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By Michael Schilf · January 11, 2011
Exposition is a necessary tool for the screenwriter and often one that is essential to understanding plot, character, setting, and/or theme because it provides an explanation of necessary background information to the audience. Every film has it, but not every film does it well.
When the presentation of the information comes out as a forced monologue, it is often referred to as an “info dump” or “idiot lecture.” Good exposition, however, never simply “dumps” information in our lap. The skilled screenwriter delivers it through conflict (an argument that starts about one thing escalates when past issues are brought up), through humor (a character teasing another will often illustrate by referring to events of the past), through a character whose occupation demands a delivery of information (professor, lawyer, judge, scientist, etc), or during intense action (a car chase, a shootout, or even just a jog through the park).
Since there are so many different purposes for exposition and it can be presented in so many different ways, we felt it was necessary to narrow the road and base our list on two very distinct rules: Rule #1 – Exposition that occurs in one singular scene & Rule: #2 – Exposition that delivers information ONLY on plot and/or the world of the story.
10. Wedding Crashers (2005)
The Scene: Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) convinces John (Owen Wilson) to crash one more wedding: the biggest nuptial of the year.
The Exposition: We learn about their wedding crashing experience and expertise, the fact that there are sacred rules to wedding crashing that have been passed down to them, as well as key details as to the importance of who is getting married.
The Summary: Not only do we see how the friendship between John and Jeremy operates – Jeremy clearly the instigator in the driver seat, but we also set up the entire story during this two-minute scene. Talk about script economy. While trying to get John excited about this seasons last crash, Jeremy tells John that this will be “the greatest crash of all time.” We learn that this “Kentucky Derby of weddings” is for Treasury Secretary Cleary’s daughter and “there is no room for error.” The prospect of secret service excites Jeremy, who also refers to the sacred crashing rules that have been passed down to them 12 years ago by their mentor, Chaz Reinhold, a man John sees as a loser, yet Jeremy reveres.
9. Chinatown (1974)
The Scene: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) sits through a council meeting at City Hall regarding the “Proposed Alto Vallejo Dam and Reservoir”.
The Exposition: We learn the about the importance of water in Los Angeles and the dramatic set up that propels the story forward to the final resolution.
The Summary: In only two minutes and twenty seconds, this scene alone sets up the entire dramatic situation and the circumstances surrounding the action: “L.A. is dying of thirst.” Screenwriter Robert Towne doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here as the exposition comes out quite literally as a lecture, but we accept it because former mayor Bagby and Mr. Mulwray are addressing the council committee and council chamber audience. It’s a situation where exposition is expected, and both Bagby and Mulwray are respected authorities.
But what makes the scene stand out against other lecture based exposition scenes in which the norm is that the protagonist is doing the lecturing or at least involved in the exchange – is that the protagonist Gittes is a silent observer who knows no more than the audience does, and as he sits quietly listening to the proceedings and learning of the dramatic set up along with the audience.
The key moment occurs when Mulwray refuses to build the damn because “It won’t hold.” We learn that “He won’t make that kind of mistake twice.” We respect Mulwray for his ethical yet unpopular stance, but Bagby has already illustrated that “Los Angeles is a desert community” and the Alto Vallejo Dam can “keep the desert from our streets.” Mulwray’s refusal to build it is now a major obstacle, which creates a motive to murder Mr. Mulwray.
8. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Scene: Indy (Harrison Ford) and colleague Marcus Brody decipher a Nazi communique message for two U.S. Army officers.
The Exposition: Indy and Brody explain that the Nazi’s have discovered Tanis, an ancient city and possible burial site of the Ark of the Covenant, which holds epic mystical power.
The Summary: Even though the scene is five minutes long, it never feels forced or labored because we get all the critical information that sets up the entire story by using characters that are authorities in the field. Professor Jones and Museum Curator Brody are the teachers while the two Army officers, along with us, are the students.
Early in the scene, we’re reminded of Indy’s expertise: Professor of Archeology, expert in the occult, and obtainer of rare antiquities. The Army officers also dish out essential backstory – that Indy studied under Prof. Abner Ravenwood (Marion’s father), but they had a falling out and haven’t spoken in ten years. This is an important plant that will pay off when Indy reconnects with Marion later.
