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When writing fiction, especially in universes other than our own such as sci-fi/fantasy genres, the reader often has to be given a piece of information about how the world works in order for what's coming up to make sense. However, this piece of information should be common knowledge to the characters in the story.

In narrative voice, such as writing a novel in storytelling style, it's often sufficient to simply drop in a footnote paragraph, allowing the narrator to explain as if the reader were standing next to the narrator watching the scene unfold. It functions, if you can keep it short to avoid taking the audience too far away from the plot; if you need two pages, inlining it into a conversation between your characters probably isn't the way. However, in screenwriting, you often don't have the luxury of this device; one of the characters simply has to say it. There really are only two main ways I know of to give the information:

  • The idiot/noob/relief character asking the audience question. This is a convenient way to exposit facts that may not be completely common knowledge to everyone in the universe, however a character that isn't completely in the know isn't always available in a plausible way. This is probably the primary workaround to the title trope when a narrator isn't available in the storytelling format, and it's probably more common now in part because it can be subtly done without "cue words" that clue in the audience to the use of a common device.

  • "As you know...". This is basically lampshade-hanging; the characters know that each other should know what they're about to say, but they're going to say it anyway as a lemma to make their next points (and to get the reader up to speed). This is, IMHO, overused to a fault, and few screenwriters can get away with playing this trope straight anymore; they have to either "deconstruct" the lampshade, making an even bigger deal about the fact that they shouldn't have to say what they're saying, or else they play with it, either putting the line at the end of the exposition as an admonishment ("You should have known that"), or having the character being exposited to say "Yeah, I know, but..."

The only other way I can think of to give the user the information is, well, not to give it. Have the characters act the way they would in an everyday situation where everyone knows the thing the audience doesn't, and the audience just has to come along for the ride and pick up the fact by context.

Conceptually speaking, besides these devices, how do you give your audience information that they shouldn't have to ask for if they lived in the world of the story?

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    Not quite an answer, but a project: watch a police procedural, and observe just how many times someone makes a statement of law, forensic science, simple observation, information on record, that everyone in the room already knows, if they're even remotely competent at their job. Just remove the lampshade, the audience mostly doesn't care. Aside from anything else, people do recap in real life, or state the obvious before presenting their own opinion or line of reasoning. They do so even more on screen. – Steve Jessop Oct 21 '15 at 0:18
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    That makes sense, and there's some truth in television there; even if everyone forward of the gallery rail is competent in legal procedure, the guys in the jury box and the gallery behind are not, nor would they be experts in the exact subject matter of the trial (such as medical malpractice), so participants in legal proceedings very often have to explain things to the jury that would be common knowledge to most of the participants. – KeithS Oct 21 '15 at 0:22
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    A well constructed story will simply avoid the need for this, by showing rather than telling. To choose a random example: you could have a character saying "oh look, there's the Death Star, which is the Empire's new battle station that's capable of destroying planets," but Star Wars instead has an early scene in which the Death Star's planet-destroying power is demonstrated. The destruction of Alderaan is a major plot point, so we don't feel like we were given any exposition at all. (However, I can give no advice on how to construct a story to achieve this, as I am merely an armchair critic.) – Nathaniel Oct 21 '15 at 9:44
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    This bit of advice applies to just about every style question: Read. How do your favorite authors handle this issue? – Ken Mohnkern Oct 21 '15 at 13:58
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    "I didn't know what to do, sis. What? I've never called you "sis" before? You're right. It is oddly clunky and expositional. I mean, I know you're my sister, so who am I saying it for? Weird.... ... So what's going on with you, sis? Are you enjoying being three years younger than me?" -American Dad! S4E2: "Meter Made" – DSKekaha Oct 21 '15 at 21:08
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Two additional techniques...

Character Reaction. A character might react in a way that reveals some of the information:

"Mother! What the heck are you doing here?"

Now we know that the person who just entered the room is the character's mother.

Disagreement. You can have characters argue about it. They might disagree about:

  • The facts
  • The meaning of the facts
  • The significance of the facts
  • What to do about the facts

"Really, Jeff? You invited your mother? On our honeymoon?"

