When to Provide Exposition and Backstory

In the old days of Victorian-style stage plays, a butler and maid would come on stage and set a table while chatting among themselves about the problems of the main characters. This was purely to provide exposition on what the story was about and who was involved. Then the butler and maid would disappear, never to be seen again. Their sole purpose was to provide exposition and nothing more.

Don’t do this.

The traditional way of storytelling is to provide exposition first and then start the action, but if you do that (especially in a screenplay), your story bogs down before anyone can even care. Don’t start your screenplay with exposition. Instead, dump the audience right in the middle of something compelling and let them try to figure out what’s going on.

In “Fargo,” we’re introduced to a man meeting two strangers in a bar and they’re upset because he’s late. This meeting seems rather ordinary until we learn that the man wants to meet the two men so they can kidnap his wife. Suddenly this is interesting although we don’t know exactly what’s going on. Yet because this opening grabbed our attention, now we’re willing to learn more about the tory and that’s when exposition can slowly be leaked into the story. Once you know that the man wants two men to kidnap his wife, we’re willing to find out why and who all of these men might be.

The key is not to dump exposition in one lump but to trickle it out to tease the audience and make them work to getting this information. Once you’ve hooked them, they’ll eagerly want to know more.

Even bad movies know how to grab an audience initially and then trickle out the exposition later. In “The 5th Wave,” the hero is scavenging for supplies in a devastated convenience store. Right away we have no idea why she needs to find supplies, why the area has been devastated, or who might be a threat. When we see the hero face a wounded boy and kill him, now we’re hooked on learning more.

Just remember that the very first scene of Act I may not always show the main battle right away. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero simply moves to an unfamiliar world and that’s when he runs into the villain, who beats him up. That foreshadows the final battle in the end, but it doesn’t come right away.

Each Act needs to focus on telling a different part of the story like this:

  • Act I — Dump us in the middle of a problem that mirror the larger conflict of the story
  • Act IIa — Provide the exposition needed to understand the story
  • Act IIb — Give us the backstory
  • Act III — Give us the finale that’s a bigger battle than the opening scene

Act I needs to grab the audience right away by showing us a mini-convict that mirrors the larger battle that will come in the end. In the beginning of “Star Wars,” Darth Vader is trying to capture Princess Leia’s starship. In the end, Darth Vader is trying to blow up the rebel base that Princess Leia is on.

Act IIa can take time to give us exposition. This is when the story slows down a bit so we can learn who the main characters are and what they want. In “Star Wars” this is where we learn more about who Obi-wan, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader are.

Act IIb is where we learn more about backstory of the main characters. In “Star Wars,” this is where we learn that Obi-wan once taught Darth Vader. In “The Karate Kid,” this is where we learn that the hero’s mentor (his karate teacher) is still trying to overcome a painful past where he lost his wife. This backstory is crucial becomes it helps us understand the main characters more. More importantly, the writer must know the backstory of the main characters to better understand their actions and goals from the beginning.

Act III is the finale where the hero battles the villain in a fight similar to the opening fight scene in the beginning.

The key is to grab the audience’s attention right away. Then worry about explaining what’s going on. Then give us the backstory so we can better understand everything that happened earlier.

If you give the exposition too soon, you’ll bore the audience. If you fail to give any hints of the backstory in Act IIb, then your story will fail to engage the audience because they won’t have any idea why anything is happening.

So exposition and backstory are crucial. Just make sure you grab our attention first or nobody will ever care about the rest of your story, no matter how fascinating it may be.

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