Bear with me while I summarize an episode of Spongebob. There’s a lesson buried in here, I promise. Are you ready, kids?
(Say it all together: “Aye-aye, Captain!”)
Plankton is once again plotting to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula. His plan: get Spongebob and Patrick to “help” him give the Chumbucket restaurant a makeover, distracting them while he sneaks over to the Krusty Krab to steal the secret formula. The problem? Spongebob and Patrick keep getting their building materials from the Krusty Krab—plumbing pipes, 2x4s, windows. They’re disassembling the Krusty Krab board by board, making Plankton’s stealth mission much more challenging.
By the time all is said and done, Spongebob and Patrick have rebuilt the entire Krusty Krab on the Chumbucket’s lot. That’s when a cab pulls up and Mr. Krabs gets out, holding two suitcases. Spongebob says, “Mr. Krabs, you’re back from your vacation!”
And a word appears above his head in big bright letters: “Exposition”.
I burst into laughter at that moment, but when the humor wore off, I realized I’d just received one of the best lessons on backstory placement that I’d ever been given.
You see, for the whole story up to that point, Mr. Krabs had been missing. Plankton had been trying to steal his secret formula, Spongebob and Patrick had dismantled his whole restaurant, yet Mr. Krabs’ name is only briefly mentioned. Earlier in the story, the writers could have belabored the fact that Mr. Krabs was on vacation, but they didn’t. Why?
Because it didn’t matter.
The viewer didn’t need to know where Mr. Krabs was. In fact, I never even wondered. I didn’t care. The only time it mattered was when Mr. Krabs walked into the story and suddenly became part of the plot.
As our story’s creators, we have to care where our characters are and know their offstage locations, and sometimes our brains translate that to, “The reader will care about this.” But why? The readers has no reason to care until your exposition somehow affects the story.
So the next time you’re looking at your work and wondering, “Do I really need this backstory here,” just think of this episode of Spongebob and the timely arrival of good old Mr. Krabs.