Now we know the the person who just entered the room is Jeff's mother, and that Jeff and the speaker are newly married and on their honeymoon.

With both of these techniques, the idea is to give some character a reason to react, perhaps strongly. The reaction reveals information to readers and viewers.

There are likely other kinds of reactions that can help.

EDITED TO ADD techniques for everyday, mundane information in response to user568458’s comment.

(I realize my examples below are not screenplay examples. Adjust as necessary to make them observable.)

If the thing is truly everyday and mundane, consider what makes it so. It's precisely this: You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to interact with it. You don’t have to even notice it. It’s just there. It just works.

These essential features of mundanity suggest some additional techniques.

Interaction. Give a character a story reason to interact with it. If the interaction is mundane, the audience will pick up on the mundanity of it.

Chaz downed the last of his coffee, stuffed the baby into the transporter, kissed his wife goodbye, and headed out the door.

Decision. Make the mundane thing a factor in some decision the character must make.

Chaz downed the last of his coffee and squinted at the baby transporter. He glanced at his watch. Not enough time to drive the baby to the learn-o-vat and still get to the Hair Emporium in time for his Pompadour appointment. So he stuffed the baby in the transporter, kissed his wife goodbye, and headed out the door.

Break it. An everyday thing is mundane only as long as it works. If you break it, the character will at least notice. If it’s important, the character will react to it, and perhaps interact with it.

Chaz downed the last of his coffee, stuffed the baby in the transporter, and kissed his wife goodbye. As he reached for the door, he noticed the baby’s shoe still in the transporter. That was odd.

Specialist. Introduce a character whose vocation is to make sure mundane things remain mundane for everyone else. Plumbing is mundane… unless you’re a plumber. And it's less mundane to the plumber because the plumber must interact with it, must deal with the specific details of this specific plumbing.

Omit it. Finally, an easy, always-available option for avoiding info-dumps: Omit the information. If nobody has to interact with it, if nobody has to deal with it, if nobody has an opinion about it, if it doesn't affect any characters' decisions, then it doesn’t matter to the story. If it doesn’t matter to the story, leave it out.

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    How would you apply this for something that, for the characters, is completely mundane and everyday, but which is news to the viewer? This fictional world's equivalent of "Mother, you've arrived! You probably need to recharge your pocket communication device, which of course we all do almost daily - if so, you can do it using these wall sockets, which connect to the national electricity grid, as is true in every modern house" – user568458 Oct 23 '15 at 9:34
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    "Mother, you're arrived" --- and then describe the mother asking for a free socket because her comm device has exhausted the battery and she is waiting a very important message form a friend and in the frigging airport all the socket where occupied by gamers ... ;-) – Rmano Oct 25 '15 at 19:30
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Conflict and/or high stakes decision making makes anything more interesting. So introduce these factors into your info-dump. Your characters aren't just lecturing each other about how the hyperdrive works, they are arguing about exactly what's stopping the damn thing working as they spiral towards a black hole. OK, it doesn't have to be as dramatic as that; you could have a civil but still tense debate between a master spellcaster and her hotheaded apprentice about the ethics of using forbidden necromancy against an evil foe, in the course of which the workings of your world's magic system would be made clear, along with the ominous fact that there is an evil foe massing at their nation's border.

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    Argument and conflict in general is a great form for conveying information, because it's realistic. People really do tell each other things they both know during arguments, so you can get away with a lot of perfectly natural exposition even if the argument itself really isn't that important in the grand scheme of things (e.g. two wizards arguing over whether their magic should be called "magic" or some technobabble). – Kevin Oct 21 '15 at 18:26
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Hitchhiker's Guide used a narrator with humorous effect to provide needed information. The narration never seemed to disrupt the flow, but add to it.

Peter Hamilton provides limited info-dumping while describing the action.

Edit: For example, the narrator of the Hitchhiker's Guide is describing the Infinite Improbability Drive, which rescues the two main characters after they are ejected into space as follows.

The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambelweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood — and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess's undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance with the theory of indeterminacy.

