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Writing Exposition: 5 Helpful Techniques

By Ron Moskovitz · February 9, 2012

Exposition is one of the biggest challenges a young writer faces when trying to tackle a new script. What happened before the film started? What does the audience need to know to understand the story?

Frequently, you’ll see young writers struggle. They resort to clumsy voiceovers, have characters tell each other things they both already know for the sake of the audience, and generally spend way too much “setting up” their story. Meanwhile, the audience gets bored – and if that audience is people who read scripts for a living (including actors, agents, and producers) that boredom can mean they stop reading.  In this article, we’re going to take a look at a handful of successful films and illustrate five helpful techniques that work when dealing with the problem of exposition.

Technique #1: Deliver Through Movement, An Energetic Scene

The first way to cover exposition is demonstrated in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece North by Northwest (1959), written by Ernest Lehman.

The first way to cover exposition is demonstrated in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece North by Northwest (1959), written by Ernest Lehman.

The first scene of the movie features Roger Thornhill (Carey Grant) dictating instructions to his secretary. This scene, which moves from the lobby to the street and to a cab, is the only part of the film that “sets up” his character.

Thornhill’s double-talk is so rapid that we have a hard time knowing exactly what he’s talking about. But there’s a sense of urgency coming from his need to dictate a lot of instructions to his secretary despite being late, and it pulls us along even though we don’t really understand the specifics. It’s obvious that he’s some sort of very successful businessman, but beyond that it is hard to follow on first viewing.

We also get several clues as to the lack of depth in his relationships. First, he pretends to be friendly with the doorman by the elevator, but he obviously doesn’t care enough to know that the man’s relationship is in trouble. Then his secretary has to remind him that he sent the same note to his lover before. 

INT. LOBBY OF OFFICE BUILDING – MADISON AVENUE

Four elevators in action A starter keeping things humming. Doors close on an elevator. It starts up. Another elevator arrives at street level. The last credit fades.

The elevator doors open. Crowds pour out, and we hear a voice at the rear of the car even before the man is revealed to us by the off-going passengers.

He is Roger Thornhill, tall, lean, faultlessly dressed (and far too original to be wearing the gray-flannel uniform of his kind).

He has bee dictating to his secretary, Maggie, an ageing, unbeautiful woman who has accompanied him down in the elevator with pad and pencil in hand. She will have to scurry to keep up with his impatient stride when they leave the elevator and cross the lobby to the entrance.

THORNHILL

(dictating)

…Even if you accept the belief that a high Trendex automatically means a rising sales curve, which incidentally I do not accept…

(to elevator starter)

‘Night, Eddie.

STARTER

Mr Thornhill.

THORNHILL

Say hello to the missus.

STARTER

(sourly)

We’re not talking.

THORNHILL

(to Maggie, continuing dictation as they cross lobby)

My recommendation is still the same. Dash. Spread the good word in as many small-time segments as we can grab…

(as he pauses at the news-stand, buys a paper)

…And let the opposition have their high ratings, while we cry about it all the way to the bank.

(moving on)

Why don’t we colonize at the Colony one day next week for lunch? Let me hear from you, Sam. Happy thoughts. Etcetera…

(they are at the entrance now)

Better walk me to the Plaza.

MAGGIE

(a weary moan)

Walk?

THORNHILL

Use your blood sugar. Come on.

He eases her through the door, follows her to the sidewalk.

EXT. STREET – TRACKING SHOT

They start to walk west, Thornhill glancing at the newspaper as he goes.

THORNHILL

Next?

MAGGIE

(consulting her pad)

Gretchen Sabinson.

THORNHILL

(grimaces)

Send her a box of candy from Blum’s. Ten dollars. The kind… you know… each piece wrapped in gold paper? She’ll like that. She’ll think she’s eating money. Say: ‘Darling, I count the days, the hours, the minutes –‘

MAGGIE

(interrupting)

You sent that one last time.

THORNHILL

Did I? Then just say: ‘Something for your sweet tooth, honey… and all your other sweet parts.’

(Maggie gives him a look and he winces)

I know, I know.

MAGGIE

Could we take a cab, Mr Thornhill?

THORNHILL

A couple of blocks?

MAGGIE

You’re late and I’m tired

THORNHILL

I keep telling you, Maggie, you don’t eat properly.

(steps off the curb, tries to flag a cab)

Taxi!… Taxi!

