Show, Don’t Tell: The Problem of Exposition

If you’ve ever dabbled in writing fiction, then you’ve probably encountered the problem of exposition, often called laying pipe. “Show, don’t tell,” the ubiquitous advice goes, for novelists as well as screenwriters. The idea behind that instruction is simple: the audience believes more easily in ideas it constructs from visual and auditory clues than it does in ideas the author presents directly. Take the following example:

“The body of a woman lies on the floor, blood soaking the front of her shirt. Over her stands another woman. Perhaps you notice a certain family resemblance between the two, or perhaps you are too focused on the shock and fear in the second woman’s eyes. She takes a step back. The still smoking gun slips from her hand. As it falls, you observe a discolored patch of skin on her third finger from where a wedding ring was recently removed.”

Clichés aside, this passage is nevertheless far more interesting and believable than simply saying, “A woman shot her sister, but she meant to shoot her husband.” The passage actively involves the audience in the story by showing us a number of details and then allowing us to come up with the correct solution for ourselves. That extra involvement creates a much more immersive and believable experience, because we as audience members become complicit in the illusion. Show, don’t tell.

But this simple piece of advice can sometimes seem like a Catch-22. How do you show backstory? How do you lay out the rules of a fantasy world, express a character’s motivation, or reveal the villain’s secret plot without simply telling the audience what you want us to know? How, in short, do you handle exposition?

This is not a dilemma isolated to young writers like myself, either. Many successful writers today seem to run into the exact same problem. Any time you go to the theater it’s a safe bet that you’ll hear a great deal of exposition forced out of the mouth of one character or another. Character A might take time out from a busy conversation to tell us what he is feeling and thinking. Character B might find a handy group of ignorants to explain some key features of the world to. And the villain, having captured Character C and strung her up by her left big toe, will very likely decide to put off killing her just long enough to set us straight on his evil plan. Dialogue like this, used almost exclusively for exposition, slows down the pace of the narrative. The filmmakers are essentially taking a time-out from the story to tell us what we need to know. Worse, this kind of exposition is boring. There’s no conflict in it, only details. And details yield precious little in the way of emotional energy. The author is telling us the story, not showing it to us.

But that leaves writers with a problem. How do we explain everything the audience needs to know – that vital piece of backstory, the villain’s one weakness, and so on and so forth – without simply shoving it out through our characters’ throats?

The solution to that dilemma lies at the very heart of storytelling: conflict. Remember that “showing” does not exclusively mean presenting information in a visual manner. If it did, Shakespeare’s plays would have fallen on deaf ears, the talkie films would have died faster than Smell-O-Vision, and modern storytelling would look a lot more like pantomime. “Show, don’t tell,” simply means that we shouldn’t tell our readers and viewers what to think. We should give them the tools they need to reach the correct conclusions for themselves.

When it comes to exposition, that means that we can present information through dialogue. But that dialogue needs to push the story forward at the same time. It needs to be grounded in conflict. Put another way, if a piece of exposition is important enough to tell the audience, then it must be important to the characters and the conflicts between them. Therefore, the best way to express that information is to follow the characters through that aspect of their conflict, allowing the information to come out naturally, whether through subtext or confrontation. Exposition is thereby subsumed into action. Better still, it is conveyed almost without our conscious awareness, allowing the audience to take a far more active role in the story.

In my next post I’ll show how this principle works in action by comparing a scene in an earlier draft of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to the final version we all know and love. In the meantime, I challenge you to look for exposition whenever you find yourself watching a film or a television show. Ask yourself, “Is this information being presented solely for my benefit? Or is it an essential part of the dynamic between the characters?” If the answer to the first question is “yes,” then ask yourself how the filmmakers might have repackaged that same information within the story’s conflicts. If “no,” think about how the filmmakers use that information to draw you further into the lives of the characters. 

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