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Mystery Man & The Art of Exposition

Let’s cut to the chase. If you have a scene that’s only about verbal exposition, in other words you have a character that’s just verbally explaining things, like the plot, and that scene is about explaining the plot and nothing else, generally speaking, you’re doing it wrong.

Yes, my friends, I know. Exposition is a pain in the ass.

So what is exposition? In my circle of friends, the definition has sparked debates. I have friends who will argue that any on-the-nose dialogue is exposition. I have other friends who will argue that, technically, all of storytelling is exposition. I’m actually inclined to agree with both.

At times when I’m writing a script, every detail that needs to be established feels like exposition of some kind from character goals to inner conflicts to all of those countless setups for payoffs later. However, for the sake of our discussion, we’re going to narrow the definition to its most common understanding, that is, the explaining of things.

Exposition is the one aspect of craft that derails more screenplays, and I would argue that it’s as important as any other aspect of craft.

The plot dump. Also known as the information dump. Anything factual and crucial to the story that has to somehow be explained to the audience somewhere in the narrative. Sometimes it’s the monologues, like the “villain speeches,” in which the evil bad guy explains to the captured hero the diabolical scheme to take over the world, which will naturally commence in X number of minutes. Then, of course, the hero protagonist escapes and sabotages said evil scheme just before the countdown to zero.

Exposition isn’t the most important aspect, because for me, characters always come first, forever and ever, amen. But exposition is the one aspect of craft that derails more screenplays, and I would argue that it’s as important as any other aspect of craft (second only to characters).

WHAT NOT TO DO

Consider this moment from “The Simpsons,” an episode called “Bart’s Inner Child:”

Homer: Well, here we are at the Brad Goodman lecture.

Lisa: We know, Dad.

Homer: I just thought I’d remind everybody. After all, we did agree to attend this self-help seminar.

Bart: What an odd thing to say…

This, my friends, is sometimes referred to as the “idiot lecture,” because the lecturer must be a gargantuan idiot to just arbitrarily explain things that the other characters already know. Sometimes this is also called the “As you know, Bob” lines of dialogue. As in:

  • “As you know, Bob, I never truly recovered from that nasty bout of hemorrhoids.”
  • “As you know, Bob, my one billion-volt stun gun gets its energy from codfish balls.”

Here’s another pet peeve of mine, a scene in which, say, an intern enters a laboratory and asks the brilliant scientist-in-charge, “So, what are we doing again?” And the brilliant scientist says, “Well, as you know, Bob, we’re about to clone gerbils, which I’ve been planning for the last decade and a half, and we’re starting the experiment right now. So put on your goggles.”

One cannot undermine believability in the fictional worlds you’re creating with totally unrealistic behavior.

So help me, if I review a screenplay on my blog or on TriggerStreet and the writer (whether pro or amateur, I don’t care) resorted to these kinds of garden-variety “idiot lectures” or “As you know, Bob” lines of dialogue, make no mistake, I will assuredly rip that writer a new one. Unless, of course, those lines were written for the sake of parody or satire, like the example from “The Simpsons,” in which case, I’ll probably love it.

So what’s wrong with these examples? They sacrifice verisimilitude. They lack the semblance of truth. People don’t behave that way. Now I don’t think that realism in dialogue is required in scripts, not at all, but at the same time, one cannot undermine believability in the fictional worlds you’re creating with totally unrealistic behavior. Of course, most writers are not oblivious to the fact that people don’t talk that way. Instead, they are succumbing to sloppy craftsmanship because they’re too lazy to think through the scene to attain some measure of verisimilitude.

I know what you’re thinking: “So, tell me, oh mysterious one, what is the solution to the gerbil cloning scenario above?” It’s easy. Don’t write any verbal exposition at all. Just let the intern enter and begin the experiment. Why do we need to have it explained to us before they do the experiment? Just show instead of tell then show. In the act of watching them clone gerbils, the audience will easily figure out what they’re doing. Additionally, by not explaining the experiment beforehand, the audience will pay closer attention to the action because they’ll be curious to know what’s going on.

EXPLAIN WITH STYLE

Last March, I posted an article on my blog about the Raiders Story Conference, which included a link to a downloadable transcript of the actual story conference between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan as they hammered out the details for a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Consider their approach to exposition.

