Episode 2.6 - Preface
Updated: Jun 17
Our word of the week is “preface” - as in, the stuff you need to know before you dive in. This episode is a good opportunity to talk about exposition. When writing fiction, exposition is the direct explanation of all the stuff that might be tough to show any other way. The prevailing wisdom in writing is “Show, don’t tell” and exposition is basically the opposite of that. It’s telling in order to save time and reserve your audience’s focus and energy for the plot and characters.
This episode gives several good examples of it:
Future Ted’s voiceover. These voiceovers are all exposition. They’re the framing device for the entire series. Ted is supposedly saying, “Now, as you know, kids…” but what he’s really doing is catching the audience up. They don’t need to remind you every week that Marshall is in law school, because Future Ted will bring it up when necessary. This voiceover stands in place of “previouslys” that most shows use.
Expository dialog, version #1. This needs to be used sparingly, but can be super effective when done correctly. This episode shows Lily trying to find her passion in life by repeatedly bursting into Robin’s apartment, announcing her newest passion project. It then switches to telling, with Robin telling Ted about Lily’s newest adventure over the phone. When Ted asks how Lily is making money, Robin says she has a job waiting tables at a restaurant. Ted then says, “wait you mean that Hawaiin place where they wear those embarrassing outfits”. Robin knows what the restaurant is. Ted knows. But the AUDIENCE doesn’t know. In real life, when Robin spills this secret, Ted would just say, “oh boy we have to go make fun of her”, but the writers knew that they needed to give us some exposition for us to understand what’s happening. This type of expository dialog goes by quickly, is often unnoticeable unless you’re really looking for it, and gives worldbuilding or character backstory in order to make the plot flow more smoothly. **THIS IS THE METHOD THAT CAN BACKFIRE THE WORST**
Expository monologues. This often shows up as a villain monologue at the end of the story, but in this episode it’s done when Barney sees Marshall’s constitutional law professor. Barney has guessed that she’s a cougar, so he peeks into her office and lists all the attributes of a cougar and how she fits the stereotype. 5:53 - 6:55, for over an entire straight minute, Barney is monologuing about the cougar. This trope is used so often that we make fun of it in kids’ movies, but if done correctly it can convey a lot of information in a relatively short amount of time. If they were going to “show” us how a cougar works, it would take an entire movie to show her in contrast to other female characters and demonstrate all the stuff Barney is blathering on about.
Expository dialog, version #2. Version #1 was for the audience’s benefit only, but version #2 is ostensibly for the characters’ benefit. This episode has Robin and Lily explaining Aldrin Justice to Ted. This method actually mirrors real life, when it’s done correctly. You’ve had to explain yourself to someone before, and you’ve had stuff explained to you. The characters are explaining something they know to someone who does not already know this information. (Version #1 is a character basically confirming something everyone in the room already knows)
For all of these methods, it’s important to note that they are scattered throughout the manuscript in natural ways. The writers could have had Future Ted explain upfront that Lily was going through something, but also she had this quirky system of dispensing justice. This would have been confusing and annoying to have upfront, so the writers had Robin and Lily explain it when it became necessary. They could have had Future Ted pause the story and explain what a cougar is, but it was funnier to have it in-world, as part of the narrative.
Other well-known examples: the opening crawl in a Star Wars movie, the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet.
Writing Prompt: Write an expository prologue for your story. Keep it to two pages, but give us all the cool information about your world and your character’s backstory, but in as dry a way as possible. Come back to this prologue (which should definitely not be in your book in this format!) as you revise to make sure all this stuff is on the page in a more natural way, using one of the four methods described in this podcast episode.