It’s not always easy to find an example of exposition done well, especially when there’s a lot to uhm… “expose”.
Using exposition basically means giving an information to the audience. It could be some background information about the protagonist, it could be the introduction of a new character, a detail about the story, or the explanation of a particular event.
But WHAT the information is isn’t important. On the other hand, HOW the information is presented is crucial. There are a few other posts here about how musicals can handle exposition and how dialogue can be used for characterization. But in this post, I want to focus on a specific example of exposition in a movie.
A story is supposed to entertain, that means that if you are a storyteller you’ll have to do better than “This happened, and then this happened and then this happened”.
The key to do that is to use dramatized exposition.
Dramatized exposition is a method to convey information without boring the audience. Essentially to use it you have to think about those two things:
1- the fact
2 – the drama
The fact is just the information that the audience absolutely needs to know. You must make sure that everyone watching the movie understands what it is.
The drama is the event that you’re going to create in order to entertain the audience while you’re giving them the information.
For example, let’s say that the fact is that a character just cheated on his spouse. A woman has found out that her husband is having an affair.
You can go full soap opera and have the camera zoom in to show the exaggerated shocked face of the wife as her husband confesses. But that would only be funny on SNL.
The second option is to have the wife open the door and discover the husband with another woman. It’s a clichè but it fulfills its basic functions of telling the audience what’s happening without making it boring
Or you could have the husband discovering that the wife has written “cheater” on the side of his car. It’s not the most original idea but it’s an event that generates conflict and gives the audience the information they need.
Example of exposition done terribly
There is just one rule to understand which informations are important enough to the whole scene or more dedicated to them, and which information is just insignificant. That rule is: DON’T STATE THE OBVIOUS.
“You’re impossibly fast and strong. Your skin is pale white and ice cold. Your eyes change colour. And sometimes you speak like… like you’re from a different time. You never eat or drink anything. You don’t go out in the sunlight.
I know what you are… a vampire.”
Thanks for the recap of literally everything that happened in the movie Bella. Without this little explanatory monologue, we would have thought that he was the Loch Ness monster instead…
Everything that she says in the dialogue here has already been shown to the audience:
“You’re impossibly strong” = in a previous scene he saved her from a car accident
“Your skin is pale” = we can see that
“and ice cold” = she already made a comment about this the first time she touched his hand
“Your eyes change color” = again, we can see that
“You speak like you’re from a different time” = she already said that in another scene
“You never eat or drink anything. You don’t go out in the sunlight.” = Anna Kendrick already commented on that
“I know what you are… a vampire.” = no shit Sherlock. She literally just googled the word vampire in the previous scene and found out that he matches the description perfectly
This scene could almost completely be cut from the movie and nothing would change. They could have replaced it with Bella approaching him in the parking lot and going “Hey Ed are you a vampire?” and literally nothing would have changed.
It’s important to be selective when writing a story. The audience isn’t stupid if a detail (like the fact that Edward is strong) has already been established, there is no need to repeat it.
This is a basic “Show don’t tell” rule, but apparently, the people who wrote Twilight decided that it was better to avoid misunderstandings and just do both “show” and “tell” (here’s an example of “show don’t tell”)
Crazy Rich Asians
This scene from John M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians is a good example of exposition done cleverly. Since the movie is a romantic comedy the tone of the scene is light and satirical, and it uses its humor to give the audience important information while making them laugh.
Part 1 – at the cafe
In this scene, we learn that:
- Nick and Rachel have been dating for a while and he wants her to meet his parents
- Nick is from Singapore
- In Singapore there is a friend Rachel has a friend she went to college
- Nick has to go back home for the wedding of his best friend
This is just part of what the scene tells us, and all those background information are given to us through the few lines of dialogue between Nick and Rachel at the cafe.
Part 2 – Text messages
Once the girl sitting at the table sends a photo of the two lovebirds to a friend we get an explosion of text messages and emojis.
It’s clear that the girl knows Nick and was overhearing their conversation, but unlike a certain sexy vampire enthusiast movie, Crazy Rich Asians is not redundant.
We don’t get a monologue at the end of the scene from the girl saying something like “I know who you are Nick. You’re the son of a wealthy family that lives in Singapore. Now I’ve found out that you have a girlfriend and I’m going to gossip with my friends about it”.
The movie let us arrive at the conclusion by ourselves by showing what the characters are doing.
From this bit we get the following facts:
- Nick is well known in Singapore and among the Asian community in the US
- Nobody knew that he had a girlfriend
- People seem to be morbidly curious and try to find out who “Rachel Chu” is
- Nobody seems to like her (for envy or other reasons)
Note that none of the texts clearly states “I don’t like her”. Again the movie shows us some pictures and lets us arrive at the conclusion by ourselves.
We see emojis of crying, barfing, angry faces and we understand that those are the reactions of the people who have just found out that Nick has a girlfriend.
Part 3 – in Singapore
This is the send time in the movie that we see Nick’s mother. The scene that introduced her painted a picture of a strong and determined woman who is not afraid to use her status and money to command respect.
Here’s what we know about her now:
- She is a devout Christian (she is reading the Bible with her friends)
- She doesn’t know much about her son’s private life and seems to be trying to hide it from the other women
- She seems to be annoyed by her friends’ gossip
Eleanor seems to fit perfectly among the small group of Asian women that we see reading the Bible in Singapore. Like them, she is well dressed, posed, wears makeup and speaks English.
But her few lines of dialogue and her facial expressions say otherwise. For starters, she doesn’t have a phone with her (her friends do) and she seems annoyed by the fact that the texts are distracting their prayers.
The other women seem to share everyone else’s morbid curiosity about Nick’s relationship, they ask her questions and she tries to avoid giving them a clear answer.
Overall, this scene is a good example of exposition because manages to give the information that are necessary to understand the plot of the movie (Nick is rich and famous, his mother doesn’t know about Rachel, his relationship is constantly under scrutiny) and introduce Eleanor as a character.
But it also manages to make us chuckle with a few rapid jokes and keep things entertaining.
So whenever you’re writing a scene that needs to explain something, introduce a character, give background information etc… don’t think about what to say, but rather how you can say it so that the audience will learn something more about the story and have a good time doing it.