 

Technique #2: Script Economy, Keep It Short

There’s fantastic economy at work here. A lesser writer might feel the need for a scene to demonstrate how Thornhill is superficial with underlings, or not really invested in his romantic relationship, but here we get all of that in the 45 seconds it takes to get Thornhill to the cab.

What lessons can we draw from this opening?  First, exposition is delivered in a moving, energetic scene, which keeps us distracted. Thornhill wants something – for his secretary to take care of a whole host of business – so the question of whether or not he’ll succeed pulls us through the scene. And lastly, the exposition is kept short – not much time is spent setting up the character and story.

Also notice what the scene doesn’t do: it doesn’t go into a lot of depth setting up Thornhill’s relationship with his mother, or his alcoholism, or his divorces. We get these beats later in the story, after the main drama of the story is thoroughly underway. 

 

Technique #3: Show, Don’t Tell

Another crucial technique for relaying exposition is demonstrated in the opening of last summer’s surprise hit Bridesmaids (2011), directed by Paul Fieg, written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.

Annie (played by Wiig) starts the film in a bad relationship grounded in her lack of self-respect. But rather than have Annie tell us all of this, we get the following opening scene:

EXT. UPSCALE MODERN HOME – NIGHT

The ultimate bachelor pad. A Porsche is parked in front of it.

ANNIE (O.S.)

I’m so glad you called.

TED (O.S.)

I’m so glad you were free.

ANNIE (O.S.)

I love your eyes.

TED (O.S.)

Cup my balls.

ANNIE (O.S.)

Ok, yes, alright, I can do that.

TED (O.S.)

Oh, there it is!

INT. BEDROOM – CONTINUOUS

ANNIE WALKER, mid 30's, is having sweaty sex with TED, handsome, 40. In a series of close-ups and jump cuts, we see Annie in the middle of a very long, vigorous session.

ANNIE

Oh, that feels good.

TED

You know what to do!

ANNIE

I’m so glad I got to see you again.

JUMP CUT to see she’s now bouncing on top of him.

ANNIE (CONT’D)

Oh yes!

(then, looking concerned)

Uh, okay, wait, hold on. You and I are on different rhythms I think.

TED

I want to go fast!

ANNIE

Oh, Okay. Sure–

He bounces Annie SUPER FAST. 

The key principle at work here is that Wiig and Mumolo are showing, not telling, us about Annie’s problem. Her boyfriend’s selfish behavior is incredibly clear, as is her complicity in it, because it’s all up there on screen.  Annie’s problem has been dramatized.

 

Technique #4: Make It Funny

It’s also worth pointing out that the opening scene to Bridesmaids is funny. That illustrates another principle of exposition: funny excuses anything. If the audience is laughing, nothing else matters.

Later, when it comes time to tell the audience about Annie’s failed cake business, Wiig and Mumolo fall back on the same technique that Hitchcock and Lehman used: keep it short! The key information is given in something like 20 seconds of screen time:

So far we’ve seen examples of dramatizing exposition, covering it with humor, and giving it momentum. Unfortunately, sometimes those tricks aren’t enough. Sometimes your story just demands that you lay out a chunk of backstory.  In the fifth technique, here are two examples which use the same principle:

 

Technique #5: Don’t Tell, Use Questions

First, this scene from Out of Sight (1998) (directed by Steven Soderberg, written by Scott Frank), which introduces us to Jennifer Lopez’s Karen Sisco.

Rather than have a scene where she tells her dad about her boyfriend’s marital status, instead Frank gives us a scene where she doesn’t want to tell him, but he’s asking. That creates conflict, which makes the scene engaging. And, of course, a touch of humor related to the gift of the gun doesn’t hurt. Notice how we learn almost in passing that she’s got a habit of going after unavailable men.

INT. RESTAURANT – DAY

As MARSHALL SISCO — fifty — slides a small wrapped box across a table…                    

MARSHALL          

Happy birthday.

…to where KAREN SISCO — twenty-eight, black suit, long hair, a knockout — sits. She picks up the box and shakes it.                   

KAREN          

You fit another Chanel suit in here?                   

MARSHALL          

Something better.  Open it.

Karen starts to carefully unwrap the present.  Marshall watches, takes a sip of his drink, looks around the bar, sees how everyone's looking at the two of them…                  

KAREN              

(opens the box)

Oh my God…

She pulls a gleaming automatic pistol from the box…                    

KAREN (CONT'D)          

It's beautiful.                    

