on the day Tracy’s husband bought the fridge. Do we need to see Tracy loading groceries into that fridge for a year before it breaks?
No. Firstly, that would be insanely dull. Secondly, the audience will automatically make the assumption that the fridge has been well used. All the food piled up on the counter is one clue, then there’s Tracy’s frustration at losing the fridge; it’s obviously important to her.
We don’t even begin the story at the moment the fridge breaks. This has been skipped over, yet because of the exposition we know the fridge broke yesterday. We assume Tracy probably noticed the puddle of water on the kitchen floor and traced it back to the fridge.
Always remember people are happy to be a little confused as they watch a play as long as they feel the plot is moving forward. If you make it clear we’re headed somewhere interesting, and you answer the most burning questions at some point before the end, you’ll keep your audience engaged.
Start the story late and only tell the audience what they need to know when they need to know it.
Lastly, always leave them wanting more.
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