There is a singular phrase repeated in classrooms across the country. From English 101 to Advanced Theories in Existential Enueui, professors espouse the same basic tenet again and again: Show, don't tell.
This is a common idiom in the writing world. Essentially, it means that you--the writer--should explore your story through action rather than exposition. Have your characters do things rather than simply talk about doing things.
A great example of this comes from John Wick. I the film, we are told that John Wick is some sort of legendary bad ass. He's a serious player in the game, and we are meant to know that early on. So, in one scene, a mechanic character (John Leguizamo) smacks the son of a mob boss just for stealing John's car. Later, the mechanic receives an angry phone call from the boss. Leguizamo calmly explains that the dumb kid stole John Wick's car, and we get a sudden break from the tension as the mob boss mumbles out, "Oh."
It's a little comedic, but it is also very telling of character. We can see, from the trappings of the mafia leader, he is not a man with whom to trifle. He is a mob boss, and woe-be-tide any that mess with his family. But even he is stunned at the name "John Wick."
That's pretty solid.
In the very next scene, however, we are TOLD a lot about John in order to set up everything else that is to come in the movie. It's a little bit of an info dump, but we accept it because it is so well-written and awesome.
But that is not always the case.
When writing a movie, this type of expository dialogue can work. If you reveal little bits of information here and there, it can elevate the universe of the movie to a higher plane. Then again, you can have movies like Maze Runner, where every other line of dialogue exists to explain the other lines of dialogue.
Writing prose is a different ballgame. The definitions of "show" and "tell" are different. You have to demonstrate character and universe with a deft hand, otherwise the pacing can be thrown for a loop.
One of the most popular forms of prose out there--young adult novels--constantly breaks the rule on information dumps. How else could they POSSIBLY get readers to understand the complex dystopian future-pasts they're trying to create?
So how can you avoid these pitfalls? How do you build a universe and characters without shoveling pages of exposition all over your audience? Well, let's try a little exercise.
Helix 949 was an asteroid out in the Gamma Sector, a few hundred astronomical units--AU--from Earth. Like most places outside of the jurisdiction of the Central Planetary Authority, crime was rampant. Sure, a few CPA officers patrolled the tiny station, causing problems wherever they went, but most of the real authority came from the enforcers of the local gangs. The Solar Boys were one such group, and Tommy had been itching to join them since he was a kid. Now, at 16, he was finally old enough to join. But first, he had to get through an initiation, which wouldn't be easy. Tommy was Earthborne, which meant the strange gravity of Helix 949 never quite sat right with his heavy bones and planetside mindset. But, nevertheless, Tommy set out to join the Solar Boys the only way he knew how: He was going to have to kill a cop!
Wasn't that just awful? Don't you feel violated?
The reason that passage fails is simple: It made you feel like I, the author, didn't trust you. In fact, it made you think that I was talking down to you. That's the truth about heavy exposition. It is used when the writer doesn't trust the audience to figure things out.
As an author or screenwriter, you have to develop trust with your audience. They need to believe you control the flow of information in the story, and you need to believe they can read between the lines with your characters. If you fail to earn trust, then they'll stop reading or watching. If you fail to trust, then you end up writing Twilight, and every character wastes half their dialogue explaining their emotional state.
Let's go back to that passage, but let's trust the audience to read between the lines.
Tommy bit his thumb and stared at the clock. 1655. Almost time to go. He glanced furtively between the patrons of the open market, eyeing each person with suspicion. CPA knew better than to walk this station in uniform, but there was always a chance one of the lawmen was around in plainclothes. Tommy idly massaged the back of his neck, remembering the bruise from his last run-in with the Central Planet jackoffs.
1658. He double-checked his watch against the glowing yellow display over the market, just under the massive banner that read "Helix Welcomes Central Guests!" Yeah right. The station was a hub, that was for sure, but for Outliers. Tommy could glance in a dozen directions and see puddles of blood and piss from where a Central tourist had met with Outlier hospitality.
"Yo, Tommy!" Julio sauntered over, clapping Tommy's shoulder and pulling him in for a quick hug. The gesture was formal and stiff. "You ready for this?"
"I think so."
Julio laughed. "Just don't trip over them heavy bones, Earthborne. You do this, and I'll vouch for you. Square as square."
Tommy glanced down in his hand, surprised by the weight of the small blade Julio had delivered. It wasn't his to keep, he knew that much. The crusted blood of a dozen lawmen stained the silver handle. He'd need to add to the collection if he wanted to earn his stars. Tommy stole a peek at Julio's gold and silver ink, eyeing the mark of the Solar Boys with open jealousy.
"You sure you're up for this?" Julio asked. "Ain't no coming back."
"I know," Tommy said. "I'm ready."
How was that? Not perfect, I know, but I'm making this stuff up as I go along. But you get the idea. I still expanded on a history for this universe. The same information made it from my brain to yours, but with a little more attitude.
What are some examples of bad exposition that you remember? What about good exposition? Take a scene from a movie that irked you, that talked down to you, and rewrite it in a more active voice.
And post that below!
Until next time, everyone, KEEP WRITING!