Exposition is an important part of storytelling of whatever kind, it typically answers questions about who, where, and when that the reader might have as the plot unravels.
Is it really necessary in a screenplay? Absolutely, its absence breeds confusion!
Is there such a thing as bad or good exposition? There is.
Today we uncover creative ways to bolster your exposition for an incredible screenplay intro.
An exposition is a collection of information (mostly back story to help the viewer understand the plot and characters), delivered to the audience in a variety of ways.
In other words, they are the events that set up the story.
If you’re struggling with exposition delivery, we offer three tips to help you out:
Writers can disguise exposition via the actions of the characters, through which a setting, conflict, and other important introductory information can be deduced by the audience without necessarily putting it in words.
For example, in a screenplay depicting the events at a hospital, writers can tell the audience what’s about to happen through the behavior of the characters.
Through facial expressions, visible uneasiness, praying, holding of hands, etc, you can paint the picture of a worried family waiting on news in the emergency room.
The audience can also put two in two together as to the nature of the patient’s condition from the items the family possesses, like a shirt with a bullet hole etcetera, possibly alluding to an earlier shootout of some sorts.
The clothes one wears, depicting a company logo or a recognizable uniform such as a doctor’s lab coat, etc, also aid the exposition further. It gives the audience information that the probable storyline may involve a car dealership or bank for instance, or shed light on the past of the protagonist.
A classic example of character exposition is the introduction of the Sith Lord Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode 4. Here’s the text on the screenplay:
The only issue I have with this action sequence is the formatting. It’s too blocky and not enough white space. For more info on how to format your screenplay, see HERE.
Let’s ignore that for now and see how it looks on the screen:
Aside from Threepio and R2D2, the scene had minimal dialogue. All you see are two forces (one group clad in all white and another group of soldiers) shooting lasers at each other.
This fight instantly draws the audience into a world dealing with great conflict.
Then when the dust settles and dead bodies litter the floor, the great antagonist Darth Vader makes his entrance.
No words were used to introduce him. Just his entrance and his lack of fear in walking into a battlefield (with no laser gun!) strikes fear into his enemies.
This powerful entrance provides an example of character exposition through action. Whoever this black figure is, this person is not someone to mess with.
He’s the baddest of the bad guys.
Character actions present a smooth way to blend exposition without seeming too obvious about it. It’s an excellent way to tell the backstory without actually telling it.
Delivering exposition in-between character conversations also works splendidly when pulled off right.
A great example of this is in the 1984 blockbuster, The Terminator.
The story is basically about robots rising against humans and the ensuing war, and that information is conveyed to the audience with in-character conversations when the two protagonists of the film, meeting for the first time, talk about it during a high-speed chase while fleeing from a “terminator.”
They exchange names, and one protagonist reveals he is from the future to save the other’s unborn son, deemed crucial to victory over the machines.
Here’s the conversation about Sarah’s son the dark days ahead:
Introducing information to the audience can be boring, but hooking focus and attention by inducing adrenaline is a sure-fire way to pack a powerful exposition into the scene.
Another extreme way to use dialogue to convey exposition is via monologues. If you’re a new writer, be careful with this. Too much dialogue in the hands of a new writer can be dangerous.
However, using monologues to convey exposition can be helpful. First, the verbose nature of monologues means you can convey more information.
Second, a really good monologue can convey BOTH exposition and character development.
A master of this technique would be Quentin Tarantino. Consider this monologue about the “commode” from Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs:
This scene not only shows Mr. Orange’s backstory as a cop, but also shows how he could pull off the “commode” story which helped him get inside the gang of robbers in the movie.
You could see how Mr. Orange slowly developed himself into his gangster role.
The point here is: dialogue unveiling the theme doesn’t have to be mundane.
You can cleverly fit it into the screenplay while simultaneously advancing the plot to good effect.
It doesn’t always have to be so dramatic though, something as simple as one character answering questions with the audience in the shoes of the ignorant character also works.
Lightening the mood with humor goes a long way in improving exposition delivery, especially in cases where the Q&A can seem straightforward and cheesy.
It’s prudent not to cram all the exposition into dialogue, mix it up with other options as well to make it more organic.
Exposition through narration can be a hard act to pull off for inexperienced writers, and even seasoned professionals because there’s a lot of room for success and similar space for error.
There are no set limits, and it’s tempting to go on and on and try to do too much.
The key thing with narrator exposition is knowing when to seize your moments, and passing off the exposition in-between a sandwich of relevance. Let’s consider these three examples:
Scenario 1: You’re hanging out at your friend’s house watching TV, and out of the blues, he says he thinks black clothes pair great with any outfit
Scenario 2: A nicely dressed gentleman in a black suit passes you by on the street and your friend offers the same remarks.
Scenario 3: You and your friend go out shopping for new clothes, and he suggests to consider black as it looks great with anything.
In the first case, that fact seems random and sudden while in the second it seems a little dubious although somewhat understandable.
It is however completely relevant in the third case and your friend’s actions are acceptable to the audience and tie in with the scene. In a nutshell, the information given by the narrator should feel relevant to the exact scene and what’s going on at that particular moment.
It should matter in the present situation without going too far ahead and even distracting from the goal of the scene.
Successful writers typically share character exposition at the point of new character introductions when the relevance is highest and scatter the rest of the info across the story. The same goes for background details as well that may be important to the theme.
The best way to use voice over for exposition is to create a unique character for the narrator. Give him or her a unique voice and a backstory.
Consider the wizard in the original Conan the Barbarian. Here is his opening lines:
Here is what it looked like in opening sequence:
Granted, the actor was incredible as the wizard. Those lines set the stage for Conan’s adventure and felt/sounded more powerful.
Here’s another example in the comedy Stranger than Fiction. In this instance, the character breaks the fourth wall and attempts to communicate with the narrator:
Dialogue can be a powerful way to convey exposition. Just make sure it flows with the narrative and add your own creative twist!
Good exposition is like vodka; too much at one time, and it overwhelms but a little spread out throughout the narrative goes down easy.
The general rule of thumb is to keep it thin and spread out so that it sticks to memory without making the audience forget the initial topic.
You can choose to start with the basics that might cause plot holes, and cover the rest bit by bit throughout the story. There are many ways to deliver a powerful exposition, just be creative, express yourself and mix up your options!
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