Showing, Not Telling: How To Give Exposition Quickly And Effectively


Mild Spoilers ahead for the TV show “Young Justice”.

I’ve been on a binge of the TV show Young Justice recently, a well above average animated show from DC about a group of teenaged superheroes. Season 2 shakes things up by having a lot of important events having happened off-screen between seasons, and as such has a lot of information to be imparted.

Some of it is so clunky it’s near painful, such as when Lagoon Boy tells Nightwing that he used to be Robin so that we, the viewer know that he’s Robin from Season 1. Other times it’s so well integrated and multi-faceted that it looks like it belongs in a textbook.

I’m going to talk about one such time. The video below is not timestamped to play at the important part of the clip sadly (I did try). The section I’m talking about runs from 2:56-3:28.

That was one of the best 32 seconds of television I have ever watched, from a writing standpoint. Seriously, it shows and suggests a number of character traits and a relationship dynamic without ever outright stating any of them. OK, so the name “Wonder Girl” does get spoken, but I’m giving it a pass. Now, I shall list what those 32 seconds tell us.

  1. Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl are partners (2:56-2:57): Both are flying in unison, with a serious expression. Their movements and temperaments match in this shot. It says “hello, these people are here now and they work together”.
  2. Wonder Woman’s physical prowess is established (2:57-3:04): OK, chances are you know that Wonder Woman is hella badass. But this is primarily a kid’s show, and kids (or adults) watching may not know who she is. You can’t count on “she fought in Season One” as a reason for people to know either, as not everyone will have watched from the beginning. Instead, a few brief seconds of Wonder Woman being badass introduces her and some of the gravitas she carries.
  3. Wonder Girl is relatively new to superheroics, and greatly admires Wonder Woman (3:05-3:10): Wonder Girl’s admiration for Wonder Woman is obvious, what with her fangirling right in the middle of battle and all, but what’s interesting is the implication. This does rely on further context, but all the necessary context can be found in the same episode. When Wonder Girl witnesses Wonder Woman’s prowess, she drops her defences and squees over her mentor. Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, Lagoon Boy and Superboy are all present with their mentors, yet none of them act this. Instead, they work in synch with each other and communicate (mostly) vital tactical messages. Wonder Girl is set apart by her lack of professionalism.
  4. Wonder Woman is a strict mentor, and far more professional than Wonder Girl (3:10-3:15): Wonder Woman sees that Wonder Girl is in danger, and immediately moves in to protect her from injury or death at the hands of her own unprofessional nature, while simultaneously admonishing Wonder Girl for her error. Wonder Woman’s tone is serious, and her expression is unchanged from her entrance. With this we can see that Wonder Woman is calm under fire, able to keep up with the flow of combat, attentive of her surroundings and that she does not let mistakes pass unnoticed.
  5. Wonder Girl, while raw, is a powerful and effective warrior keen to learn from Wonder Woman (3:16-3:26):  Once her mistake has been made clear to her, Wonder Girl composes herself for battle and defeats the two giant alien spider tanks that nearly hit her in short order. Her tactic is a revised version of Wonder Woman’s, using her lasso to destroy the machines from a distance. With this, it’s clear she’s trying to emulate her idol and mentor, but also that she recognises her own physical limits and adapts the tactic to suit her abilities. The next two points are also on this section of footage.
  6. She doesn’t have Wonder Woman’s level of strength: Instead of pulling the whole tank into the air, Wonder Girl is only able to rip off a vital part of the machine (with some difficulty). Also, note how when Wonder Woman uses her lasso, our attention is drawn to the fact that she was standing with both feet on the ground, lifting the machine into the air with brute strength before using its momentum to slam it down. Wonder Girl instead flies up so that she can pull the tank part towards her, which would require less strength.
  7. She’s a fast thinker: Whether she planned it from the beginning or it only occurred to her as that giant hunk of tank was flying towards her, at some point she realised she needed to deal with said tank hunk. Either way, she thought very fast, using a potential weakness and making it into her advantage.
  8. Wonder Woman cares about Wonder Girl (3:27-3:28): This is my favourite moment of the whole sequence, and it was what made this clip stick in my mind. These 32 seconds are a story unto themselves, and this brief smile from Wonder Woman is an amazing cap to it. Despite how strict and serious she is, and how much of a contrast this is compared to Wonder Girl’s demeanour, this smile shows Wonder Woman cares. Not just about her physical safety, but of her growth as a hero. She sees Wonder Girl pull out an impressive move on the fly and is proud of her. These 32 seconds say more about their characters and their relationship than some shows manage in an episode.

There, textbook. Eight important pieces of information delivered with very few words spoken. No need to have whole episode devoted to explaining this, 32 seconds will do. Although, dear Young Justice producers, I still want a Wonder Girl episode. And a Batgirl one. And a Robin one. And I want Zatanna back, dammit!

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