They reached a point in the plot where Indiana Jones is in Cairo with his friend. They’re at a scene that they know will be full of exposition, that is, the Staff of Ra was too long for the Germans and they’re digging in the wrong place. So the question became, “what are we going to do to make the scene interesting so the audience doesn’t fall asleep?” Spielberg suggested that the exposition could be done over dinner that’s been poisoned. As the characters pick up tainted food and gesture with it, the audience will fear for their lives. Everybody loved the idea.

So then they had to work on the details. How do the characters figure out that the food is poisoned and survive? A pet nibbles on it and dies. Okay, what kind of pet? Spielberg suggested an animal the audience can’t stand that’s always after the hero and doesn’t like him very much, like a mongoose. Lucas suggested a monkey, which they all agreed upon. Then the three creative minds in the room were off and running about this pet monkey.

Great exposition is always in the context of something else.

Why is the monkey there? Is it a family pet? Maybe it just attaches itself to one of the characters and won’t go away. Is it dressed up like a circus monkey? Perhaps it’s secretly helping a German agent? Well, what kind of bad things can a monkey do for a German agent? (So much fun. I was laughing. I wish I was there.) At one point, Spielberg suggested that the monkey humorously do the “Heil, Hitler” gesture. Lucas responded, “That’s up to you and the trainer and the monkey.”

So we’re back at the dinner scene. The exposition about the Staff of Ra will be fed to the audience in the context of Indy possibly eating poisoned food. It’ll be a bad secret agent monkey that eats the food and dies. Of course, the final result was the very quick “bad dates” scene.

What’s to be learned from this example? Great exposition is always in the context of something else. A scene should never be about exposition only. You should feed the exposition in the context of some other scenario that’s going on in the scene whether its poisoned food that’s eaten by a bad secret agent monkey or whether it’s something else interesting going on between the characters, such as a contest of wills, a budding love story, or perhaps exposition that’s being told to a secretly bad character who will use that information against the protagonists.

Here’s another example. A couple of my favorite films growing up were the first two Superman movies with Christopher Reeve. When I got older and began studying screenwriting, I loved analyzing Superman II, because it was at the time one of the few films where you could study two different approaches to the same story by two different filmmakers.

Briefly, director Richard Donner was filming Superman I and Superman II simultaneously. He got behind on Superman I and had to quickly finish the film in order to be ready for the release. His battles with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind are now the stuff of Hollywood legends. In the end, they made the world believe a man could fly, and Superman became a giant box office sensation. Donner started making preparations to go back to work on Superman II, but then he received the now famous telegram stating that his services were no longer required. Then the Salkinds brought in Richard Lester who made numerous changes to Superman II. In fact, it’s been reported that only 30% of what Donner filmed can be seen in Lester’s version, mainly the scenes with Gene Hackman, who played Lex Luthor. Under Lester’s direction, Superman II also went on to become another critical and commercial smash hit.

But what would Donner’s vision have looked like? For me, I was utterly fascinated by the differences between the two films. Donner’s script is available online at mypdfscripts.com and you can also buy a re-cut version of Donner’s Superman II film that has a lot of unused footage.

Consider the different approaches to exposition in this one storyline in Superman II:

30 minutes into Richard Lester’s version, Clark and Lois just show up in a hotel room in Niagara Falls, and Lois mutters this line: “Can you believe this? Us posing as newlyweds in order to expose a honeymoon racket in Niagara Falls.”

That line was thrown into the scene not for Clark’s benefit but the audience’s.

Please kill me now. We might as well label that line, “As you know, Clark…” You just want to say to Lois, “Yes, honey, he can believe it. He was there when Perry White assigned you two to go to Niagara Falls as newlyweds. He flew with you on the plane to Niagara Falls. And he’s standing right there with you IN Niagara Falls.” But, of course, that line was thrown into the scene not for Clark’s benefit but the audience’s and we had to endure a bunch of whining and moaning from Lois to get it. And then, of course, we were forced to sit through Lois’ slow revelation throughout the film about Clark being Superman. How? By talking to herself: “Wait a minute… every time Superman shows up, Clark’s never around…”

There’s no question in my mind that Donner’s version had superior craftsmanship. He would have never made us wait for Lois to eventually put two-and-two together about Clark being Superman. He would’ve hit the ground running in his opening scene with a great plot twist completely rooted in his characters. We’re at the Daily Planet. Lois sits at her desk. She sees Clark enter. She looks at a front-page photo of Superman. She looks up at Clark. And then she happily draws Clark’s glasses, hat, and suit over that front-page photo.

