Snubbing Sir Basil

Exposition and How to Avoid it ☛

One problem that vexes screenwriters no matter what their level of experience is how to deal with exposition. If you’re not familiar with the term, exposition is information that is given to allow the audience to follow the plot. Problem is, it’s very commonly given clumsily. You know the thing:

A: This chapel was the centre of operations for the Knights Templar in the 13th century.

B: Yes, and there’s the tomb of Sir Simon de Montford, just as it is on the treasure map!

Akiva Goldsman's script for the "Da Vinci Code" - exposition, 95% pure.

I exaggerate… but not by much (yeah, Dan Brown, I’m talking to you). The problem is, however that many genres – murder mysteries, court room dramas, conspiracy thrillers, historical epics – require the audience to know a lot of information so that they can keep up with the story. How do you give the audiences those facts without coming over all Tolkien?

Key to tackling exposition is understanding why it’s bad. In reality people sometimes tell each other things they already know, but when you have characters doing that in a script it instantly rings false. Why? Because it’s too damned convenient.  Good dialogue reveals information through character interaction and this is what an audience has learned to expect (whether or not they’re conscious of it). They want to find stuff out, they don’t want to be told it.

Problem is, not all plot information can be revealed through character interaction. Sure, you can always go into flashback, but if it’s important for the story that one of the characters is descended from Alexander the Great that’s a difficult fact to get across short of having one of the characters just come out and say it. Exposition is sometimes necessary; this is one reason why it’s so commonplace.

It can be very easy to miss that you’ve written exposition. You hear the character speaking the lines in your head and they sound natural, it’s what they would say in that situation (you think). It helps to find a script editor or a reader who’s honest enough that they’ll point out your occasional clangers. In the case of Hollywood scripts however it’s more commonly down to an overwhelming determination to keep things pacy. Exposition may be clumsy writing but it is the fastest way of delivering information.

Naked exposition is rarely necessary. Here are some ways of approaching the problem:

  1. Dramatise it. If you can work out a way of making the necessary information apparent through the drama, that’s always better than having a character tell us the facts.
  2. Conflict. Robert McKee is fond of saying that “exposition is ammunition”. When you’re in an argument you often throw in facts to back up your position. If you can find the right thing over which your characters can have a good spat, you can deliver a lot of information the audience might need. Key to this approach however is making sure that the argument is heartfelt and speaks to some emotional issue that would genuinely exist between those characters. Essentially you’re hiding facts behind emotions. The audience should feel that they’re learning something about the characters’ emotional make-up: loyalty is important to them, they’re essentially self-serving, they have a short temper. In order to disguise the exposition the emotions should be more interesting than the exposition.
  3. Deferral.This is a key strategy used in horror scripts, but works just as well in any genre. The idea is to withhold information for as long as possible. In a horror film a monster attacks our protagonists and someone says “what the hell was that?!” Unless we’ve already been told, we want to know as much as do the characters. Eventually the characters find some local who knows about the beast/ghost or whatever it is and the legend behind it – our heroes beg to be told what’s eaten their friends. The audience has also built up an appetite for this information and they’re grateful when it comes along. This strategy doesn’t always work, sometimes you need the audience to know the facts early on otherwise the story just don’t make sense. Sometimes the mystery is frustrating rather than tantalizing.

    "Chinatown" - Nicholson finally gets his cigarette lit.

  4. Distraction. Having something else going on that draws the attention while the exposition is being given can sometimes take the curse off it. There’s an outrageous example of this in Angel Heart where Mickey Rourke’s character recaps the story so far while his girlfriend undresses to reveal her stunning lingerie and much of what God gave her. That is a cheap trick; I’m sure I can find a classier example. McKee gives a simple example he spotted in Chinatown: Faye Dunaway’s character drives her and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) while she rehearses the facts they have so far and tries to put them together. All this time, Nicholson, however, is trying to light a cigarette in the open-topped car – his struggle draws our attention while the information is given. This is more commonly a directors’ trick. Thomas Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin developed the ‘walk and talk’ technique for this reason too. Having characters endlessly walking down corridors during conversations is effective in softening exposition; apart from giving us lots of other activity to look at it gives us the sense that the characters are going somewhere, that the story has forward momentum. But really we are just being given information.

