What is Exposition?

One of the most difficult things to do well in writing is to integrate exposition (essential information without which the reader/audience is lost), in a way that maintains the momentum of your story. Halting the narrative flow in order to provide a detailed background about a character or event is sure to lose you momentum. Yet, supplying detailed information is often unavoidable. The usual way to establish back-story, reveal plot, and explain character motivation, is by way of dialogue, whether directly through declaration, or indirectly through hint, implication, and subtext. Sometimes, however, these techniques are either too delicate, or not delicate enough, to carry the full burden of information. Dramatizing exposition by tying it to a structurally important event such as an inciting incident, turning point, or a character reveal, is one way of ensuring that forward momentum is maintained.

Inglorious Basterds

In Inglorious Basterds, a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) reputation of ruthlessness and Machiavellian intelligence is essential in building him up as a fearsome Nazi antagonist. The inciting incident occurs when Colonel Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa quizzes the dairy farmer, monsieur LaPadite (Denis Menochet) about the possible whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, claiming this to be the last step before he closes the book on their case. While the interrogation provides an ideal opportunity for exposition, Tarantino’s handling of it is nothing short of masterful. In having Colonel Landa ask that LaPadite sketch-in the Colonel’s own background, Tarantino infuses the scene with additional tension, irony, and ramps up the stakes — all without interrupting the forward thrust of the story:

Landa: Now, are you aware of the job I’ve been ordered to carry out?
LaPadite: Yes.
Landa: Please tell me what you’ve heard.
LaPadite: I’ve heard that the Fuhrer has put you in charge of rounding up Jews left in
France who are either hiding, or passing as Gentile.
Landa: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Are you aware of the nickname the people of France have given me?
LaPadite: I have no interest in such things.
Landa: But you are aware of what they call me?
LaPadite: I am aware.
Landa: What are you aware of?
LaPadite: That they call you, “The Jew Hunter”.
Landa: Precisely. I understand your trepidation in repeating it (…). Now I on the
other hand, love my unofficial title, precisely because I’ve earned it.

Landa’s dialogue reveals that he is a cunning interrogator, entrusted by the Fuhrer to ferret out Jewish families hiding in France. His pride in his job is obvious. This is a man who enjoys manipulating, hunting, and killing — an antagonist whose back-story makes him a worthy opponent for any protagonist. In designing the exposition in this manner, Tarantino accomplishes several things:

1. He transforms the mere flow of background information into dramatic irony by forcing LaPadite, who is afraid for his family, to talk about the feared and hated Landa in neutral terms.
2. It provides important information about Landa’s job in France, and the reason for his being in LaPadite’s house.
3. He establishes Landa’s reputation as the Fuhrer’s feared henchman.
4. Finally, it allows him to illustrate Landa’s vanity in his own reputation, deepening and colouring the Colonel’s character.

Summary

Exposition should be much more than the mere communicator of background information. Crafted well, it is an opportunity to deepen character, contextualize plot, and move the story forward.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or have any questions regarding it, please drop me a line in the comment section and let’s get chatting.

3 thoughts on “What is Exposition?

  1. Russ Welsh

    Sorry it’s taken so long for me to post a comment, Stavros. I wasn’t scared to do so, just wasn’t sure what exactly to say. And I guess the only thing I can say… about the topic of exposition… is that humour can also act as a great way to expose characters and plot points. For example, you mentioned Inglourious Basterds and how Colonel Landa delivered exposition. But what you didn’t mention, and I assume you meant to but it didn’t fit in with your overall thesis, was that later on in the film Aldo the Apache argues with the British Officer over “fighting in a basement”. Something Brad Pitt’s character has some very real concerns about. His dialogue is delivered in a comedic manner but the underlying tones are quite ominous. It paves way for the violence that will ensue between the Nazis and the Basterds mere moments from the scene. Or, another example would be the Basterds’ failed attempt at appearing Italian to Colonel Landa. Pitt’s accent is a dead giveaway and it adds a lot of humour to the scene but, again, something ominous is lying underneath. If the Basterds are caught, they will be killed. When we hear Pitt deliver his lines, it is obvious he is American and… thus… the audience already knows they will be caught.

    Reply
  2. Shea Moir

    My screenplay is coming up quick, This is all relevant… And I think I have used my dialogue well… we will see… Thanks Stavros

    Reply

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