MARSHALL          

It's a —    

KAREN

–Sig-Sauer .38.  I love it.

She leans across the table and kisses him.        

KAREN (CONT'D)

Thanks, Dad.        

MARSHALL

Happy birthday, kid.

(then)

You want another Coke?      

KAREN    

(checks her watch)

Can't.  I gotta drive out to Glades, then I'm meeting Ray Nicolet at ten.    

MARSHALL

Which one is that?  The ATF guy?  

KAREN

He was.  Ray's with the F.B.I. now, he switched over.         

MARSHALL

He's still married though, huh?         

KAREN

Technically. They're separated.       

MARSHALL

Oh, he's moved out?      

KAREN

He's about to.         

MARSHALL

Then they're not separated, are they?         

KAREN

Can we change the subject?      

MARSHALL

What're you doing at Glades?        

KAREN

Serving process, a Summons and Complaint.  Some con doing mandatory life doesn't like macaroni and cheese. He files suit, says he has no choice in what they serve and it violates his civil rights.

MARSHALL          

You know you can always step in, work with me full-time as one of my investigators.

KAREN           

No thanks.                    

MARSHALL          

You used to like it.

KAREN

Dad…                   

MARSHALL          

You'd meet doctors, lawyers — nothing wrong with them necessarily if they're divorced.  Why settle for some cowboy cop who drinks too much and cheats on his wife?  That's the way those hotshots are, all of 'em.

KAREN

I really gotta go.                    

MARSHALL          

We don't get to talk much any more.                    

KAREN          

How 'bout I come next Sunday and watch the Super Bowl with you?                  

MARSHALL          

I'd like that. She gets up, kisses him again.                  

KAREN          

Thanks for the gun, Dad. 


A final example of this technique is illustrated quite well in George Lucas’s famous Star Wars (1977).  

Lucas needs the audience to know that the Death Star plans were sent to the rebel ship – this is the engine driving the entire plot. Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones) is interrogating Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). He wants to know something, and she isn’t telling – and that conflict is enough to allow him to get away with saying things like, “Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by rebel spies.”

Because his statement comes in the form of a question, one in which she doesn’t want to answer, his statements don’t feel like a dry recitation of the facts, but rather as an engaging bit of drama. As always, this conflict comes from a clear want (Darth Vader wants the plans) meeting a strong obstacle (Princess Leia would rather die than tell him anything). The result is a compelling scene that, oh yeah, gives us a critical piece of information.

INTERIOR: REBEL BLOCKADE RUNNER — HALLWAY

Princess Leia is led down a low-ceilinged hallway by a squad of armored storm troopers. Her hands are bound and she is brutally shoved when she is unable to keep up with the briskly marching troops. They stop in a smoky hallway as Darth Vader emerges from the shadows. The sinister Dark Lord stares hard at the frail young senator, but she doesn't move.

LEIA

Lord Vader, I should have known. Only you could be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit for this, when they hear you've attacked a diplomatic…

VADER

Don't play games with me, Your Highness. You weren't on any mercy mission this time. You passed directly through a restricted system. Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they sent you.

LEIA

I don't know what you're talking about. I'm a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan…

VADER

You're a part of the Rebel Alliance…and a traitor. Take her away!

Leia is marched away down the hallway and into the smoldering hole blasted in the side of the ship. An Imperial Commander turns to Vader.

COMMANDER

Holding her is dangerous. If word of this gets out, it could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the senate.

VADER

I have traced the Rebel spies to her. Now she is my only link to find their secret base!

COMMANDER

She'll die before she tells you anything.

VADER

Leave that to me. Send a distress signal and then inform the senate that all aboard were killed!

Another Imperial Officer approaches Vader and the Commander. They stop and snap to attention.

SECOND OFFICER

Lord Vader, the battle station plans are not aboard this ship! And no transmissions were made. An escape pod was jettisoned during the fighting, but no life forms were aboard.

Vader turns to the Commander.

VADER

She must have hidden the plans in the escape pod. Send a detachment down to retrieve them. See to it personally, Commander. There'll be no one to stop us this time.

 

So take a look at your current script. Chances are you’ve got some big chunks of exposition hanging out in the first couple of pages. See if you can’t apply the techniques of these examples to deliver it with more subtly and keep your story moving.