    The corridor - Aaron Sorkin's weapon of choice in "West Wing"

  5. The newcomer. Having a character enter the world of the story at the same time as the audience can be a very effective way of forgiving a lot of introductory exposition as they learn the perks and pitfalls of the place and meet its people. John Cusack’s character arriving at the seven-and-a-half floor in Being John Malkovich is a good example of this.
  6. Voiceover. There’s much to be written on the pros and cons of having a voice telling the audience things but what I will say here is a character telling you stuff isn’t more intrinsically interesting just because you can’t see them. If, however, the voiceover narrator has a skewed view of the action in some way, like Sissy Spacek’s naive description of the events in Badlands or the competing narrators in Casino, what it reveals about character can be enough to distract us from just being told things.
  7. Briefing. This is the if-all-else-fails option: a briefing scene. Most common in spy movies, detective stories, war films or any other situation where the protagonist is assigned a mission. They’re rarely much fun but they do allow you to give all the exposition you’re likely to need in one short scene early on in the film. While such scenes give you undisguised exposition, you accept it as natural because the point of a briefing is to give information.  This didn’t stop Mike Myers from satirizing such scenes in Austin Powers by naming the ‘M’ character Sir Basil Exposition. Even briefing scenes can be spiced up though, you’ll notice that many of the best ones will have someone who stands up and says something like “you gotta be kidding – this a suicide mission!”: suddenly we’re in a conflict situation and emotions are running high.
  8. Introductory cards. These few lines of text put up on screen before the film begins are essentially briefings for the audience. Some genres, particularly sci-fi and historical movies, resort to describing up front the “galaxy, far, far away…” in which their story is set simply because there are some facts that about that world that are so universally known that having characters discussing those things would instantly feel bogus. Purists may turn their nose up at this practice but it does at least mean that the drama that follows isn’t burdened with people speaking plot at each other.

Before you get busy sneaking pieces of exposition into your script ask yourself: is the information really necessary? Doesn’t matter if it’s interesting, is your story incomprehensible without that information? No? Scrap it. Making your audience have to do a bit of work to keep up keeps them engaged. Not everything has to be explained in full, some things don’t have to be explained at all. The trick is knowing that you’re giving your viewers just enough information to keep them with you. Too much and they’ll get bored, too little and they’ll get lost and frustrated.

Of course I do know the ultimate trick, the one foolproof way of hiding exposition… but, I don’t feel like giving away that secret. Not now at any rate, maybe later (see what I did there?!)

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

6 Responses to “Snubbing Sir Basil”
  1. Roland Moore says:

    Great article. Thank you for that. One of my favourite examples of Distraction is the exposition in Terminator – most of which is delivered while Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese are trying to escape with their lives.

  2. davanna says:

    In Gone With the Wind, Mammy briefs Rhett on what happened with Scarlett. I think it was after she had had a miscarriage. Together they are going up that grand staircase which featured so prominently in the latter part of the movie. It was walk and talk distraction combined with just plain distraction because we are watching or being distracted by Rhett’s reaction to the news. By that point in the movie, empathy with Rhett as a character has been fully established. The audience could probably watch his reaction to being read the Atlanta phone book by then. <==If that wouldn't be an anachronism. 😉 A good example also of newcomer. Even though the character of Rhett isn't a newcomer, he is a newcomer to that particular situation.

    Great incapsulated tips of exposition techniques. Thank you! One always needs these little tricks of the trade.

  3. guyducker says:

    Thank you Roland and Davanna, both very useful examples.

    Having exposition delivered on the move always helps. A good negative-example of why can be found in “Match Point” – two policemen sit on the edge of a table and discuss their case. There’s no narrative movement, no physical movement, no emotion and not much tension. The scene clunks horribly. Had Woody at least had them walking down a corridor or to a car, while there’s a small danger it would have looked like a cop show, it would at least have taken the curse off the scene.

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