And she whistles.

How beautiful is this non-verbal moment? Lois never says a word to anyone to explain that she figured him out. And none of this talking to herself crap, either. This was visual and fun!

Clark strolls up to her. “How are you, Lois?”

With a sly wink, she says, “Oh… just super, thanks.”

Next, they’re inside Perry White’s office in a wonderful scene filled with subtext and happy banter. Perry orders them to go to Niagara Falls. He wants them to pose as honeymooners to expose a newlywed racket. Clark is stunned. “Newlyweds? Us?” Lois is thrilled. “That’s a great idea, Mr. White.” But Clark protests, “I’m right in the middle of my series on the City Council…” Lois interrupts. “Oh, it won’t take long, Clark. We can just… fly right up there and then sort of… zoom right back again. You know. Like Superman.” Perry says, “Hey. If Superman could give you two a ride we could save a couple of bucks.”

The exposition of Perry White ordering them to pose as newlyweds in Niagara Falls would have, first of all, gotten a laugh out of the audience, because that’s the ideal setting for these two lovebirds who are, as they stand in front of Perry White, pretending to NOT be in love. Second, the exposition heightens the already growing tension between them about Clark’s secret. Third, the exposition is fed to the audience in the context of something else. This wasn’t just about the plot dump of going to Niagara Falls. This was about turning up the heat on Clark, foreshadowing what’s to come, and giving the audience the sense that Niagara Falls might be Clark’s undoing. And, indeed, it is. Lois would prove, once and for all, that Clark is Superman. She outsmarts him in a wonderful “gotcha” moment. Fourth, this setup in Perry’s office is fun because we see Clark and Lois react in ways we wouldn’t expect. Lois would’ve despised an assignment like that but in this case, she can’t wait to go. Clark, who would’ve gratefully accepted anything Perry gave him, tries his best to wiggle out of this losing battle with Lois.

And finally, the growing tension in this scene between Clark and Lois reaches a wonderful climax. Clark says, “Lois… you’re priceless… you know that? I mean, that’s the single funniest thing…” She shows him the newspaper. “Get the picture?”

“Su… Superman? You think I’m Superman?”

“Think? I’ll bet my life on it.”

And she jumps out of a window.

THE ART OF VISUAL EXPOSITION

I’d like to share some words that Miriam Paschal, an aspiring screenwriter and reader of my blog, wrote on all of the visual exposition in the opening sequence of Back to the Future:

It starts with clocks, hundreds of clocks. There are vintage clocks and modern clocks. There is a Harold Lloyd clock with a man hanging off the minute hand of the clock, so we get some foreshadowing right away. We see the newspaper articles of how the old Brown mansion was destroyed, which we will learn later happened when Doc sank all of his money into building a time machine.

We see the pictures of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin, Doc’s heroes.

We see the Rube Goldberg machine that Doc built to streamline his morning routines. Well, it’s not a classic Rube Goldberg machine, but it’s inspired by one. However, something is wrong. The coffee pot pours hot water onto the hot plate in the absence of the pot…and coffee. Strange.

The TV comes on and the morning news leads with a story about stolen plutonium. You could argue that the dialogue is a little important here, but behind the newscaster is a visual with the radiation symbol and the words “Plutonium Theft?”

The toaster pops up burnt toast. The bread looks as if it’s been there for days. Dog food is dispensed into a dish that is already overflowing with uneaten food. Where is the dog? His name is Einstein because that’s what’s written on the dish. Now we wonder where is the man who lives here and, more to the point, where is his dog?

The machine carries the empty can to the garbage, where more empty dog-food cans pile up. Past the garbage can, Marty’s feet enter the door and his hand puts the key back under the mat. So this is not his home. He’s a visitor. He comes in, looks around, and drops his skateboard, which rolls across the room to the bright yellow metal plutonium container.

So we know this is a man obsessed with clocks or time. He admires inventors. He’s an inventor himself with his time-saving machines. He’s taken his dog and been gone for days. And he stole some plutonium. What could be more intriguing?

