What is exposition dialogue?
Let's firstly look at the word - exposition.
The dictionary says exposition is, 'a comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory.'
In film terms, this means that elements of your story are directly explained to the audience.
In the world of film directly explaining something to your audience doesn't come across very well.
It is always preferable to SHOW rather than TELL.
We've talked about the importance of having characters SHOW their emotions rather than TELLING them.
It is far better to SEE John being angry rather than John say, 'Damn it, I'm angry as hell.'
It comes down to the subtly of performance.
When a character acts in an over the top way their performance feels unrealistic.
Why is this?
Think about real life.
The majority of people don't directly say what their emotions are, they infer it. Their mood changes to reflect the way they're feeling.
Exposition dialogue divides into two parts.
1) PERSONALITY TRAITS
2) PLOT POINTS
It is always preferable to SEE all the important plot points of a story than have a character explain what just happened.
Audiences want to SEE the story unfold before their eyes, they don't want to be TOLD something by a character.
There's a great example in Aliens.
Near the beginning of the film, Ripley says to someone that she has experience using the power-loader unloading cargo.
That's expositional dialogue as it is a character TELLING us something about the story.
Later on, we SEE Ripley using the power-loader to unload some cargo.
Then, in the climax of the film, Ripley uses the power-loader to fight the alien.
Had we not SEEN Ripley using the power-loader it wouldn't have made as much sense later on when we see her using it to fight the alien.
The dialogue where we're TOLD she has experience using the power-loader is really easy to miss.
Expositional dialogue often stands in place of flashbacks.
Flashbacks really should be avoided in film.
Because a flashback puts the story in the present on hold.
As a storyteller is it your job to ALWAYS MOVE THE STORY FORWARD.
Go to the script you're working on at the moment and go through scene by scene.
Firstly, identify all the instances where you have a character TELLING rather than SHOWING.
Secondly, divide the TELLS into 1) CHARACTER TRAITS and 2) PLOT POINTS.
WHAT ARE CHARACTER TRAITS? (CT)
CT are the make-up of each character's personality.
Each character will have little quirks that make them unique.
What is each character's temperament? How do they react under pressure? Are they benevolent, or are they selfish? Are they kind or nasty? Etc... etc...
Anywhere in your script that you have a character trait being TOLD to the audience, you must delete and replace with an ACTION that SHOWS this character trait.
That's the first part of cleaning exposition from your script.
Now comes the slightly harder process.
Cleaning out plot point exposition.
Plot points are beats in your story. EVENTS.
It is always far better to SEE an event rather than have a character TELL it.
Imagine the difference between SEEING a murder take place, vs having a character run into a bar and yell to anyone that's listening, 'Someone just got killed out in the alley!'
The difference should be obvious.
To see something first-hand is far more impactful than hearing about it from an intermediary.
Go to all the instance you have where you TELL an event rather than see it and delete that dialogue, replacing it with THE ACTUAL EVENT.
For a lot of people, this process will be very difficult.
For some people, it will completely change their script.
If you find that you have a script that has a lot of EVENT BASED EXPOSITION, then you might need to go back to page 1 and look at the WAY you tell your story.
A small amount of event based exposition is fine. But if you find that you have event based exposition more than three or four times in your script, you really need to go back to square one and reconsider the WAY in which you are telling your story.
A great example of event-based exposition that really works in a film - is in JAWS.
The scene where Quint tells Brody and Hooper about his experience with sharks when the Indianapolis went down in shark-infested waters.
It would have taken away from the moment to film that monologue as a flashback. It would have also cost a huge amount of money.
In this instance, there's no other way for us to KNOW why Quint is obsessed with killing sharks. Until now, that aspect of his personality has been a MYSTERY.
Here, just before the final showdown with Jaws, we understand why Quint is the way he is by way of plot point exposition dialogue.
This is one of the ONLY moments in Jaws where there is plot point exposition dialogue.
The rest of the story unfolds before our eyes.
There are instances where we are TOLD that Brody has a fear of water, which is character trait exposition dialogue - but we are also SHOWN his fear of water multiple times.
THE BEST WAY TO USE EXPOSITIONAL DIALOGUE.
Firstly, there really should be no instance in your dialogue where you have one character tell another character about a personality trait of any of your characters.
There's no excuse not to SHOW personality traits.
The only exposition you should be writing in dialogue are events that are critically important to understanding the present story line, where you can find no other way to SHOW that event.
Just say you have two characters working together on a heist.
A third character is engaged to work on the heist, but there is a huge amount of tension between one of the first two characters and this third character.
Finally, the other character asks, 'What's up between you guys?'
In this instance you have two choices, you can either go into a flashback to show what happened in their past that is the cause of the tension, or you can have the other character simply say, 'we had a falling out over a deal that went sour.' - or something to that effect.
I would suggest you use plot point exposition dialogue like this only if it is IMPERATIVE to understanding the present storyline.
Here's another test for you...
EXPOSITION DIALOGUE TEST...
Go to the script you're working on at the moment.
It should now be completely free of any instance where you have exposition dialogue talking about character traits.
Look at the instances where you have exposition plot points in dialogue.
DELETE the first one.
Now read the scene.
Does it still make sense?
Quite often you will find that exposition dialogue that tells about previous plot points can be deleted without it altering the story.
You will often find that by deleting the exposition plot point dialogue you will create mystery.
Think about our example used above - the three guys on a heist but there's tension between two of the guys.
Once you know WHY there's tension there's no longer any mystery surrounding that subject.
If you delay answering that question you have created a mystery that will keep the audience guessing.
Remember - MYSTERY IS A POWERFUL STORY ENGINE.
Unanswered questions will keep your audience engaged.