“Primary exposition is telling and showing to the audience the time and place of the story, the names and relationships of the characters, and the nature of the conflict.”
Irwin R. Blacker
The Elements of Screenwriting
“Within the first pages of a screenplay a reader can judge the relative skill of the writer simply by noting how he handles exposition.”
Dramatically speaking exposition is simply the way you convey information.
Consider these facts:
I share a birthday with Slim Pickens.
I was born the same year as George Clooney, Meg Ryan, Michael J. Fox, Melissa Etheridge, Peter Jackson, Heather Locklear, Enya and Barack Obama.
I graduated from high school the same year and just a few miles away from the high school Wesley Snipes graduated from.
Not that I lump myself in with those well known people (okay, I just did — but let’s just say I’m not well-known or as accomplished like those mentioned) but I want to show you a form of exposition. I wasn’t totally on the nose with the above exposition but it gives you a ballpark of how old I am. (Old, but not that old. Come on, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Sheryl Crow and Jon Bon Jovi are just a year or two behind me.) If you wanted to, with a little research you could put all the pieces together.
Exposition works best in films when sprinkled here and there and doesn’t feel like exposition.
Think of exposition like exposure in photography. It reveals a subject. When you take a picture of someone on film you expose a part of them. Every angle gives you a little different exposure or insight into the person. In a close up you might see a small scar on their face, from the side you may see a tattoo on their arm, and from behind you might see their hair is thinning.
In compelling portrait photos you’re exposing someone and giving little glimpses of who the person is. In your screenwriting it’s best if your exposition is almost invisible so the audience doesn’t feel they are being spoon-feed info.
In real life people are constantly giving us exposition. Two pieces of real life expo that come to mind were in the form of a warning about other people. The first one came years ago when I was young and began a job wide-eyed and excited. A fellow who had been at the company a few years warned me about the president of the company; “Be careful there is a trail of broken relationships behind him.”
That was a great bit of exposition given in a way that was fresh and allowed me to fill in the blanks without knowing the details. Another person I worked with said of someone we knew, “I know there is a good person in there wanting to come out.” Great line.
And a fellow I once interviewed for a video told me, “The memories of my father could be put on the back of a postage stamp.” That one lines says lot more than a typical movie scene than dumping a two-minute monologue on what a bad a father he had.
This week keep track of how exposition is given to you in real life and in movies and TV shows you watch. Detective shows on TV are some of the worst at dumping exposition on an audience because they have to front load so much information because they need to grab your attention early so you know what’s going on before you change the channel.
”Okay, we think Joe did this because his girlfriend just broke up with him and he lost his job at the factory where he works and he has a hunting rifle that uses the same caliber bullet that was used in the murder.” Then they often dump more exposition right at the end to explain all the details of why such and such happened.
Consider these great lines from movies that convey exposition in an excellent way:
“What was your Childhood like?”
Escape from Alcatraz
“What do you do with a girl when you’re through with her?”
“I’ve never had a girl.”
An Officer and a Gentleman
“Are you something else I’m going to have to live through?”
In one sentence we get a glimpse that Erin’s been through some crap.
A key to writing good exposition is to only reveal what you have to reveal. We do this in real life. It’s the guy who says after the fifth date when things are getting more serious, “Have I told you I have a kid?”
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid timely exposition comes just before there is going to be a shootout and Butch says to Sundance: “Kid, I think there’s something I ought to tell you. I never shot anybody before. ” Sundance replies, “One hell of a time to tell me.” And at 90 minutes into the film it is one hell of a time to tell the audience this little bit of exposition. Butch is an outlaw and a bank robber and the admission catches Sundance and the audience off guard.
Films often use exposition early in the film to set the stage as in Jerry Maguire where the Tom Cruise character explains what a sports agent does. (Speaking of Jerry Maguire, I loved how screenwriter Cameron Crowe actually used exposition to avoid the usual spill-your-guts exposition moment when Dorothy tells Jerry, “Let’s not tell all our sad stories.”)
The stuff you have to get out to set up you story is what Blake Snyder calls “laying pipe” and warns that audiences can only stand so much of that before they get bored with the technical jargon.
“Laying Pipe,” is about how much screen time you must use to set up your story. In my opinion, audiences will only stand for so much of that. A good example of “too much pipe” is Minority Report, which does not get going until Minute 40. Why? Because this adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story requires A LOT of pipe! And to me, it torques the whole movie out of shape. So we must be careful. Just because we can lean on the built-in audiences that a beloved novel brings, we have to make sure we create a movie-going experience that resonates for everyone — even those who aren’t familiar with the book.
See how well exposition is handled in Man in Black: “What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadlier poisons known to man.” Mystery Man on Film says of this line of exposition: “Perfect. The pipe is laid, the audience knows the name of the poison, its properties, and how it works. More important, the audience knows how this scene is going to work — one of the men will die from ingesting the poison.”
One reason flashbacks in general are frowned upon in screenplays is because they are often put there to simply be an info dump rather than being integral to the story. But flashbacks and life recaps can be handled well.
In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character says, “Dad was a Yankees fan then so, of course, I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58 the Dodgers moved away so we had to find other things to fight about.” Two lines that sums up his relationship with his father.
“But you have to be careful that your characters are not talking only in order to get information out. If you need to give the audience a bit of information, make sure to give the character his own reason to tell us about it. That’s called making the dialogue organic to the character.”
“Always ask yourself: Would the character actually say this, or is he only saying it because you need the audience to know some fact or detail? If the answer is the latter, you’re writing exposition and not dialogue. That’s not good.”
Save the best exposition for last. Of course, one of the best examples of this is when Darth Vader says, “Luke, I am your father.” I was at midnight showing in Hollywood when I first heard that line uttered and it was a personal great movie moment. Other great memorable lines of powerful expo are “I see dead people” (The Sixth Sense) and “She’s my sister and my daughter” (Chinatown).
Good exposition doesn’t need to be spoken either. “Show don’t tell” is a popular Hollywood phrase. Films are visual. When Jack Nickelson’s character continually washes his hands in As Good as it Gets we get a hint that he’s a obsessive compulsive neurotic. We don’t need to have him explain to a character why he washes his hands. We don’t need to see a flashback of him growing up in a dirty household where his mother didn’t let him wash his hands in order to save on the water bill.
In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character reads books in a room filled with books. We get a clue that he reads a lot. Simple visual exposition.
Sometimes you can use false exposition to lead the characters and audience astray as Norman Bates does in Psycho. Just because someone tells you something (and even believes it themselves) doesn’t mean it’s true.
Subtext is another way of masking exposition. Actors love to talk about playing subtext. That is what is being said beyond the words. Think of the many ways someone can say “I love You” and have it mean so many different things including “I hate you.”
As you’re writing and rewriting your script be aware of how exposition is being conveyed. Make ever effort to make the exposition seamless and is there for a good reason.
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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