In Defense of Exposition Dumps




Andrew and I got into an argument yesterday. We had just watched a preview screening of The Maze Runner at the always-excellent Alamo Drafthouse, and we both, for the most part, enjoyed it. There’s a lot of action, though I wish there was a bit more about the maze—besides the creepy-crawly-id-monsters, the maze didn’t feel too threatening. But that wasn’t my major problem with the movie, nor was it the point that Andrew and I disagreed upon. We didn’t quite see eye to eye over one of the biggest obstacles with genre fiction: exposition.

Exposition, as defined by me, is the pure information of the story. It’s when someone (character or narrator) directly gives the audience information about the world. Think Gandalf sitting in Frodo’s kitchen telling him about Isildor and the One Ring. Obi-Wan explaining The Force to that whiny blonde kid. Etc.

It is the driving force of scifi, fantasy, dystopias, mysteries, thrillers—basically anything that builds a world we are not intimately familiar with. It’s even there in something like The Fault In Our Stars, as Hazel’s world of cancer* is unfamiliar to most people and has to be described in some way. In other words, exposition is so very necessary in order to understand a world.

But there’s a problem with it, as with anything. I love it at times, and can tolerate a lot more than normal, but at some point there is just too much information. A writer might get so into telling you about this world that they neglect the story, because story isn’t information, it isn’t even about history, it’s about character. There’s talking about a character and stuff happening, and there is showing how that stuff happens and how the character reacts.

In The Maze Runner, you are delivered into the world in a great way. Kid wakes up in an elevator, is very confused. That’s it, zoom, right in there. Contrast this to opening with a monologue voiceover explaining shit, like in Divergent (and, to be fair, LOTR does it too, but it works. That’s a whole ‘nother post right there). It’s a cold open, which serves to put you right in the character’s shoes. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and neither do we.

This is where Andrew and I diverged. From this point on, there were too many direct question-answers for him. Thomas asked a question about the world around him, he got an answer (mostly). Andrew thought this was too much information, that it was too easy. The problem here is, there’s not much you could do as a writer besides giving this information. The best you can do is make it entertaining and layer in character moments.

If you are writing in this or any related genres, this is your only way out. You must give the audience information eventually, but you can’t overdo it. I thought The Maze Runner did a good job of feeding you a constant stream of exposition without really feeling like it. Questions arose naturally, as they should. If Thomas didn’t ask something obvious (Where the hell am I? Who the hell are you? What the hell is that creepy noise?) I would have lost it. And if the other characters did not at least attempt to give him clear answers, they’d be assholes and I’d accuse the writer of stalling. Amnesia is a hugantic cliché, but the movie kind of hangs a lantern on it and utilizes the form to inform the story’s direction, instead of simply as a device to make the story easier to sell. In this I’d put it in the positive category of “Stories that have amnesia as a plot point and don’t suck.” (Off the top of my head, other members are Memento and Chasm City).

While I understand Andrew’s frustration, that it could feel like an expo dump in delivering a lot of information in the first act, I never felt like it, because there were plenty of character moments. Thomas’s inherent (if a bit generic) heroism shines in his responses to the information—his curiosity about the maze, willingness to be a runner, going after Minho and Alby, etc.

The movie doesn’t do so well at the end. To me, the expo dump at the end, all about the (REDACTED FOR SPOILERZ) was too much stuff that did not serve the story. It had nothing really to do with what the characters went through. It may have explained the world more, but it clouded the story to me, which is not something you do at the end… unless you have a sequel lined up. Because money.

Andrew was fine with that. I don’t know why. You can ask him, I’m done with him and his stupid face for a while.

*Hazel’s World of Cancer: Worst Theme Park Ever.


cover3I have an unhealthy attachment to exposition dumps, because I really love genre. If you’re like me, you might enjoy my book Absent Hero, which has tons of geeky exposition. It also has a steampunk theme park, nerdy teens, pirates, a fox, and giant animatronic knights made of stone. Get it now for Kindle.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Exposition Dumps

  1. As always, that was enjoyable to read.
    I can take exposition when, as you said, it’s necessary and done appropriately. Then there are times when it’s just like… yeah, you writers didn’t bruise any brain cells coming up with that one, didja?

  2. The book ended in a way that had nothing to do with what they went through too. A lot of what you’ve said sounds like they may have stayed true to the book. Well in general ways. I’m not even sure I will go and see it. There are three in the series and each one is as different as the next.

    • I guess that’s a pitfall of series, or at least a certain kind of series. I’ve always preferred each segment of a series to have a cohesive story. That said, both Andrew and I were interested enough to want to pick up the book.

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