Exposition is the great bugaboo of all dramatic writing. Exposition in screenwriting is a bit like removing a loose tooth; it should be handled deftly, painlessly and without warning. The revelation of character backstory, of criminal modus and methods, or the quirks and foibles that drive lovers apart is nearly always an awkward propostion. As writer, you can’t ignore exposition, can’t (usually) omit it, and often can’t refashion it into something palatable like heroic action or sparkling repartee.
If you’re operating in the fantasy genre you’re creating an imagined world infused with things like regions, inhabitants, rituals and rivalries that (usually) escalate into war. If you’re writing a detective thriller with an iconic lone wolf protagonist, then your audience is going to want to know what drives this person, what are his/her obsessions and insecurities? If you’re writing the next Die Hard, then your exposition need only clarify the motives and malevolence of the villain. Since we’ve already met John McLane in segments 1-4, since we know him better than we know most of our uncles, the only expository element is What the hell is he doing in Moscow?
Screenplay exposition is about imparting essential facts, facts that generally fall under two broad categories, 1) Character backstory, or 2) Information essential to the plot, that is, some aspect of that journalistic mantra, who-what-when-where-why? Audiences need plot information for lots of reasons, but one primary one is to facilitate the suspension of disbelief. If your story has some fantastic element, say, a breach of the time/space continuum, (e.g., Inception, Back to the Future, Groundhog Day) a body swap (Big, Heaven Can Wait, Freaky Friday), or even demonic possession (The Exorcist, Audrey Rose, The Conjuring), then your audience will require a set of ground rules. These stories all require exposition of How-did-we-get-here? and How-do-we-get-home (…get well, re-occupy my own body, etc.)?
But suppose you’re not playing in those sandboxes, suppose you’re working in a more character-driven genre. In these instances, the most useful information for an audience is not what someone is like—their quirks, their tastes, their sexual proclivities. The most relevant aspect of character is how one might be expected to cope with adversity, with the multitude of obstacles that are customarily presented in the second acts of movies. It is the backstory-as-catalyst formula; insert character, add heat and simmer. Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s script based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play features a great add-heat-and-simmer piece of exposition. Alec Baldwin’s character, Blake, is an über salesman, a hired gun consultant invited to a realty office/boiler room to put the fear of God into the sales team.
Blake’s profane rant is all about negative reinforcement, about jump-starting the performance of this lackluster sales team by putting their collective heads on the chopping block. But Mamet has also deftly inserted some exposition, the Glengarry leads, a stack of contact names on cards that, to the beleagured salesmen, represent prosperity, salvation, Valhalla. The allure of the leads drives the men, and thus drives the plot. The Glengarry leads also directly impact character; Mamet can leverage this device use to reveal just how desperate, how craven these salesmen truly are.
So the rant presents one effective means of misdirection/exposition. It can be equally effective to fold some essential information into a seeminly unrelated conversation. I say seemingly, for each scene should have a point, and thus each conversation between characters should help advance the plot. Take a look at how Joel and Ethan Coen handled some exposition in their script No Country for Old Men, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Ostensibly, the object of this scene is to give Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) his marching orders and to clarify his compensation. The audience, however, is perhaps curious as to what drives this “loose cannon” Anton Chigurh. At this point in the film, we have seen Chigurh menacing people and inflicting mayhem, but we know virtually nothing else about him. Did Mr. Chigurh have an Oliver Twist boyhood? Was he bullied? Was he maligned? Who cares? Wells provides the only backstory we get about Chigurh, and it turns out out to be all that we need.
In The Hangover, (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) we have a different genre, but a similar approach.
Alan is ultimately revealed as this film’s chief antagonist; we just don’t know it yet. As depicted thus far, Alan is demonstrably odd and yet seemingly benign. Phil and Doug are providing both exposition and some foreshadowing here. As with Chigurh, we don’t know everything about Alan. Was he dropped on his head as an infant Was he oxygen-deprived? You decide. As an audience, we’ve been put on notice about Alan, and that’s plenty.
When I think about the challenge of exposition, I am reminded of a quote from the great Elia Kazan about directing Marlon Brando. Kazan wrote in his biography, A Life: “He just needed a jump-start, and he didn’t need much.” That’s also true of backgrounding your audience. They need something, but they don’t need much.
Clip Credits: Paramount, Miramax, New Line Cinema, Warner Bros. and Legendary