Let's take a second to think of a critical component of story telling.
“Now I am going to tell you something,” the narrator of a play says to the audience, “something just between us...”
The narrator here is explaining certain parts of the story to us, to help us travel across time or geography, to expose a story theory or a character’s point of view. Actors do not usually do this directly. The director has given the actors their backstory. They are already aware of what inspires the story events and their behaviors. Each actor’s job is to play a role, not engage beyond the stage unless specifically directed to momentarily break that fourth wall—the space between them and the audience— and give us all a heads up. No, it is generally the writer’s job to do this. The writer finds ways to fill the audience in on backstory and gaps with something called ‘exposition,’ which can be quite direct, like this:
Howard, an unfulfilled history teacher at a school he had attended in his youth, was having a hard time getting his students to participate in class.
The same message can be delivered in another way, too, one that makes us solve a riddle or complete a picture, like this:
“In winter months, from his seat in the middle desk of the middle row, Howard used to look out the window of the History Room and watch the whole school go up in flames. The rugby pitches, the basketball court, the car park and the trees beyond—for one beautiful instant everything would be engulfed and though the spell was quickly broken—the light deepening and reddening and flattening out, leaving the school and its environs intact—you would know at least that the day was almost over.
Today he stands at the head of the class: the wrong angle and the wrong time of year to view the sunset. He knows, however, that fifteen minutes remain on the clock, and so, pinching his nose, sighing imperceptibly, he tries again. ‘Come on, now. The main protagonists. Just the main ones. Anybody?’”
-- Paul Murray, Skippy Diesi
As a student at the school, Howard would look out the window and imagine the sunset reflections burning the school down. As the teacher, this level of distraction was less an option, but he was still as eager to be somewhere, maybe anywhere else.
Exposition does not need to be long. It is enough if you can get your audience into the scene. For example, I could write that a character is not very observant or distracted. I could sit down and keyboard out the word ‘distracted,’ or I could try this:
‘Look!’ he said, on his sixth trip past the baby grand. ‘A piano!’
I can tell you that a character is accident-prone, or I could show you:
“I promise. I won’t crash the car again.”
Here I want to send a message that I am inconsiderate (or if I am usually considerate, I want to demonstrate that I am troubled):
I took the cellophane off the packaging and let it drop to the ground.
We can be direct in our explanations, and tell the audience what is going on. Sometimes we need to conserve word count that way. But more often than we realize, we can show backstory, feelings, perspectives, concepts, and themes through action and dialogue—or the lack of action and dialogue when we would be expect it. We can use dialogue, props, narration, flashback, music, movement, location, logistics, a description of the physical to suggest emotion, or the suggestion of an emotional state to describe a physical condition. We all know these. We see it in movies all the time. Try to remember when you have seen or read some back story or motive, some glimpse of what is happening explained in all or in part, by:
Using any of the ideas above, try to describe a scene below.
The next time you listen to a story or watch a movie, make a list of exposition devices that impressed you. See if you can put into your own narrative. Offer enough fill to convince us that the bridge you want to take us across is secure. And go easy on the lecture. Trial lawyers are taught to never let a jury see that the lawyer is mad, not until the lawyer knows that the jury is now upset, too. The best exposition never looks like exposition, never seems forced. Lecturing—what I’m doing right now—rarely gets a point across as well as setting a scene and inviting your audience in to experience the events. I hope the above table did that for you. Check out the table again, and explore how you can use action and context as a way to explain what has, is, and will happen.
As always, feel free to share your results with me. CB
i Paul Murray, Skippy Dies, (New York, Faber and Faber, Inc., 2010)
From This Sentence is a Joke, by Catherine Berlin © 2016. All rights reserved.