Greetings, Movie Buffs! Love ’em or hate ’em, exposition is a necessary evil. You have to convey information so that the audience can follow along, yet you have to make it oblivious to the audience that you are conveying that information. So how do we do it?
There are several little tricks I’ve noticed in the past that I really wish I knew how to execute while writing my last couple of projects.
1. The Preemptive Tension Method (Pulp Fiction):
When we first meet Vince and Jules, they’re just two guys in a car, shooting the breeze. Cut to them retrieving guns out of the trunk and commenting that they “should have fuckin’ shotguns for this.” Now, we’re intrigued. What exactly do these guys do?? We can make the guess that they’re hitmen/gangsters from that statement.
So what exactly follows that reveal? A conversation about a woman and television pilots to an exposition dump about some guy called Tony Rocky Horror. Is that story relevant to the following scene in the apartment? No, it’s not. The story deals with this guy giving the aforementioned woman a foot massage, and her husband finding out, and throwing the guy out a window.
That exposition doesn’t get paid off for about fifteen minutes later when Mia is practically throwing herself at Vincent, but he resists. Probably not for morals, either. More likely than not, he doesn’t want to risk being thrown out a window too.
Why It Works:
The exposition dump is preempted by a promise of violence. I talked about this not long ago. Tarantino loves promising his viewers some crazy ass violence, and then milking the scene dry with tension because the audience knows what’s coming. By having your characters arming themselves and going up to see some people, you can be fairly certain that some shit is gonna go down.
When you’re drawing a scene out and instilling tension in the mix, you can do pretty much anything to make the time before the promised violence stretch out. However, it helps if what you’re using to stretch out the time has some substance to the story.
The information here is relevant. Plus it’s delivered in such a casual manner that you wouldn’t think it’d come into play later. But when it does, you remember that it was indeed brought up earlier. So now you really have to pay attention to this kind of storytelling.
2. The Narrative Method (Get Shorty):
In one scene of the film, Chili Palmer is pitching film producer Harry Zimm an idea for a movie. That idea, however, are the events that have led up to this moment, albeit off screen. Harry then tells the story to the awakened Karen. (This way Chili isn’t talking a lot, something he doesn’t like doing)
Harry tells her about this guy that faked his death and scammed an airline out of a lot of money. This guy is the one Chili followed out to Los Angeles for an outstanding debt.
Why It Works:
Mainly because we hadn’t heard this information yet. All we heard was that this guy, Leo, was dead. Chili goes to see his widow, and she reveals that he isn’t really dead. Smash cut to Las Vegas, where he gets a lead on where Leo went, plus he gets a side job, which in turn leads him to Harry Zimm. We have no idea how this guy faked his death.
By having it told as a storytelling device (a story, a movie pitch, etc), you can exposit as much as you want, no matter how incredible. All you have to do is have them be presented as fiction. Then, a little later, reveal that the story is fact.
This method also worked very well in “Seven Psychopaths” for a scene related to Christopher Walken’s character. It also worked extremely well in the opening of “Magnolia.”
3. The Odd Location Method (The Big Lebowski):
This is done all over the place here, and it’s wonderful! I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually discuss kidnappings or ransoms where I’m the bag-man in the middle of an occupied bowling alley. I would more likely than not discuss it in a private room where absolutely no-one can hear it.
Why It Works:
Think about it: would you expect to see kidnapping being discussed in a bowling alley? Probably not. Therefore, it’s unexpected, and different. All you really have to do is change the location in the slugline.
While we’re on the subject of locations, let’s discuss what has become a cliché: the diner scene. You know it, you’ve seen it, they’re everywhere. It’s two or more people sitting in a diner. Talking. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen this on-screen. But here’s the thing: you can tell the good ones from the bad fairly easily.