Once the Army officers illustrate their concern regarding the Nazi communiqué from Cairo to Berlin, Indy and Brody deduce that the Nazis are searching for the Ark of the Covenant and that the headpiece to the Staff of Ra is the key to finding the Well of Souls, in which the Ark is buried. All of this is explained as Indy literally uses a chalkboard to sketch out the Staff of Ra and the headpiece medallion to illustrate the process of how to use the staff and headpiece in the map room in Tanis to locate the Well of the Souls. Indy concludes by saying “an army which carries the Ark before it is invincible.” With this information, the officers have little choice but to authorize Indy to recover the Ark before the Nazis do.
7. The Godfather (1972)
The Scene: Michael (Al Pacino) explains the family business to Kay (Diane Keaton) at Michael’s sister’s wedding.
The Exposition: Michael tells Kay the story of how his father helped Johnny Fontane get out of his personal service contract.
The Summary: As one of the most highly acclaimed films of all time, it is no surprise that The Godfather uses exposition in a natural and seamless way. Early in the film, a short but powerful exposition scene (1 minute 30 seconds) takes place that subtly submerges the audience into the world of the Corleone family.
Michael, along with his future wife Kay, attends his sister’s wedding. Kay is impressed when the famous Johnny Fontane arrives at the wedding. Michael goes on to explain that his father did a favor for Fontane when Johnny wanted to get out of a personal service contract by giving the Big Band Leader an “offer he couldn’t refuse.”
This scene allows the audience to learn alongside Kay about the powerful, influential, and violent world that the Corleone family operates. In addition to introducing the audience to the mafia world, the plot of the movie is addressed when Michael states, “That’s my family, not me”. This is a theme played on throughout the plot of the film, and ultimately becomes a huge conflict for Michael as he struggles not to be pulled into the family.
6. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
The Scene: Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) welcomes new recruits to the U.S. Marine Corps Training Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina in 1967.
The Exposition: Hartman explains the rules of his “beloved Corp.” and the new world that his and gives out nicknames to some of the recruits: Private Snowball, Private Joker, Private Cowboy, and Private Pile
The Summary:Hartman’s brutal and exhaustive verbal tirade onto the new Marine recruits as they stand at attention in front of their bunks in the barracks sets up the rules of the new world: “You will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be “Sir!” Do you maggots understand that?” Clearly, these recruits have lost all individuality, all freedom, all rights, everything. There is only one way – Hartman’s way. And until they survive recruit training, they will be referred to as “pukes” and “the lowest form of life on Earth,” and “amphibian shit”. Hartman goes on to explain that his goal is to make each of them “a minister of death, praying for war!”
Once we understand the rules of the world, Hartman continues by giving a handful of Marines nicknames. He begins by stopping in front of a black recruit and nicknames him Private “Snowball”, making a number of degrading racial comments. Then comes the naming of the non-conformist Private “Joker” (Matthew Modine), the Texas raised Private “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard), and the big, fat, slow-witted Private “Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio), who Hartman humiliates by making Pyle choke himself with Hartman’s own hand. This act alone illustrates one of the major themes of the film: violence. War is hell. We also understand how and why these characters get their nicknames as well as set up the major conflict between Hartman and Pyle.
5. Back to the Future (1985)
The Scene: Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) reveals the DeLorean time machine to Marty (Michael J. Fox) in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall.
The Exposition: We learn that Doc is about to “embark on a history journey” by traveling in time with his Delorean time machine, how the time machine works, that plutonium is necessary for time travel, and that Libyan terrorists are out to kill Doc.
The Summary: Even though the concept of a scientist delivering information is not innovative within film, this scene goes beyond “just working” and stands as an excellent example of creative exposition for two main reasons.
First, while the concept of a scientist may not be an original solution to deliver large amounts of information, the character of Doc Brown is entirely unique. Everything about Doc is unconventional and unexpected — from his mannerisms to his hair. And this mad-scientist eccentricity makes his explanation of the time machine interesting, engaging, and easily believable.
Second, the intense action surrounding the scene makes it exciting and dangerous. Doc knows that Libyan terrorists are after him while he is intensely explaining the machine to Marty. He is constantly moving, pushing buttons, and setting dates until… machine gun wielding Libyans arrive on the scene, killing Doc and leaving Marty only one means of escape – the DeLorean time-machine.
4. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Scene: FBI Academy student Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) arrives at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to present a VICAP questionnaire to the serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
The Exposition: We learn about Clarice’s professional and personal background, are informed about her supervisor Jack Crawford, discover Lecter’s serial killing past, and also are educated about the new killer the FBI is after: Buffalo Bill.
The Summary: Not only do we learn the a ton of expositional information to set up the dramatic situation for the story, but the scene sets in motion the complex mentor/mentee relationship that will evolve between Agent Starling and Dr. Lecter. And even though there is a thick impenetrable wall of glass separating Lecter from Starling, the tension in the air is palpable. We still fear for Starlings safety, both physically and psychologically.