Many respectable physicists said that they weren't going to stand for this, partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn't get invited to those sorts of parties.Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Hamilton, in his work Fallen Dragon, describes that since alien biology was incompatible with humanity, colonization required, at great expense and difficulty, radiological sterilization of the soil, to eliminate all non-terrain organic material. The information, woven in naturally as the lead character interacts with the world, never feels like an info dump.

  • Fight Club did much the same; "Jack" (Norton's character) narrated most of the story in a combination of VO and fourth-wall on-screen exposition. It really only works on-screen for these kinds of comedies, where you're allowed to play with the idea that at least one person in a movie knows they're in a movie (or in the abstract, telling a story) – KeithS Oct 20 '15 at 20:59
  • Why do you call him Jack? He is simply "the narrator". And Fight Club is a tragedy not a comedy, since (spoiler alert) Tyler dies... – corsiKa Oct 21 '15 at 15:10
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    The script for the movie, and the director and actors, used "Jack" from the Reader's Digest series (which exists) as the name for Norton's on-screen character to differentiate from Brad Pitt's character (and from true narrations), because (spoiler alert) Norton and Pitt are the same person with the same real name. And, the film is pretty firmly in the "dark comedy" genre alongside Dr. Strangelove, The Graduate, etc – KeithS Oct 21 '15 at 16:42
  • This answer would be better when you would provide examples. You can not assume that everyone is familiar with the works of Adams and Hamilton. – Philipp Oct 22 '15 at 7:57
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As best as I can tell, it boils down to the same rule of show/tell. When writing a science fiction or fantasy on the screen or set, you want to show off the world that you've created as best as you can, and not tell about it.

As far as screenwriting is concerned, Stargate Sg-1 was chock-full of exposition, but they made light of it with a scientifically impaired protagonist and a pair of obsessive scientists who always needed to explain things to the protagonist.

It's a real problem, particularly on television. Star Trek and Star Wars both did a fairly good job of keeping exposition to a minimum. However, Star Trek basically wound up defining "techno-babble," and Star Wars was more of a visual science fiction than anything else. They are better, albeit cliche, examples of non-exposing sci fi than Stargate.

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You can sometimes engineer settings where the exposition is somewhat natural; e.g. high school students could be going over a history lesson that conveniently explains key points about the setting to the viewer, or that mercenary might entertain himself giving the street rats tips about fighting and staying alive before he shows up for his next job.

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    Serenity began with this exact method, a flashback history lesson in the classroom. – ghoppe Oct 21 '15 at 17:02
  • I do not know if Serenity was an example of this what I mean, but you can always show flashback to school or another place where everybody learns the thing everybody knows. Probably it can be is hard to make it interesting, but on the other hand you do not have to change the story artificially in order to let the viewers know something. – BartekChom Oct 23 '15 at 14:58
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If you have the luxury, I would say the best advice is to take your time with it, and find a way to get drama out of it. Here's the best example I can think of, the miniseries Oppenheimer, which is an absolute masterclass in exposition. I can't place video embeds, so you'll have to click links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io3WSJwVk1I&feature=youtu.be&start=1419&end=1039&version=3

In this video the problem is set up. We find out a lot about the dynamics in the group: the guy at the blackboard is impatient with his colleagues, Seth is shy, and has difficulty expressing his ideas and we see how calm Oppenheimer is, and how he gives the shy people the time to get their thoughts heard.

For your question, the most important trick they use here, is to have a character explain things poorly and then have another character step in, and simplify the explanation. This makes for a more realistic dynamic, since most people aren't good at explaining things, and it sets up a little tension between your characters.

The point is returned to at the start of the next episode, where Oppenheimer explains the problem to his superior. Again, a very realistic scenario, and a neat trick, since the superior is not a scientist and understands little more about physics than the audience does:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uo0jZqxcrWE&start=150&end=255

We get some visualization of the problem with props. You can do this in writing too, just create the image of a dented bar of metal. Repeating the problem in different terms and in a different setting is also important to cement the idea (especially at the start of the next episode).

Finally, the solution to the problem lands in their lap, but the scientists are too focused on quick successes to see it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uo0jZqxcrWE&start=453&end=739

The nice thing is that we as the audience are actually a step ahead of the characters at this point. We now understand that this solution is valuable, we're rooting for it, hoping that the characters will finally understand it.

