The approach most rookie writers take is to have their characters explain the rules to the audience in an “info-dump”, a stretch of expository dialogue that bores the audience to tears, deflates any dramatic tension these scenes could have, and prevents the story from moving forward.
A more character-driven approach to the “As you know, Bob” speech is to create characters that are on opposite sides of the societal divide. One character is in charge of enforcing society’s rules, while the other must break those rules to pursue their Victory.
In Les Miserables, the audience doesn’t need to know all of the intricacies of the political landscape in France in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. All the audience needs to know is that Jean Valjean is a desperate ex-convict on the run and Inspector Javert is the driven police officer whose mission it is to bring him in. All the societal, cultural, and political aspects become background noise for the core story.
Moving from the past to the far future, the appeal of most science fiction shows arises less from the whiz-bang technology they show or the utopian societies they propose, but from the characters that must cope with their settings.
In the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk often breaks the rules (both those established by Starfleet and those imposed by the “laws of physics”) to accomplish his mission and save his crewmates. On the other side, Commander Spock attempts to follow logical reasoning and to stay within the rules as much as possible.
By this method, the audience only learns about the rules of how the technology works and how the Federation deals with different societies through the conflict between Kirk, Spock, and the other characters. The audience doesn’t need a lecture on warp drive or transporters to enjoy the show: the conflicts between the characters will show what they can and can’t do given the rules of their universe.
But what if you’re not writing about the past or the future? What if you’re just sticking to the here and now? These methods can still apply. Each group has its own set of rules. Some members are in charge of enforcing those rules, while others are on the outside looking in. These rules are the source of your conflict, which becomes the fuel that drives your story.
In Mean Girls, Regina George is the queen of the school: she makes the rules about who gets to be popular and who doesn’t. When Cady Heron arrives, she gets a crash course in these rules, first by befriending the outsiders, then by working her way into the Plastics. Again, the audience doesn’t need a lengthy explanation as to how someone becomes a “Plastic”. The conflict between Cady and Regina shows them how the rules work, and how Cady uses them to bring Regina down.
Most aspiring writers have been told “Show, Don’t Tell,” but have never known exactly how to implement that adage into their storytelling. By using the characters to establish the setting, instead of the other way around, writers can show their world to the audience through their characters’ eyes, rather than through their words.
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