Exposition as ammunition – how to transform flat dialogue
Have you discovered exposition as ammunition? It’s one of the most powerful exposition techniques in creative writing, and is often used in dialogue. Here’s the lowdown and how to use it.
Exposition as ammunition examples
I first came across exposition as ammunition during drama rehearsals. A director used the phrase to describe a line of dialogue I’d written.
It was during the middle of an argument. The characters were digging up all sorts of awful accusations.
You go out. You don’t ring. Don’t leave a message.
Your eyes were out on stalks.
Although these phrases sound like straight accusations, they do another job, too.
They help to fill in backstory and past events.
In other words, exposition.
Exposition can be tricky. It’s the art of backstory – the context that happened before the story or scene began.
This may be relevant facts, such as:
The wife has a secret lover.
The husband is a butcher.
Their child lives with her grandmother because the parents can’t cope.
These background facts and bits of backstory are hard to convey in scriptwriting, which lives in the present.
The audience might need this information. But they can’t just have the characters say:
Deirdre – that’s your secret lover on the phone.
I’m just off to open up my butcher’s shop.
It’s so kind of grandma to look after Sarah. I so look forward to having our daughter back home.
or other clunky info-dumping lines. This kind of writing is highly expositional, or ‘on the nose’.
The “exposition as ammunition” technique can help you to bring out necessary backstory more naturally.
On-the-nose dialogue – clunky exposition
Those example are extreme, but what about these?
I’m just back from the garage.
It’s tough running a business.
In their own niggling ways, these are expositional and unnatural.
This kind of line often arises because the writer wants to join up dots, and put the audience in the picture. It’s often a sign that the writer lacks confidence or experience.
Audiences can usually work things out when left to their own devices. It’s often more engaging to leave imaginative gaps and questions for the audience to chew on.
So, experienced scriptwriting professionals try to avoid writing expositional dialogue where possible.
But sometimes, they may want to provide essential facts or backstory. Exposition as ammunition is a clever technique for sneaking it in under the radar.
So, how does it work?
Exposition as ammunition explained
“Exposition as ammunition” means disguising the information as an outburst or accusation.
Imagine a character so angry that they can’t help blurting out.
When they blurt, they might unleash what’s been bugging them for a long time:
Call yourself a leader?
Zooming around in a fancy car.
What’s your problem? You’ve got a house, a job, a pension. I’ve got nothing.
Three years I’ve been waiting for you to decide.
The outbursts help to disguise facts, backstory or off-screen action.
The factual information isn’t the main impulse of the line, so it isn’t prominent. But it still registers with the audience, and helps to build a picture.
How to use this:
When you’re editing your own dialogue, look out for any lines that shriek ‘exposition’. See if the same information can be conveyed using exposition as ammunition – whether as an outright outburst, or as gentle teasing or irony.
Tune your ear into exposition in dialogue by listening out for it when you watch films. What examples of disguised exposition can you spot? Do they lend themselves to exposition as ammunition?