That's how the BBC did it: slow and methodical. By contrast, here's the Hollywood approach, quick and dirty. A few props and a cool scene, with little attention to realism or actual exposition:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hD_iz4T9rY8&start=899&end=960

Seth Neddermeyer is suddenly a lot more expressive and charismatic, and the idea of implosion is treated as a brilliant breakthrough, rather than a relatively simple idea, which would be difficult to execute. But, the audience gets the important elements: there was a problem, and they found a solution, and it's got something to do with oranges. Sometimes, that's all you need: don't explain the problem, pretend to explain, but show only that there's a problem and why your characters care.

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Many good comments already, but let me toss in a few thoughts.

You mentioned having the ignorant character that others can explain things to. Sometimes this is implausible. Like if the story is set on a spaceship with three astronauts on board, it seems unlikely that there would be one in the three who knows nothing about space travel or astronomy. How did he get included on this mission if he's completely ignorant? But if it's a star-liner with 100 passengers, the idea that one is someone on his first interstellar trip and knows nothing isn't inherently implausible.

I've seen a number of SF stories that have one of the characters teaching a history or science class to a group of children. On the surface, this can be a good technique: Presumably children don't know everything that we would expect adults to know. But if you do this, please, have it make sense in the story. I've seen so many where they show the character teaching a class of children, implying that this character is a school teacher ... and then we never again see him or her doing anything to do with teaching. They apparently just quit their teaching job and run off on whatever adventure. Or there's some really transparent introduction, "Dr Jones is an expert on contacting alien races, and so we've asked him to come here today to," etc. This technique worked with Indiana Jones because it made sense for an archaeologist to be a college professor. Maybe you could work in Captain Kirk being a guest lecturer at Starfleet Academy. But I'd have a hard time believing that Captain Kirk teaches kindergarten in his spare time.

In real life, people often state facts that everyone present knows to make a point, for emphasis, or to establish a context for something they want to say that everyone present does NOT know.

Imagine our own world was a fictional alternate history and you wanted to introduce some historical facts.

If you have the president walk into the cabinet room and declare to his top advisors, "As you all know, I am the president of the United States," and stop there, it would be implausible. But if he said, "I've been president for 3 years. It's time I accomplished something besides attending meetings!" That doesn't sound to me like an implausible thing for someone to say.

Or, "If those troops cross the border, this will be the third time Germany has started a world war." It might well be that everyone present knows about World Wars 1 and 2, but it wouldn't be shocking for someone to say it like this to express his concerns.

"As you know, it takes eight weeks to cross the Atlantic by steamship. With this new invention, the airplane, we expect to cut that to only 12 hours." Yes, everyone present knows the first fact. But someone might well state it to set the stage for the next sentence.

You can mention a known fact indirectly. "If we lose this war, it will be America's first defeat since the Vietnam War." This tells the reader that America fought a war that had something to do with Vietnam and lost, without having to spell it out.

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You could use footnotes. If you read stories written by people from foreign cultures, the original author won't explain the assumptions or references that underlie the story, but the translator will. For example:

Then he caught sight of the colour of the pack, barely noticing the stag itself. Of all the hunting dogs he had seen in this world, he had never seen dogs the same colour as those. The colouring they had was a dazzling bright white and with red ears[5]. As bright was the dazzling whiteness as the brightness of the red.


[5] These were the hallmarks of the Otherworldly origins, according to a deeply rooted tradition found throught the British Isles. The Wild Hunt of Gwyn ap Nudd (p. ### above) included dogs of this kind. The Wild Hunt motif, an expression of the turbulent aspect of the animistic faery world, was itself a deeply rooted and perennial feature of North European folklore. An apprehension of this archetype was clearly being evoked at this juncture.

(The Mabinogi of Pwyll)

You've noticed that it's unrealistic to have characters saying "as you know" to explain things that to them would be common knowledge. Isn't it also unrealistic to have the characters explain these things at all? Explaining these things would (in a realistic world) be the job of a translator.

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