What “Last Week Tonight” teaches me about Exposition

What “Last Week Tonight” teaches me about Exposition

Wait, I hear you saying: this here is a nonfiction show! It’s got comedy, sure, but the crux of what Oliver’s doing is spreading facts!

Guess what, folks: Novels, short stories, and comics are in the same business. The sole difference is the world to which those facts apply.

For folks who don’t know, Last Week Tonight (which I’m shortening to LWT for the rest of this post) is essentially a weekly adaptation of The Daily Shows’ comedic news format, though I’d argue that LWT is more serious its predecessor really was. A big portion of this comes from the show’s format, in which half or more of its running time in a given week is often devoted to a single story. We’re often talking 15 minutes or more on one subject, and often these aren’t headliners – a week ago, LWT spent a long time going over the Italian election, which is undoubtedly important to the world, but doesn’t quite have the attention-grabbing focus (in the US, anyway) of, say, gun control or North Korea.

In a graceless pivot, these segments parallel what most authors and screenwriters have to do to immerse audiences in the worlds they’re creating. In the stories they’re telling. You, as the creator, need the audience to sit there and absorb information about your piece, especially at the beginning, and be entertained at the same time. This challenge increases the farther away from ‘reality’ your work gets – consider, say, the opening crawl of Star Wars. Lucas effectively shoves paragraphs of floating space text at you to give just enough context, and, thanks to a rousing score, you manage to stay awake long enough for the spaceships to start shooting. Harry Potter opens with a tease about normalcy, which, since the cover talks about a magical stone and shows a wizard, you’re not really buying, and its at the start of the 3rd ‘graph where it drops the word secret. Now you’re intrigued – what secret is so terrible that these ordinary folk can’t bear? That holds you long enough to find out about the boy, and then we’re off.

Learning is hard. Gathering new information and making sense of it all is hard. Constructing a new reality on the fly to match the needs of a work of fiction is, well, work.

LWT makes this process easier by interjecting comedy. It leverages jokes, intercut breaks, and sometimes-random segues to keep you engaged. If you’re chuckling every couple of minutes because an expose on a mining CEO is being delivered by someone in a squirrel costume, you’re going to pay attention when the real points get delivered. If you know, at the end of Oliver’s next spiel, there’s going to be something funny, you’re more likely to listen so that you’re in on it when the joke eventually drops. In that way, LWT keeps you engaged even while delivering a straight shot of information to your mind.

The challenge, in fiction, is to keep that same loop of information and entertainment going. You want your audience to know what the Shire is, and how hobbits work, but if they’re going to bother learning about that, you have to tease them with a magical ring and a distant dark lord first. If you’re going to introduce a vast world of warring families, kingdoms and power struggles, maybe in the middle of that you have a boy catch some brother-sister loving and get shoved out a window. Keeps the audience invested.

So next time you’re looking at how to get an audience engaged in your world, take a cue from LWT and interject some action, comedy, or dialogue that doesn’t require knowledge of your universe to understand. It’ll help relax your readers, and buy you time to pass along the crucial, need-to-know details of how your world works.

Squirrel costumes are a bonus.

A couple things:

  • I’ve found it slightly ironic that I selected paperless for some tax documents, only to have the CPA require them in paper form, so now I’m printing them off (using the paper, and paying for my own ink) just to put them all together in an envelope and send. I cannot wait until everything is just done through secure electronic submission. Please oh please.
  • I read this review of a new Chrysler minivan and immediately went back to my childhood, thinking about how awesome it would have been with one of these. As a childless adult, I’m not ashamed to say the tech in minivans these days is pretty amazing. Who wouldn’t use a built-in vacuum?

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