Exposition, which you probably know at least a little about if you’re checking out a scriptwriting consultation service, is the act of inserting into the story necessary extraneous information you believe the audience *must* know as background, so that you don’t need to explain this information at the point it becomes important (halting the tempo) or at the risk of confusing your audience.
Disney’s animated films are great at flying through exposition at break-neck speed, mostly because they’ve only got about an hour and a half anyway, so there isn’t much time to explain all the fantastical details of the world they’ve created. You’ve got the main character, the Simba or Anna or Ariel, and we need to know very quickly what they’re like, what their standing and place in this world is, and what they want. Now, per the golden rule (Show, Don’t Tell), that’s a lot of showing to do.
Audiences don’t find characters believable if they vocalize details about themselves everyone in the story world already would know… it reeks of writer. But, it sure would be difficult to concoct enough complicated scenarios to practically demonstrate all of the exposition. I introduce: Sneaksposition. This is the simple (and therefore highly popular among children’s films) technique of inserting an outsider into the story, a character who, like the audience, knows nothing of the exposition you need to dole out. As an audience surrogate, it not only feels a little more natural when people wax on things that should be obvious to them, but a plus in helping the audience identify with such a character.
The first Harry Potter, for instance is probably 90 percent Harry asking or learning about the ways of the wizarding world. He doesn’t even cast a spell for the entire film, too busy meeting friends who embody various elements of the story world. I’m Hagrid, here’s what happened to your parents, here’s everything you need to know about the magic school you’re going to, here’s the mysterious object that comes in to play later, and here’s why you can talk to snakes. I’m Ron, here’s how candy works in this world, here’s how pets work in this world, here’s how racism works in this world. I’m Hermione, here’s how everything else works.
But, that’s the clearest, neatest version of Sneaksposition; the fish-out-of-water. Mostly, sneaksposition involves an unimportant side character remarking on the set up in the first act in a natural way, as the main character goes about their business, interjecting and giving a better sense of their personality… sometimes. Back to Disney movies, this technique was mostly inescapable in the ’90s.
In Aladdin, the titular thief is introduced on the run from palace guards for stealing bread. That’s shown us a little bit of exposition, but the rest is delivered through asides by the townsfolk, as we familiarize ourselves with the setting for the story. A passerby remarks that it’s a little early for him to be in trouble already, the guards yell insults at him and a group of girls croon about his being an undesirable outsider, the largest of them
exclaims “I’d blame parents, except he hasn’t got ‘em”, and Aladdin responds “I can face the facts, you’re my only friend Abu” and “Gotta steal to eat, gotta eat to live”. Its been about a minute, and we know; Aladdin is an orphaned peasant who steals bread to stay alive, and has done so for a long time, resulting in condemnation from the community, and his only friend being his pet monkey Abu. Sounds like the kind of guy who could really use a Genie.
And so, Sneaksposition saves audiences from feeling addressed too directly, and screenwriters from wasting time and/or resorting to contrivance.