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3.3. methods of screenplay exposition

The script and the film are always ‘establishing’ something. Now, don’t you go ‘establishing’ things.” — David Mamet 1

With today’s stress on fast-moving action, some practitioners seem to have decided that exposition is innately bad and should be minimized.” — Kristin Thompson 2

3.3.1. Overview.

Only Kristin Thompson knows if she had David Mamet on her mind when she wrote the sentence above, but Mamet’s stance on exposition is clear. The very purpose of exposition, after all, is to establish the present situation of the narrative and its characters. Mamet would have writers avoid this, but his philosophy is not necessarily dominant.

Syd Field, in praising the effectiveness of The Matrix‘s action-packed opening, nevertheless writes, “At this point, we don’t know what the story is about or who it’s about. We need some exposition here, defined as the information needed to move the story forward, and that’s exactly what we get next.”3 Robert McKee seems to echo Field: “Exposition means facts — the information about setting, biography, and characterization that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.”4 William Goldman acknowledges Mamet’s concern about the potential for clunky exposition, “But since that requisite information is what enables us to get on with the story, problems arise. What’s a mother to do?”5

In this section we’ll look at some of the strategies screenwriters have used in tackling “the problem” of exposition.

3.3.2. Exposition Through Dialogue. [Back to Page Topics]
According to McKee’s view, exposition is notinnately bad, but it must be handled carefully:

The famous axiom ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the key. Never force words into a character’s mouth to tell the audience about the world, history, or person. Rather, show us honest, natural scenes in which human beings talk and behave in honest natural ways . . . yet at the same time indirectly pass along the necessary facts. In other words, dramatize exposition.”

In fact, dramatizing exposition is exactly what Mamet has done in his own Glengarry Glen Ross. The character of Blake (played in the film by Alec Baldwin) does not appear in the original stage play but was created especially for the film and serves as little more than an expository prop to motivate the actions of the other characters. Blake establishes both the script’s MacGuffin (the Glengarry leads) and the plot’s disequilibrium (the threat of being fired) through what essentially amounts to a lengthy, powerhouse monologue from a character who never returns to the plot.

When we talk about dramatizing exposition, we’re talking about effective use of exposition through dialogue. McKee and others are warning against the cliché of the information dump, in which some character is assigned the task of explaining to the other characters (but really the readers of the screenplay) the information they need to know to understand what comes next. “Skill in exposition means making it invisible,” McKee writes, which means unspooling the necessary information subtly through natural, motivated conversation.6

Blake’s blistering monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross rises above information dumping because it is motivated (the character has been charged with the task of lighting a fire under the sales force) and the key information is woven effortlessly into the fabric of a larger exchange, so the reader of the script learns the necessary information without even realizing its expository importance.

3.3.3. Exposition Through Film Form. [Back to Page Topics]

Kristin Thompson argues that dramatized exposition (through dialogue) is not the only effective option open to screenwriters. The film form itself is another tool. McKee seems to disagree with this: “‘Show, don’t tell,’ by the way, doesn’t mean that it’s all right to pan the camera down a mantelpiece on a series of photographs” that offer expository information. “That’s telling, not showing. Asking the camera to do it turns a feature film into a home movie.”7 McKee’s significant success as a screenwriting guru not withstanding, his opinion here seems to fly in the face of more than a hundred years’ worth of cinematic discourse.

As if to directly contradict McKee’s argument, Thompson offers a substantial case study of Back to the Future‘s opening title sequence, in which “the camera moves about the room, revealing details of the mise-en-scene,” to prove that exposition can be artfully handled through the use of film form — camera movement, sound, editing, and set decoration.8 Below is the sequence in question:

      INT. BROWN'S GARAGE (1985) - DAY

      CLOSE ON A TICKING CLOCK, showing 2 minutes to 8.

      CAMERA MOVES, exploring, revealing MORE CLOCKS, of all
      varieties -- cuckoo clocks, digital clocks, a grandfather
      clock, Felix the Cat with moving eyes...and all of them are
      ticking away in DEAD SYNC.

      We continue exploring the garage, noting (in no particular
      order) a jet engine, a stack of unpaid bills addressed to
      "Dr. E. Brown" marked "OVERDUE," automotive tools,
      electronics parts, discarded Burger King wrappers, a video
      camera, an unmade army cot.

      We go past a CLOCK RADIO -- it lights up and comes on.

                                   RADIO ANNOUNCER (V.O.)
                         ... weather for Hill Valley and
                         vicinity for today, Friday, October
                         25: partly cloudy with a chance of
                         drizzles...

