Copywriting Secrets Learned From Playwrighting: Avoid Clumsy Exposition

by Randy Murray on February 4, 2014

One of the signs of poor writing is a “dump” of exposition. “Here’s everything that you need to know.”  When you see it in a play or movie you can feel the audience begin to fade away. Voice overs. Opening narration. The villain explaining his cunning plan in detail.


Exposition comprises the comprehensive detail and the important facts that the reader or viewer needs to know. When you get to the point where you simply dump them on your reader you’ve failed.

Yes, I understand that product sheets and technical specifications are sometimes important, but what are they really for? How does this listing of facts move your prospect closer to making a decision, toward making the decision that you want them to make?

Yes, you do need to relay details. “Just the facts, Ma’m,” sounds efficient, but that approach, with apologies to Joe Friday, doesn’t really give you the whole picture. And it can be oh so boring.

That’s a copywriter’s greatest sin: being boring. I have clients who ask me for boring. I can do boring. But I can also frame the boring inside copy in a way that creates movement. Why do I need to know these things? What happens now that I know them? What else do I need to know?

Copywriters can learn a great deal from playwrights in this specific case. Yes, I can deliver lists of facts, but if those facts are interlaced in meaningful dialog they don’t appear as a list any more. When the details are properly framed in a story the details are relayed, but they becomes less mechanical. Your reader takes in the details without effort and as a part of following the story, the increasing tension.

When you see a pistol on the mantel in Act 1 you know that by Act III it’s going to go off. You don’t need the complete specifications of the firearm to understand this. You might, as the playwright hopes, forget about it until just before that crucial second and you remember the gun just before it goes off. That’s exciting, thrilling, for the audience.

And that leads us to the real secret: yes, a little exposition is necessary, but it’s not the whole thing. It’s only a piece of the puzzle. When you get to the point where you say, “I need a data sheet,” you should also ask yourself, “Why do I need this. What do I need it for? And where does this fit with everything else I need to tell the prospect?”

Integrate the facts. Fold them into everything else. Inform your reader gently. And help them to understand that they need to know these things because of what comes next.

Because you don’t really care about the facts, do you? You care about what comes next.

It’s not the gun on the mantel. It’s what happens when someone pulls the trigger.

Copywriting Secrets Learned From Playwrighting: Avoid Clumsy Exposition by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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