On Exposition

This is from a book on screenwriting by Robert McKee, but applies also to picturebooks. I’m surprised at how much it sounds like that terrible dating book written for women The Rules. (I saw the authors on Oprah years ago.)

  • Parse out exposition bit by bit though the entire story.
  • You can reveal exposition well into the climax of the last ‘act’.
  • Never include anything the reader can reasonably and easily assume has happened.
  • Only tell the reader things that would only cause confusion if left out.
  • You keep a reader’s interest not by offering them information but by withholding it.
  • Don’t write ‘California Scenes’. California scenes are when two characters who’ve just met each other sit down and talk everything through. If you’re familiar with the stereotypical Californian modern film (e.g. The Kids Are All Right) then you’ll know that Californians are renowned for talking everything through.
  • Don’t write ‘table dusting’ scenes. In old plays, exposition was often handled by two maids dusting, while one maid told the other about the master of the house. These days, telling without motivation or conflict isn’t accepted by an audience (though we still sometimes see it).
  • Don’t bring in a flashback until you’ve created in the audience a need and a desire to know.
  • There’s only one good reason for voice over narration: counterpoint. Woody Allen is the master of counterpoint narration. (And in picturebooks, if the words simply describe the pictures, then you’re in trouble.)
  • Respect the intelligence and sensitivity of your audience.