Plot Exposition, Muppets, and Cannibalism: a Writing Lesson from the Movies

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There’s a scene in the Great Muppet Caper, in which Lady Holiday explains to Miss Piggy the backstory for the entire movie.
Miss Piggy: Why are you telling me all this?
Lady Holiday: It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.

The Muppets are a classic in my family, and whenever we catch serious movies forcing blocks of plot exposition into dialogue for convenience, we roll our eyes at each other and quote Lady Holiday.

It’s a good rule of thumb to make sure you Show Don’t Tell by giving everything you write the “how can I translate this to the big screen?” test, but shoving all your plot into dialogue and all your character development into voiceover is cheating – and it will show in your work. Perhaps a better way to remember the rule is “Imply, don’t state.” Let’s switch to an example of Imply Don’t State done right in a movie.

The Book of Eli opens up in a forest, gray with fog, where lies a decaying human body. A skin-and-bones cat is picking at the carcass. A few feet away, a hunter waits, aiming a crossbow. He sees the perfect moment, shoots the cat, picks up the dead creature for his next meal, and leaves the human body.

This seemingly simple first scene conveys everything we need to know in one fell swoop. Something terrible has happened in this world. Times are desperate. And even though we don’t yet know the main character’s name, or where he comes from, or where he is going, we know he won’t eat human flesh, even if he is starving. He also doesn’t bury the body, but thanks to the previous fact, we know this is not due to a lack of respect for human life. Either he’s seen too many human bodies to bother burying one of them, or he has more important things to do. Or both. We also know that he has patience and skill with a weapon.

We learn all this in less than five minutes, without hearing a word of dialogue. And it’s brilliant. Approach your novel (or short story) the same way.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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10 Comments

  1. Plot exposition, news to me. Interesting enough to make me go read about it, as well as The Book of Eli. I don’t think I’d like the movie but your point is clear.

    I read a lot, all kinds of writing. I’m always amazed at the way my favorite writers draw me in immediately while others get tossed after first page. It helps to understand why.

    • Oh yes. Plot exposition gets boring fast – especially in the beginning a book. Why explain the entire history of a character before the readers even care about him? Of course, how do you get them to care about him without explaining his history? Therein lies the conundrum, which hopefully I’ll explore in some other post.

  2. really nice author and his text

  3. Yup, implication is often more powerful and effective than statement. Although occasionally just stating something does work better. Two master authors who can balance both “telling” and “showing” are Guy Gavriel Kay and Rosemary Sutcliff. With Sutcliff’s historical fiction especially, you find yourself learning about history and older cultures without even noticing it, because all you think you are reading is just the story itself.

    That Book of Eli scene also has some other important details: the forest seems to be covered in ash, and the man is wearing a gas mask. He’s desperate enough to go hunting in an area that is still too dangerous to breathe in.

    • You’re right, occasionally you do have to just tell it like it is, but it’s important to use that telling to show something else. You might tell some of the facts of the Great Depression, for instance – some of its causes, unemployment rates, number of people on the streets, etc. – to show people’s desperation. Rather than just saying “times were desperate,” giving the readers enough information to conclude for themselves that times were desperate.

      I’ll have to look up Kay and Sutcliff!

      Ooh, good catch. I’ts been awhile since I actually watched Book of Eli.

  4. Pingback: How to make your book read like a movie « BeKindRewrite

  5. I’m sorry, I was unclear about what you meant when you said, “He also doesn’t bury the body, but thanks to the previous fact, we know this is not due to a lack of respect for human life.” What was the “previous fact” that proved this?

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