Narrative exposition - Breking Bad

Why narrative exposition is essential – Breking Bad


The words “narrative exposition” sound like an innocuous term, but for writers they are terrifying. Especially if they hear them from someone who is evaluating their work: “There is too much exposition”. Here’s the truth: there is no such a thing as too much exposition, there is just exposition badly delivered.

In order to understand the story, the audience needs a certain set of information (who are the characters, what is the setting, what is the central conflict etc…), exposition simply means providing the necessary information. But if it is something that the story needs, why are writers so afraid of it?

Because sitting in a dark room and listening to an actor explaining the story is boring. People don’t go to the cinema to be told how awesome the characters are and how incredible the story is. They want to watch what happens and decide for themselves.

So writers need to find a way to make exposition “invisible”, something that is there and affects the audience’s perception but doesn’t get noticed.

The first thing to do is to scatter bits of information through the whole story instead of saying everything immediately. The audience will have all the information they need but those information will be revealed only when necessary. This way, they won’t have to sit through a boring expositional monologue, but they will be able to enjoy the story unfold.

For example: in “Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets” does JK Rowling immediately reveal that Tom Riddle is the one behind the attacks? No. This information is fundamental since those mysterious “incidents” are the focus of the story. But the revelation of real culprit is withheld until the last minute, it is still exposition but the audience certainly won’t think of it as boring.

Another way is to let the audience arrive at their own conclusions. Underestimating the people that come to watch your movie is a terrible mistake. All you need to do is to give them enough clues to understand what is happening instead of explaining through dialogue or action.

For example:

  • a man is on his knees
  • there’s a corpse in front of him
  • there’s blood on the man’s hands
  • there is a knife on the floor

If you see this in a movie certainly you don’t think “That man is about to go on a picnic” Right? You will arrive at the obvious conclusion that the man is a murderer. No one told you this, no one put a neon sign that says “Murderer” above the man, you understood what happened on your own.

But you must also avoid ambiguity. Don’t withhold information that are necessary for the audience’s understanding or they will arrive at a different conclusion.

For example:

  • a man is standing in front of a house
  • he is yelling and he seems angry
  • a kid is running away from him

What’s happening here? Is the kid running away from his angry father? Now read this again but with new information

  • a man is standing in front of a house
  • he is yelling and he seems angry
  • a kid is running away from him
  • behind the man, there is a broken window
  • inside the house, there is a baseball ball
  • the kid runs holding a baseball bat in his hands

The last thing to do to avoid boring narrative exposition is to make sure that the story is going forward. By that, I mean that each even displayed in the movie must move the narrative. You can’t waste time having two characters sitting across each other explaining things through dialogue if that event has nothing to do with the story.

For example: in Guardians of the galaxy 2 there is a scene where Nebula explains to another character that her father was abusive and mutilated her whenever she would lose a fight against her sister Gamora.This piece of exposition is not pointless because it explains the reason why Nebula now is obsessed with killing Gamora.

There is another simple but effective trick that allows you to avoid boring exposition and it is shown in the very first episode of Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gilligan).

Breaking Bad Episode 1

This trick has been used by the writers in more than one occasions through the 5 seasons of the series. It consists in arousing curiosity in the audience by showing a certain scenario without explaining its causes and then begin with the story which will provide all the answers.

Why is that man driving an RV in his underwear?

The very first scene shows half of the ending of the episode: a man driving an RV in his underwear with a gas mask on his face and 3 other unconscious men in the vehicle. The confusion that the audience is experiencing makes them long for answers.

They get a few more information when the man picks up a camera and tells his name and his motivations directly to it. Normally, this would be lazy exposition since a character explaining who he is at the very beginning doesn’t seem like well-paced exposition. But this is not the case.

What Walter says to the camera doesn’t provide an exhaustive explanation of what happened, it just provides new questions: why is such a nice man in such a bad situation? Is he the reason why those other men are unconscious? Did he do something terrible to them?

Why did Walter faint?

Now we know who the man in the first scene is: Walter White, a school teacher. We follow him, we see that he works 2 jobs and we start to see his personality, but suddenly he faints and gets carried away in an ambulance.

Why did e faint? This question is answered immediately by the doctor who tells him that he has cancer and only a few months to live. The writers could have just had Walter going to the doctor for a checkup and discovering there that he is terminally ill, but this is better.

See Walter fainting forces the audience to pay attention, because even the people who were distracted will look at the screen and say “What happened?”. This way the writers have regained their attention.

Now the pieces of the puzzle we have collected are forming a figure, but we’re not quite sure what’s happening. So the next question is: is this the reason why he went crazy and ended up driving an RV in the desert?

Who is Jesse?

Learning about his illness makes Walt decide to accept his brother in law offer to a ride along. There he meets one of the soon to be unconscious 3 men: Jesse Pinkman. All the audience need to know about Jesse is hinted with those 3 lines:

  • Walter looking at Jesse: “Oh my God! Pinkman?” (he knows Jesse)
  • Walter looking at Jesse’s car plate: “The Captain…” (Jesse is the guy that the DEA is looking for)
  • Jesse to Walter “High school was a long time ago” (Walter was his high school teacher)

The writers give the audience hints instead of explanations. As I said before this keeps the audience actively engaged and makes them understand what’s going on without boring them.

How did Crazy 8 and Emilio end up in the RV?

When we first meet Crazy 8 we learn through Jesse that he is a powerful drug dealer and Emilio’s cousin. Immediately a new conflict is created: Emilio thinks that Jesse is the one who called the DEA and he wants to get revenge.

Also, Crazy 8 is interested in the methamphetamine that Jesse is selling. So these questions come to mind: what is Crazy 8 going to do know that he knows about Walt?

As they watch the events take place, the audience puts together all the pieces of the puzzle and learn how that bizarre opening scene was created. So now the final question is:

Will Walt be caught by the police?

The reason why the opening scene showed only half of the ending is because if it had revealed everything, at this point the audience would have lost interest. Now they know who those men are, why they are in the RV and what is at stake, all they need to know is if Walter will be caught or not.

By the time we see Walter raising the gun and looking at the empty street, we know who he is, what he is doing, why he is there. Without realizing it, we have learned everything about him.

And this is the reason why narrative exposition done well is important. Now that we know Walt, we understand him, maybe we see ourselves or someone we know in him because we empathize with him. After all, little and big humiliations, uncertainty for the future, fear for our families wellbeing, are feeling we all share and understand.

So know that (we think) he’s about to be caught by the police we are afraid or sorry for him. But without all the information we’ve been given, we wouldn’t feel a thing because we wouldn’t know a thing. That’s the aim of narrative exposition: give us enough information so that we can learn to care about a character.