At seven and a half minutes, this is clearly the longest scene on the list; however, we never feel labored or overwhelmed with the deliver of exposition because of the tension – it never ceases, increasing steadily up to the scene’s climax where Dr. Lecter offers to help Starling, telling her to seek out a former patient of his.
When it comes to packing a punch, this scene covers it all. It introduces our antagonist, provides a ton of exposition, develops both our principles characters, and even moves the story forward, and even leaves us with one of cinema’s most infamous lines: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
The Scene: Paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and chaotician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) begin their amusement park ride tour of Jurassic.
The Exposition: While listening to the animated tour of Mr. DNA, the genetics of dino-DNA and the execution of Jurassic Park are explained.
The Summary: In an attempt to prove that the futuristic dinosaur park is safe, the wealthy billionaire John Hammond, CEO of InGen and brainchild of the Jurassic Park, takes his lawyer and three specialists through one of the park’s animated presentations.
During the presentation, we meet the animated character, Mr. DNA, as he explains the miracle of cloning. We learn that DNA strands are the building blocks of life and that dino-DNA is harnessed through the discovery of 100 million year old dinosaur blood in fossilized mosquitoes preserved in amber. Mr. DNA explains that a full dino-DNA strand contains 3 billion genetic codes, but geneticists use the complete DNA of a frog to fill in the holes to complete the code, and as a result, they can make baby dinosaurs.
In a scene that is just over 3 minutes, the genetic science of Jurassic Park is explained, and we are completely satisfied that a theme park filled with genetically engineered dinosaurs is in fact absolutely possible.
2. Terminator (1984)
The Scene: While being chased by the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Reese (Michael Biehn) drives into a parking garage and explains the gravity of the situation to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
The Exposition: Reese explains to Sarah what the Terminator is, where it comes from, how it operates, and that it “will not stop” until it kills her.
The Summary: There are car chases, and then there are “car chases.” The brilliance of this exposition is that James Cameron uses the visual medium of filmmaking to counter-balance the delivery of thick expository information that Sarah Connor and the audience must receive. This scene immediately follows a 3 minute car chase where Reese, a man Sarah believes is there to hurt her, weaves in and out of traffic, evading police cars in hot pursuit, as he explains that Sarah’s been targeted for termination by the Cybernized Systems Model 101, a terminator cyborg.
After escaping – at least temporarily – in the parking garage, Sarah gets the rest of the story. She learns that the terminator is part man and part machine, with an exterior of living human tissue, and that both the terminator and Reese are from the future, but the terminator “absolutely will not stop – ever!” until she is dead.
Writer/director Cameron skillfully mixes action, suspense, and revelation – even adding an additional level of conflict when Sarah, unable to handle Reese’s truth, bites his hand – when dishing out the necessary exposition needed to set up the rest of the story and clarify the protagonist’s new objective.
1. The Matrix (1999)
The Scene: Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) takes Neo (Keanu Reeves) to the Construct and explains The Matrix.
The Exposition: Morpheus shows us what the Matrix is, how it came to be, how it works, and why it must be destroyed.
The Summary: Neo stands in an empty, blank-white space as Morpheus states, “This is the Construct.” Morpheus goes on to explain that the construct is their loading program where they can load “Anything we need.” The audience is enthralled because we’re discovering along with Neo as Morpheus delivers the exposition: Morpheus and Neo are in a computer program, they’re appearance is a mental projection of they’re electronic selves, and most importantly, Morpheus defines what is real.
But what makes this a watershed moment of film exposition is how the information is presented visually. Even though we start in the stark, white space with nothing more than two chairs and an old-fashioned television set, Morpheus picks up the remote control and clicks on the TV, where we see images of contemporary urban city life until we enter the television to see the ruins of a future city, or as Morpheus states: “The desert of the real.”
The genius of this is that the television itself becomes an exposition tool, showing Neo – and the audience – the fake reality that humans are subjected to. And as Morpheus continues his history lesson – from the birth of A.I., the scorching of the sky, and the evolution of the machines – we use the television to literally see the Fetus Fields where the machines are harvesting human beings as well as the Power Plant where we see red amniotic gel pooling around a tiny newborn that suckles its feed tube.
When we finally return to the white, stark space of the Construct, we have gone on a visual adventure while learning all the necessary information to understand the world of the Matrix. And when Morpheus concludes, “The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control,” we now understand why Neo must destroy the Matrix to liberate all of mankind.