Exposition—how to write it

American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.
American Graffiti’s use of exposition is nothing short of masterful.

Exposition is a necessary part of any story. We must know certain facts about a character or event in order to make sense of the unfolding narrative. But an unskillful use of exposition can also slow the momentum of the story.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA gives several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration. This is a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. But the scene is too static—boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and catchy music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy diversions.

“In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino brilliantly weaves exposition into the forward thrust of the story. A Nazi officer interrogates a French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family under the very floorboards where the interrogation is taking place.”

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on cigars they step into the water and discuss things you’d expect to hear a gangster boardroom scene. By portraying the gangsters as fat old men in a pool, Tarantino allows the exposition to slip in surreptitiously. 

In these examples, context, mood, and necessary information are indeed relayed through exposition. The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer. The next three do so more skillfully. They insert subtext in the setting and dialogue to keep the audience engaged. 


Load exposition with subtext or make it part of the forward thrust of the story.


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2 thoughts on “Exposition—how to write it

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Surprise and suspense – this must serve the exposition of your narrative. exposition is defined as a comprehensive description and explanation. Thus you as writer have a very important choice to make : how do yo present information to the reader/character – do you write in first person or third person?

    In books first person and third person storytelling predetermines absolutely everything. If you are writing a murder mystery – do you write in first person from the charterers perspective where both the reader and character are presented with new information at the same time thus making more use of surprise.

    Or do you write third person where the reader has all the information of each character thus focusing on suspense as events unfold and motives are revealed .

    In short the success of the exposition of your narrative is predetermined by the story’s perspective.


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