Ever wondered how to inject great exposition seamlessly and unobtrusively into your story? Here are five techniques to help you do just that!
TECHNIQUE 1: Emotion as Camouflage.
One way to camouflage information is by pulling at your audience’s heartstrings. This is how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does it, and does it brilliantly. The film introduces us to Joel and Clementine, who have had their painful memories erased. As their memories are rubbed out one by one, emotions take center stage, rendering the exposition less intrusive.
EXAMPLE SCENES: We see Joel and Clementine being initially happy together. Then, as they begin to argue and confront the erasure process, we learn about their troubled history. Their emotional rollercoaster uncovers their past without the need for dry exposition.
You see, emotion is an effective way to capture the audience’s attention while you convey essential information. Additionally, transmitting backstory through your characters’ feelings and reactions avoids spoon-feeding your audiences.
TECHNIQUE 2: Layer Information.
Next, let’s look at how to Layer information. It might sound complex, but it’s a game-changer for exposition. Here again, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a masterclass in how to use this technique. The film employs a Multiform or non-linear narrative structure, presenting fragments of the story out of order.
To apply this to your own writing, reveal exposition in drips and drabs, and out of chronological order, if suitable. This approach keeps your audience engaged, eager to connect the dots in an attempt to comprehend the bigger picture. Indeed, this layered approach to writing exposition increases our need to figure out what is happening in the story—it becomes the very point of the tale. It hides in plain sight the fact that the entire story is about making sense of the backstory.
EXAMPLE SCENES: In the movie, we see glimpses of Joel and Clementine’s relationship at different stages, forcing us to piece together the story’s puzzle. This non-linear approach beautifully unpacks their past, making it more captivating and suspenseful.
TECHNIQUE 3: Use Objects as Memory Triggers, symbols and metaphors.
Remember that old trinket you found in your attic, which suddenly brought back a flood of memories? In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, objects serve as memory triggers. Joel revisits key moments by interacting with his fading memories.
EXAMPLE SCENE: When Joel finds a forgotten Valentine’s card, it takes him back to a cherished moment with Clementine. The card becomes a powerful symbol, unlocking emotions and memories that had been erased.
Employ objects in your own stories to trigger the memories of characters and reveal exposition. Objects offer a unique and relatable way to convey the past and connect your readers and audiences to the characters on a deeper level.
TECHNIQUE 4: Keep exposition short.
Brevity is key. Consider the film Arrival, where the backstory of the extraterrestrial visitors unfolds through subtle clues and linguistic exploration of alien modes of communication, encouraging your audience to use its imagination and critical thinking to make sense of the story.
“Exposition, although necessary in providing essential information to readers and audiences, ought to be rendered deftly to avoid appearing heavy-handed and on-the-nose.”
TECHNIQUE 5: Distract through action:
As writers we know all about, Show-don’t–tell. This means that instead of merely informing the audience through direct dialogue, we should also strive to unveil our backstory through the actions and behavior of our characters.
In the film Unforgiven, a retired gunfighter, William Munny, now a down-and-out hog farmer, accepts a contract to kill a couple of ‘no good cowboys’, who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny is shown to be jaded, unable even to stay on a horse or hit a target with his gun. By contrast the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, the man Munny is up against, is a tough, formidable opponent who seems more than a match for the hog farmer. The looming clash between the two men—the core tension in the story, is set up through a masterful use of exposition rendered through small acts that reveal much of what we need to know about the plot and characters.
So there you have it then, five powerful techniques seen operating in three successful films.
Write great exposition by using emotion, layering information, using objects as memory triggers, being brief, and revealing backstory through action. These techniques will help to make your exposition more engaging, emotionally resonant, and memorable.