With spoilers for: The Dark Knight
Part One of Exposition Techniques.
You know how Inception begins with a dream within a dream. That’s a perfect example of the immersion technique for me. Create a world, put the audience in the middle of it and let them figure it all out for themselves.
It sounds risky, but I don’t think it’s nearly as dangerous as people think. After all, we learn language this way. Most of your vocabulary comes from hearing how words are used, then deducing their meanings from that. You don’t need a lexicographer to tell you how to communicate.
Unconvinced? Well, try watching a film half of the way in and see how well you can follow it. Sure, it’ll be harder to understand, and a lot of scenes might lose their tension and emotional kick. But you’ll probably be able to make sense of it a lot more easily than you’d imagine. I started watching Lost half-way into the first series and I can’t remember feeling all that confused.
9. The Set-up Setting
This follows slightly from the immersion technique. Don’t underestimate the expository power of location, props clothing, body language – all of the non-dialogue, non-action features. Why bother making John Barrowman announce how “Louise pays us to patrol these beaches” when you can just put him in a beach patrol uniform? Why use dialogue to show that a disaster has left the world zombified and depopulated when you can have him walk around the previously way-too-busy streets of London?
My favourite use of this technique is with graffiti. It’s effectively dialogue off-stage – and it often reveals a hell of a lot about an area.
Basically, make your background your background information.
10. Pope in the Pool
Borrowed from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!:
Mike Cheda told me about a script he once read called The Plot to Kill the Pope, by George Englund, which did a very smart thing. It’s basically a thriller. And the scene where we learn the details of the vital backstory goes like this: Representatives visit the Pope at the Vatican. And guess where the meeting takes place? The Vatican pool. There, the Pope, in his bathing suit, swims laps back and forth while the exposition unfolds. We, the audience aren’t even listening, I’m guessing. We’re thinking: “I didn’t know the Vatican had a pool?! And before you can say “Where’s my miter?” the scene’s over.
This also covers the technique, Sexposition, where exposition is delivered to a backdrop of naked bodies, to appease the otherwise angry audience.
I’m a bit sceptical about how useful PITP is, and I hope you noticed why. If the audience really aren’t listening to the exposition, it might as well not be there. All this seems to do is stop people from complaining on the internet, since they technically had enough information to follow the storyline.
11. Make them want it
How do you make something uninteresting interesting?
Put it in a box.
Or better still, put it in a hatch, lock it up, bury it in the middle of the jungle, and give no indication of what’s inside for an entire series.
This is another way of amending the infodump: make the audience want the information you’re about to dump on them. And one of the best ways of doing this is by delaying an explanation again and again until they’re begging you for answers. Create a scenario which gives rise to a load of questions, then refuse to answer them until it’s absolutely necessary.
The Shawshank Redemption
No Country for Old Men
A Clockwork Orange
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Usual Suspects
What unites all the movies listed above? Well, obviously, all feature voice-overs of some form or other. They’re one of those things that everyone ‘hates’. Like how so many people claim to hate puns, when really they just hate bad ones.
So how should you use a voice-over? One good method is to make it subjective. This follows from Show; Don’t Tell really. If ‘Jack’ from Fight Club tells me what’s going on, he’s just giving his subjective view of things which I still have to judge for myself. If some omniscient narrator figure tells me, I just have to take his word for it. Again, don’t tell the audience what to think.
Another method is to make it stylistic – part of the overall aesthetic of the film. This often involves doing the opposite of what I’ve just recommended, using a narrator who never appears in the film and tells the audience an awful lot, even completely superfluous information. For the archetypal example of this, check out the beginning of Amélie.
Anyway, if you feel you have to use a voice-over, make sure that you make it part of the style of the script – otherwise it’ll look like a lazy exit from exposition.
For what I’d consider a very sloppy use of this technique, try RocknRolla, which seems to rely on the voice-over so much that it’s basically an audiobook.
Another incarnation of the Show; Don’t Tell principle, the flashback’s a great technique for making exposition part of the action. I’d only use it where it’s absolutely necessarily though; I noticed The Dark Knight Rises seemed to use them for memories like the death of Harvey Dent, which its whole audience should be aware of anyway. I mean, if you go to watch the final Batman movie and haven’t seen the previous one, isn’t it your fault if the story doesn’t make any sense?
This is the ‘Mr. Charles’ of screenwriting. The deconstruction reveals exposition by drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that they’re watching a film. It’s another way of ameliorating the infodump: deliberately use a terrible technique, then point out that you realise that the technique is terrible, lampooning all the screenwriters who would have genuinely used it.
The thing is, as much as you’re ridiculing the writers who would use this technique, you are still using it. It’s like satirizing the economy by having an offshore bank account. Sure, you may be doing it ironically – but you’re still profiting from it the same way.
Besides, isn’t this kind of postmodernism just a bit old now? Like I said in the last post, it’s easier to find parodies of the infodump than it is genuine examples. Sure, this was clever some time ago, but it loses its cleverness once it’s been done again and again. I’m not saying the deconstruction should be avoided, full stop – just that, if you do decide to use it, make sure you bring some originality to it.
There are some situations which lend themselves to exposition very well: interviews, brainstorming sessions, counselling. My favourite example of this technique comes from the first series of Lost, where Kate and Sawyer play a drinking game:
This technique can also be mixed with the Flashback and Voice-over techniques, by making the film a story which is being told by other characters in it, as with The Notebook.
16. The Intelligent Infodump
‘Exposition’ can effectively be split into at least two categories. There is necessary exposition: the information an audience needs to be able to follow the plot – and something I like to call vanity exposition: the information required to fill any plotholes. For example, you can watch and enjoy a thriller like The Bourne Ultimatum without ever comprehending the whole ‘Neil Daniels’ substory. A lack of vanity exposition doesn’t really mar the viewers’ enjoyment of a movie as they’re watching it – however, it can lead to certain niggling questions later, which stop a film from truly being a masterpiece.
One technique I’ve devised for dealing with vanity exposition is the intelligent infodump. Take the whole ‘microprocessors’ subplot from The Departed. That vanishes unexplained after about an hour and never appears again. As it happens, I don’t mind – it suits the chaotic feel of the movie rather well. However, if I did, I’d have recommended an intelligent infodump.
That’s the moment where you show a few seconds of a newspaper, Wikipedia article, anything which explains what had happened. Anyone who needs to know this information can pause the film and find it, whereas those who don’t care won’t notice the chunk of info which has just been dumped on them.
This isn’t so much an expositional tip – but if you’re writing a script with a lot of characters, make sure you give them memorable, distinct names. Otherwise your audience are going to start wondering “who’s Conklin, Dignam, Gruneig?” and struggle to follow the plot.
Still not sure how to handle a particular piece of exposition? Well, leave a comment.
Part One of Exposition Techniques.