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

– Is there movement in the scene with exposition or is it static with a bunch of talking heads?

– Think about the timing of the exposition in your story. In the first Terminator film, we were fed the exposition about the future and the Terminator AFTER the action had started. Create a scenario in which the audience will want to know the exposition before you give it to them.

– Avoid repeating the same exposition. Avoid repeating the same exposition.

– How much more intriguing would some of your scenes be if you didn’t give the audience any exposition? There is power and tension in not knowing.

– Avoid huge blocks of verbal exposition. Find ways to chop it up into small doses. Here’s a suggestion for you advanced students. Many aspiring writers fall into similar patterns in their scripts of having one sequence followed by another sequence followed by another sequence, etc. Get creative. Chop up those sequences. You can cut back and forth between two sequences taking place at the same time, which will help you to cut unnecessary lines of dialogue, and many times, you will find that the words in one sequence can complement the action in another sequence. This will also help you to chop up exposition into smaller doses.

– If you must resort to a character explaining something verbally, you better make damn sure that speech is compelling and serves multiple purposes. Do you remember the scene at the wedding early in The Godfather in which Michael told Kay the story about his father and Luca Brasi and the offer that couldn’t be refused? Consider how that monologue served multiple purposes in the narrative. It sets up how scary Luca Brasi is. It explains why the Corleones are so important to music legend Johnny Fontaine who just showed up at the wedding. It illustrates how scary Don Vito Corleone actually is, despite his charisma, and introduces the phrase “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” which has a huge payoff with Brando a couple of scenes later. It also served one other function. It established a crucial basis of trust in the relationship between Michael and Kay, because he tells her, “That’s my family, Kay, that’s not me.”

So much more could be written, but I hope these thoughts prove helpful. Just remember, great exposition is always in the context of something else.

– Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world.  I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.

About the Author

Mystery Man

Comments 8

  1. Always love what Mystery Man has to say, so eloquent and entertaining in the clarification of deceptively complex screenwriting fundamentals.

    I’d love to know what Mystery Man thinks about Avatar, a flick with some truly cringe-worthy exposition. “This is unobtainium, its why we’re here…” says the evil expository device (Selfridge, as in selfish) to the good expository device (Grace, as in… oh sod it).

    1. Ouch. Yes, without the distraction of the floating rock that line hurts!

      For many kids today, Avatar will be what Superman was back then. By the standards of my generation, in many ways that’s very poor.

      Could a ‘better’ script keep a movie at #1? Possibly, if I see what Pixar have achieved. Interesting discussion.

      Like you, I’m waiting for MM’s verdict. My guess: there will be blood…
      (BTW: Where’s your avatar, Oscar?)

      1. Speaking of distracting floating rocks, it makes me wonder by what physics mountains are supposed to defy gravity? Didn’t James Cameron study physics?

        Don’t want to sound like an Avatar basher though, I did have fun watching it as mindless popcorn spectacle. The Pocahontas parallels are probably intentional, wouldn’t be the first time Cameron has had a history repeating plot motif; think of the endings of both Terminator flicks…

  2. Yes – Cameron was aware that mountains don’t float. He also assumed the audience would know that as well.

    In the original script he set that up with … wait for it … tedious exposition.

    The summary: The mineral is a wide temperature range superconductor. Basic physics says that a superconductor will float above a magnet. (It effectively acts as a ‘mirror’ magnetically – so if you have a north pole of a magnet it will appear as an identical north pole, and so repel. The interesting thing about this is that it tends to be self-stabilising, so the superconductor will just ‘float’ rather than fly off into space)

    All this exposition was cut … just leaving references to the weird magnetic fields around the floating mountain which stuffed up the instruments.

    Perhaps you would have preferred more exposition to explain this ?

    Mac

    1. BTW – I don’t think the line was as bad as it sounds.

      It fitted in with the characters perfectly. He was talking to the scientist and reminding her the reason they where their was for the mineral .. not to study the curiosities of the native lifeforms.

      It’s like my boss calling me into his office to beat into my head that I get paid to produce results, not spend time commenting on screenwriting websites.

      Sure – you could argue that it is exposition, because I should know that already. Yet somehow he needs to tell me it regularly.

      Hang on – he’s just calling now …

      Mac

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