Exposition is nothing more than crucial information needed to understand the story. In the old days, stage plays used to begin with two servants talking to each other. This stilted conversation existed solely to provide exposition such as:
MAID: You know Jennifer, our employer for the past 25 years, is still mourning the death of her son who drowned in the ocean three years ago.
BUTLER: That’s why Robert, Jennifer’s husband, has been working at the office late every night. Neither one of them can face the empty bedroom where their son, Billy, once slept and played the violin since he was ten.
Notice how such clumsy dialogue serves no purpose other than to provide exposition to the audience. However, it fails to do that very well because just telling the audience once makes it easy to immediately forget that information seconds later because the exposition was delivered in such a poor manner.
A far better way to provide exposition is either through action or as an aside that forces the audience to conclude what’s going on. This makes the exposition both interesting and memorable.
For example, every James Bond movies often opens with James Bond showing off his skill in fighting off bad guys. This immediately lets us know that James Bond is a formidable fighter who relies on both his wits and his fighting skills to defeat his enemies.
Often times action reveals something about a character that foreshadows that character’s future. The opening scene in “Rocky” immediately tells us that Rocky is a boxer. Since he’s fighting in a dingy arena, it also tells us he’s probably not a very good boxer. While fighting his opponent, Rocky is getting beaten.
Only when his opponent cheats by head butting Rocky does Rocky show his true character by fighting back and ultimately winning. In that short scene, we know who Rocky is and what he’s capable of doing.
Compare this with a dry dialogue from another character who might simply comment that Rocky is a poor boxer but has a lot of heart and determination. Just telling us this exact same information is deathly dull and ultimately forgettable. Yet, that’s what novice screenwriters do all the time.
Novices often cram exposition in their character’s dialogue to the point where it’s not only unnatural and stilted, but also completely forgettable as well. Action is a great way to reveal exposition. Having a character tell us something is not.
Besides action, a second crucial way to use exposition is to toss is out as an aside, almost as if it doesn’t really matter.
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones has just survived deadly traps and escaped from an army of natives. Yet he’s most frightened when he spots a snake in the plane.
Initially that information seems to exist solely for humor, but later in the story, Indiana Jones has to retrieve a treasure that’s guarded by thousands of poisonous snakes. Seeing all these snakes is scary enough, but once we know that Indiana Jones is frightened of snakes, that makes his task of getting past the snakes to get the treasure even more tense and engaging.
So don’t tell us exposition through dialogue. Use action or use an aside that’s briefly memorable but crucial later in the story. By doing that, you can keep your dialogue free to reveal character’s emotions and goals rather than provide exposition that sounds phony and stilted.