Every story has to convey information to its viewer. Some stories are able to do it better than others, but all have to do it in order for the viewer to be able to understand what’s going on.
Let me start out by saying that exposition is NOT a bad thing. It’s a very necessary thing. But I’m here to give you some tips on how to convey important information in your stories besides just huge text dumps (which also don’t have to be bad, but can be a turn-off to viewers).
Show-don’t-tell what you can. When working with any medium, consider what bits of information you can express without having to say them out-loud. Let your story tell itself. You can show that Character A is suspicious of Character B through their actions or speech patterns. When a group finds a city, you can describe the condition of the city. Perhaps it’s falling apart? Perhaps it’s a futuristic paradise. Whatever the case, this makes the world more engaging. It gives the viewer more of the sense of experiencing the world rather than being told about it.
But keep in mind that you’re not a failure if you can’t find a way to convey information besides speech. In fact, if staged and written well enough, this can be extremely tense or interesting. In all things, balance is key. Viewers can get just as bored or annoyed by only having things shown to them. It’s actually a good idea to state (and sometimes re-state) important information, to be sure that everyone’s on the same page.
The main point I want to make here is that there are different ways to give exposition besides having characters just talk things out. But at the same time, this method can be very entertaining if done right. Variety is the spice of life.
Try to keep it short and spaced out. One thing you really have to try to avoid is front-loading your viewer with information. People can only digest so much information at a time, and if you give them too much too early, it becomes a chore to keep track of things.
The main example I can think of for this is Final Fantasy XIII. The game just jumps right into the world and within the first hour, starts throwing a ton of terms at you like fal’Cie, l’Cie, Sanctum, and Cocoon at you. There’s almost no time to actually get an understanding of what these terms mean, and many of them sound extremely similar. AND the world is very futuristic, so it needs to establish its rules and, well, world. (This is also an example of how you can show too much and tell too little)
You do NOT want to confuse your viewers right off the bat. No one wants to have to keep a checklist of characters, meanings and backstory. You might know every little detail of the world, but your viewers don’t. Try to take things a little slow with the exposition. Divide it up. Give setup for important stuff, and then gradually expand on it as the story goes on. This makes it alot easier to take in the information.
Figure out a realistic reason in-universe to need to explain things. This is a minor pet-peeve of mine. One thing that bothers me in some series is characters explaining things that they would already know. Obviously, this is for the sake of the audience, and a very necessary aspect. But that said, try to create a realistic reason for characters needing to explain things. Think about things in terms of the characters; would you spend five minutes explaining the history of the rival army to your fellow soldier on the way to fight them? If your characters would know the information, they wouldn’t explain it unless it’s required of them. I’ll give some examples on both reasons and ways to give exposition realistically.
- Introduction. One of the more common methods I see for delivering information to the viewer is by having some scene or explanation outside of the main story. Think of the intro credits to Star Wars. This works as a great way to tell the most important information before the story has begun proper. This usually includes establishing the world and what’s going on.
While you might be tempted to just jump into your story and begin telling it that way, this can be just as effective if done right. It’ll also help avoid having to spend more time in the story establishing things.
On the other hand, don’t get carried away with this. Remember, you don’t want to overload your viewer on details right off the bat. If you’re using an introduction to frame your story, it’s best that it just include the most important bits: the who, what, when, where, why kind of stuff.
Get creative with it if you can. In more visual mediums, use this as a chance to have something interesting to look at to help tell the story.
- The Newbie. When a story really needs a reason to tell the audience something, it often employs use of a character that is perhaps new to what is happening. A traveler unfamiliar with a new land, or a new recruit in a massive military unit. These characters are going to need someone to explain things to them, and, by extension, tell the audience these things as well.
The nice thing is that the “Newbie” can be any character that will be around the main group. It doesn’t just have to be the protagonist that needs everything explained to them. In Doctor Who, the Doctor often knows much about what is going on around him, but he usually has a companion that needs things explained to them.
A “newbie” character often also functions as an every-man; a character that the audience should theoretically be able to most able to relate to. This can, unconsciously or otherwise, make the audience attach themselves (so to speak) to that character, and become more invested in the world.
- Amnesia. Ok, I’ll admit it; amnesia is a pretty big cliche. Often, if a writer can’t find a way to insert a “newbie” character, this is the next choice they make as a way to need exposition delivered; taking a character who WOULD have knowledge of the world and people around them, but then taking it away.
Often, this also works as a way to incorporate a mystery into the story as well as a method for getting characters to explain things. I’m personally of the mind that, even if something is considered cliched, that doesn’t make it bad by default. Even if you use some cliches, you can easily still end up making an interesting story.
- A big event. You can always start things off with some big event that will have a character (or characters) going over important details. Perhaps the story opens in a space center orbiting a new planet, where the speaker is taking about the new life-creating device or whatever. Some sort of gathering can give you a good chance for exposition, as well as beginning to develop other important aspects, such as certain characters or plot-points.
- “Oh, you know”. ”Ah yes, Krepinvail’s Disease. For the 40 years or so of study that has been done, there hasn’t been very much progress…” When characters talk about something other characters probably already know about (for the sake of the viewer), you can still make it realistic. Your viewer likely won’t get too bothered by a little bit of rambling on a subject. Now, if that above sentence went on for 4 more paragraphs, obviously they’ll catch on.
But you can still use this even if you want to exchange more information. Characters can talk back and forth, supposedly checking and making sure they’re both up to speed. And that’s just one possibility.
More than likely, as long as you keep the conversation interesting, your viewer won’t even mind the exposition.
- Humor. If you’ll let me to toot my own horn for a moment, I’ll give you an example from my own comics about how I delivered exposition.
At first, this just seems like a humorous exchange between two characters. But, you’ll notice that the dialogue is establishing important details about the character, Simon. While I could have just said that stuff outright (the he’s a time traveler, or that his time machine is broken), I managed to “hide” this information in the form of a joke.
What I’m trying to say here is to try and be creative with this stuff. Use all of the tools at your disposal to give information and tell a story. Even humor can work. You could have a humorous scene where a character refuses to give any information about his past, but immediately does so once drunk.
Mix things up. Use all of the different methods you can.
- It’s ok to just explain things, you know. It’s not a writing sin to just explain things that need explaining. As fun as it is to dress things up in different ways, at the end of the day, you just want to tell your audience certain information. Don’t panic about every bit of dialogue being some carefully crafted piece that establishes something. If you need to explain something, it’s ok to just explain it. Think about stories yourself. Are you really going to hold it against someone for needing to explain something? I should hope not. It’s certainly a lot better than them not explaining things at all.
This is the final point I wish to get across. Exposition is very important. Your viewers are going to need information. Even if you have every single last detail explained and understood in your mind, your audience doesn’t have that luxury.
Find a friend or just someone who isn’t familiar with your story and have them see if they can understand whatever important information you need to get across. If not, ask what needs more clarification. As important as it is to get your words down, it’s just as important to have someone who isn’t you read through your story and make sure it makes sense.
All of these are just some of the examples I could come up with for delivering information to your viewer (and reasons to have a need to do so in the story). Feel free to add others if you think of any.