These are the three enemies of exposition, the three adjectives that most commonly end up describing it. This occurrence seems to be driven by a belief that exposition is inherently boring; the writer ‘knows’ that people hate this stuff and so attempts to get it out the way as quickly and early on as possible.
In the worst cases, the final result is the infamous infodump: a scene in which the audience is smothered with information. This technique is not only unentertaining, unnatural, unmemorable – it is also completely self-defeating, as the boredom induced by it causes the audience to switch off and ignore the stuff they were supposed to be taking in.
Hey, Sy, is this a great life or what?
Vida loca, amigo!
Louise pays us to patrol these beaches. You know, one of the guys in the harbour told me about this dive spot which is just crawling with lobsters.
[From Shark Attack 3: Megalodon]
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Exposition doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, learn to tame it, control it and it’ll put you streets ahead of the vast majority of screenwriters. First-
Strip it down
Take your troublesome scene and strip it right down to its bare assumptions – just the raw info you need to make sense of it. I’ll do the same with No Country for Old Men.
Probably the most gripping scene I’ve ever seen is the transponder scene from No Country. This is the moment where Llewelyn rummages through the stolen money to find a locational device hidden with a stack of banknotes. Realising his whereabouts is no longer a secret, Llewelyn prepares to meet his hunter.
This scene essentially boils down to 2 premises:
• Llewelyn is being pursued by a very dangerous man.
• The man knows where Llewelyn is.
So, since Premise 2 is revealed during this scene, the audience only need know one thing to follow the plot. And, since they could probably infer that Llewelyn is being pursued by a dangerous man from his actions, this scene effectively has no expositional weight at all. It could be the first scene of the film (although it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good like that.)
Alright, maybe that’s a bit too easy. After all, No Country is a very simple film in terms of plot. Let’s look at something with a bit more baggage to it, then. Like the ‘revolving corridor’ scene from Inception. All you need to know is:
• The main characters (Cobb, Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Saito, Fischer) are in a shared dream.
• Things that happen to the dreamer outside of the dream affect the world of the dream. (Splashing the dreamer will cause it to rain within the dream world.)
• One of the people in the rolling van is the dreamer.
• During a dream, projections try to kill the people sharing the dream with the subject.
So, as complex as that scene seems, it can be reduced to a few assumptions. Note that I’m not actually sure how some of the dream world works (how the subject of the dream is determined etc.) but I could still understand this scene perfectly well.
So once you have your assumptions down, what’s the best way to communicate them? Well, before we start talking techniques, there’s a principle we ought to take into account.
Show; Don’t Tell
Don’t worry, I’m going to teach you something new. It’s just that you can’t really enter a discussion on exposition without first mentioning this rule. Often called “the first law of screenwriting” (although I’d think of it as a law of communication in general), Show; Don’t Tell states that truths should be demonstrated to the audience, rather than merely stated.
Why? Well, it usually meets all the criteria from earlier. What’s more memorable, natural, entertaining: showing Indiana Jones retrieve a golden idol from a booby-trapped Peruvian temple – or having him explain to someone that he’s a treasure hunter?
Actually, that’s another thing about ‘telling’: it often communicates the opposite of what you intended to get across. After all, when someone says “I don’t care what people think of me”, do you think “wow, here’s an upstanding, self-reliant individual”? No, you think “Jesus, I’m the determinant of this person’s self-esteem.” We live in a world of lies, misinformation, disinformation. People need to be allowed to reach their own conclusions.
However, my top reason for Show; Don’t Tell is something I call the Explanatory Arc.
The Explanatory Arc
One of my favourite programmes is a BBC4 quiz show called Only Connect. There’s one round I particularly like where contestants are given four clues, one after the other, and have to figure out the one feature that connects them all. It’s great because you’ll have two clues (say “charge” and “bomb”) and you’ll start forming theories as to what connects them (things which are used by pyrotechnics?). Then, the word “everything” appears and you’re sent straight back to the drawing board.
Likewise, I believe people get into a story most when they start forming their own theories about it, so by showing-and-not-telling you can string an audience along by constantly confounding their expectations.
Before we turn to techniques, there’s one last thing to be said about Show; Don’t Tell. It’s often mistaken to mean that action always trumps dialogue. I see this sentiment alongside rubbish like “film is a visual medium, not an audio one.” No, it’s both. By all means use dialogue instead of action, but remember what it implies is more important than what it states.
1. The Newcomer
Like the mole in a police department, the newcomer allows the audience to learn and experience everything through his or her eyes. It’s probably the most used of all exposition tactics and, in my opinion, a bit too easy. Wouldn’t it be nice to watch a film which never fielded this technique?
I’ve seen a couple of blogs which assert that characters should never say anything they both already know to be true. It’s a decent guideline but not necessarily correct. Actually, there are quite a few instances where people state their mutual knowledge.
The most well-known of these is the argument. This is when characters start digging up the past to score points against one another, defending their own social images whilst damaging others’.
No, it’s not a mistake. What I mean is that, when people outline complex arguments, they tend to ‘show their working’, stating premises that are known and accepted by everyone. This is where you see lines like “now, obviously, once we reach Zone 3, the guards’ll try to rip us to shreds, so…”
Actually, that’s a point in itself. Obviously, if people never stated things they already knew, the word “obviously” would never be used – and yet it appears in academic papers all the time.
Taken from The Office (no, the original version), a Keith is anyone who reveals exposition by virtue of his own weirdness. Gervais and Merchant realised that this character was so banal they could make him reiterate what had happened in the previous episodes without it seeming out of place or unnatural.
So, you’ve resigned then?
Yeah, I’ve just got to hand in my notice, make it official.
Embarrassed yourself ‘n’ all, didn’t you. Asking Dawn out.
I’ve just finished my second year of university and already had the misfortune of meeting a few of these people. They’re the guys who try and ‘teach’ you things that you’d obviously already know. I’m not sure what motivates this behaviour – whether it’s a desire to seem knowledgeable or the belief that they’re so much more intelligent than everyone else – but I expect everyone’s experienced this and hates it.
Why not use this as an expository technique? A character who keeps hitting the protagonist with advice obvious to him but unfamiliar to the audience – to the protagonist’s increasing annoyance.
I know, I don’t even gamble.
No, I mean the mobster having a gay son, that’s ironic.
7. The Breather
This is one way of making the infodump a bit more acceptable. It appears in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as most spy films. Start with something like 12 minutes of solid, intense action then cut to the exposition. By the time the ‘explaining scene’ arrives, it’ll be a welcome intermission – time to catch your breath.
I’m not keen on this technique. Not because it doesn’t make sense, but because it feels so formulaic. Pretty much every Bond film starts this way, in my mind.