Paul Thomas Anderson said in the commentary track for “Hard Eight” that if you’re stuck, put two characters in a coffee shop, and you’ll figure it out. I half agree with him there. You can do that, but only in the first, preliminary draft, not the one you’ll show people. Here’s why: this method is used to figure out what each person wants. But because you’re discovering what they want along with them, your scene isn’t going to be nearly as great as it could be.
Once you discover what your characters want, you can finish out the scene as you normally would. Then, you write yourself a quick note about what each character wants. You could even print out that scene. Then, delete it. That’s right. Delete it. Kill Your Darlings. There’s a reason to this, I promise.
Once you know what you have to get over in your scene, you can re-plot each beat of the scene. Since you know where you have to go with it, your scene can be written shorter. Shorter scenes are always better. They are more focused, and they use up fewer pages that you can put towards a bigger scene.
Let’s look at a couple diner scenes and figure out why they do or don’t work. First off, the opener for “Pulp Fiction”: I’ve already talked about this one, and how it adheres to a small three-act structure; but why else does it work? Because after they talk about robbing a place like where they’re at, they actually rob the place they’re at. It pays off.
What about another Tarantino flick, “Reservoir Dogs”: a bunch of guys talking about nothing of particular importance at a diner. Yes, you learn a lot about them, but let’s focus on how the scene pays off: we see them acting like a bunch of tough-guys towards each other, but we don’t think much of it. That is until we see that they’re armed. Now you realize how easy it is for some crazy shit to go down with these guys, and you realize that they’re most likely criminals. Now you’re intrigued.
Going back to the “Pulp Fiction” opener, a scene kind of like that that doesn’t work occurs in Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation.” In that scene, a couple fast food cooks are talking about how cool it would be to rob their place of business. But then, they don’t do it. What a letdown. That’s my problem with a lot of Linklater’s movies: it’s people talking, but without much purpose, or a payoff for the audience.
4. The Moving Method (The Dark Knight):
This is the one that really inspired this article. I love the opening heist sequence. Why? Because it MOVES! Oh man, does it move! And guess what? They dump a ton of exposition in the process, and we barely notice it!
Why It Works:
Simple: it moves! We start off with a window of a high-rise building getting blown out and we see a couple guys in clown masks zip-lining out the window. If that’s not an attention-grabber, I don’t know what is. What’s going on? Why are they zip-lining out a window? Why are they wearing those masks?
Then, we meet a guy being picked up in a car filled with more guys in clown masks. They quickly exposit that they’re about to commit a robbery. Also, how many guys are in on the job. “Three of a kind makes for five shares.” “Six shares. Don’t forget about the guy who planned this.” “The Joker, thinks he can get a piece of this while we do all the work?” Cut to the guys who zip-lined from the building on a rooftop: “So why do they call him The Joker?”
We have two sets of guys that we can assume are doing different parts of the same job. And they’re all giving the viewers details. Because these are two separate events that we can deduce will be coming together for a big climax, we hardly notice. Also, each of these little exchanges are short. A couple of lines, generally. That’s another aspect that helps a story move: brevity.
In one of my projects, I have a lot of information to convey to the audience about how a con man operates. In the first draft I wrote a few years back, the people discussing it were all sitting/standing around a hotel room, while some footage would actually show what they were discussing. It doesn’t work well. I was showing and telling. Not good.
What I decided to do in the later drafts was to have the exposition discussed while these characters were actually DOING SOMETHING. And that something was going to be plot-related. For example, it could happen while a couple of the feds installing a wire tap ON the con man. Thereby, information that is necessary to know was being explained, but something they were doing on-screen would also be propelling the story forward.
If I wanted to heighten this scene, I might have it where the con man actually happens to walk past them, and they now have to keep their voices low, and try to exchange this information.
Something like this could also be done if you were to have people trying to have a private conversation at a loud environment, like a laundromat, and have to shout, yet keep the conversation between them.
So these are just a few examples of how you can enhance your exposition dumps, hopefully without taking the audience out of the story. I hope you found these useful to your projects.
Until next time, Movie Buffs!