       Now we come to a COFFEE MAKER with a built in clock timer. It
       too turns on -- only there is no coffee pot! Boiling coffee
       drips onto an already wet hot plate.

       Another timer triggers a TV set -- an A.M. NEWSCAST is in
       progress, and the ANCHORWOMAN talks against a slide:
       "Plutonium Theft?" with the yellow and purple radiation
       symbol.

                                   ANCHORWOMAN
                             (ON TV)
                         ... Officials at the Pacific
                         Nuclear Research Facility have
                         denied the rumor that a case of
                         missing plutonium was in fact
                         stolen from their storehouse two
                         weeks ago. A Libyan Terrorist group
                         had claimed responsibility for the
                         alleged theft. Officials now
                         attribute the discrepancy to a
                         simple clerical error. The FBI,
                         which is still investigating the
                         matter, had no comment ...

        We pass a TOASTER attached to a timer. Two pieces of black
        toast sit on it, and as the timer clicks on, the ashen toast
        drops into the toaster...again. Clearly, we are seeing a
        morning routine for someone who hasn't been home for awhile.

        On the floor, a timer clicks on an electric can opener with
        an empty can of dog food. The empty can goes around.
        Below it, in a dog dish labeled "Einstein" is dog food that's
        been sitting for awhile.

        Now we hear a key turning in the service door.

        A pair of feet in Nike tennis shoes enters.

                                   MARTY (O.S.)
                         Doc? Doctor Brown? Hello? Anybody
                         home?

        A skateboard is dropped onto the floor and rolls...under the
        army cot, coming to rest against a yellow case with purple
        radioactivity symbols, stamped "PLUTONIUM. Property of
        Pacific Nuclear Research Facility."

The screenwriters here have resourcefully used camera movement, the audio track, and mise-en-scene to deliver exposition about the theme of the screenplay (time), about the main characters (Dr. Brown is broke, forgetful, an inventor and dog owner, and apparently in possession of stolen plutonium; Nike sneakers and skateboard tell us Marty is likely an average American teenager, and the key to Doc’s garage tells us he’s in a familiar relationship with Doc), and even the time, place, and weather of the script’s initial setting, all in 1 and 1/8ths of a page. It is hard to imagine a home movie as effective and economical at transmitting important information to the audience, and it does it without having to resort to an information dump. “Good exposition, hard as it may be to write,” Thompson argues, “is not boring.”9

Interestingly, a comparison between the 1984 and 1985 drafts of the Back to the Future shooting script reveal that the sequence above was a cleverly designed rewrite meant to economically introduce the story’s theme and characters after the main protagonist was recast mid-way through production. Since much of the script had to be reshot, the screenwriters used this subtle exposition to minimize those costs.

Exposition through film form may make use of any number of tools, including voice-over narration, titles (on-screen text), diegetic sound, set design, and editing.

3.3.4. Page-Only Exposition. [Back to Page Topics]

Generally speaking, screenwriters do their best to make sure that their exposition is filmable, that the reader does not know information an audience member in the theater would not, but there are small exceptions to this rule. For starters, as soon as a character speaks on the page, he or she must be named, so readers often learn a character’s name long before the audience will. Likewise, screenwriters are given some expository leeway when it comes to introducing their characters on the page. Consider this passage from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial:

CLOSE ON ELLIOTT: A boy of nine or ten: shaggy brown hair
and deep, dark eyes. ELLIOTT is a middle-child, fatherless
and friendless.

Elliott’s appearance is filmable, but his birthing order, fatherlessness, and friendlessness are not. Typically, if a screenwriter introduces information in the text that the audience can’t possibly know from looking at the same image on the screen, he or she will need to find a way to introduce the same information elsewhere through filmable exposition.

3.3.5. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Exposition
  • Dramatized Exposition
  • Information Dump
  • Exposition Through Film Form
  • Page-Only Exposition

Questions:

  • Why is exposition often criticized?
  • Why is exposition usually necessary?
  • What are the dangers of an information dump?
  • What are some of the various strategies screenwriters have used to effectively include exposition in their scripts?
  • In what situations might a screenwriter use page-only exposition?

3.3.6. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

 

  1. Mamet, David. On Directing Film. NY: Penguin, 1992. Pg.13
  2. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Pg.99
  3. Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. NY: Delta, 2005. Pg. 152.
  4. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 334.
  5. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 132.
  6. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 334.
  7. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 334.
  8. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Pg. 78.
  9. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Pg. 102.

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