Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Don't stop moving for Exposition

If you've never seen them, you simply must watch Red Letter Media's analysis of the Star Wars prequels. The guy finally finished part 3. I fast forward through the weird personal dead hooker shit, but the breakdown of what works and doesn't in those films is spot on. He puts into words the feelings most of us have been struggling to identify.

One of the big points he makes in his Episode 3 analysis is one of my biggest screenwriting pet peeves: static exposition scenes.

In a great movie you don't realize you're learning exposition because the movie doesn't stop going.

Everybody's got to give out exposition, and one of the biggest challenges we face as writers is how to make it interesting. So let's look at some examples.

In The Island, an action movie, our leads sit in a living room with Steve Buscemi while he explains the situation.

In The Matrix, an action movie, Neo moves around in the computer program, looking at a hot blond lady and learning Kung Fu.

Part 3 of that Red Letter review points out all the times in the Star Wars prequels when people discuss their situation while sitting on a couch or calmly walking down a hallway. Then it juxtaposed that to a scene in Star Trek, where Kirk and Bones race down a hall shouting about what's going on as they urgently try to solve problems both personal and story related.

In fact, in the commentary for Star Trek - I think it was Alex Kurtzman who talked about doing exposition on the fly. He called it "Exposition through the context of conflict." Perfectly put.

I have a motto when it comes to exposition: Never talk about exposition in a calm, orderly setting when you can do it on the run.

Of course, if you're not a writer of action films you probably won't be doing it on the run, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring.

In Ghostbusters we learn a lot during that scene where we're rushing through a library trying to capture a ghost librarian.

I wrote a script with a partner once and one of our scenes was a woman revealing her insecurities in a therapist's office. I hate most scenes in a therapist's office because they're not only boring, but they're way too on the nose. There are exceptions, of course - Grosse Pointe Blank is first to come to mind - but normally I find therapy sessions a cheap and easy way to reveal exposition.

So we came up with the idea (okay, I came up with the idea because he was more of an actor than a writer) to have her reveal her feelings while shopping for lingerie with her best friend. That way, instead of just discussing how she felt, she could eek out personal information while we watched her confront insecurities about her body. It was a terrible script, but that scene got a billion times better when we got creative with the delivery of the exposition. That's probably the best lesson I learned from cranking out that piece of crap screenplay.

At this point, every time I write an exposition scene I think to myself, how could I have characters do something other than talk right now? Where else can I put this scene so nobody's sitting down at a table/sofa/in a car? Can someone be chasing them? Can the characters be dancing/repairing a broken pipe/doing laundry? ANYTHING other than sitting in a chair.


  1. Well put Emily.

    The scene in Grosse Point Blank works because it is clear from the begining that Alan Arkin is under distress and John Cusack is acting like there is nothing wrong thus the scene bleeds tension. That the doctor looks like a wreck and the patient is calm and driving the session adds yet another layer. It is one of my favorite scenes in that movie.

    I cringe when I have to sit through talking head scenes. Using a Blake Snyder'ism, if have to vomit info on the screen, put "the Pope in the pool" to distract the readers/viewers.


  2. Anonymous9:43 AM

    A better way is to avoid exposition altogether. Also, it's "eke".

  3. Agreed, Jim. That is a perfect movie, and that's one of many reasons why.

    And Anonymous, it's impossible to avoid exposition altogether unless you're David Lynch. It's ridiculous to think you can.

  4. Hey Emily you wanna' REALLY plunge the Static-Exposition-Needle through your eye? Go check out "Tron: Legacy." It's like dining on a veritable shit sandwich of exposition. God it was miserable. Made me ask "who in God's name is this movie for?" over and over during its interminable running time...

  5. Tron: Legacy was fucking awful. Even the chicks in wet leather couldn't save that turd.

    Looking forward to the XXX version Pron: Extasy

    Pissed me off so bad it forced me to make a post on my blog.

  6. Anonymous5:36 PM

    George Lucas ruined my childhood--the Star Wars prequels was basically one long commercial for toys and merchandise.

    Charlie Wilson's War showed another way to do static exposition in the opening scene---have the exposition take place in a hot tube with a bunch of near-nekkid playmates. The only downside is that the male audience would be too busy looking at boobies and would missed all that exposition flying over their head.

  7. Is that why I didn't like Charlie Wilson's War? I sort of wandered off and started to do housework while it was on.

    And I will not be seeing Tron Legacy thanks to these supportive endorsements.

  8. Anonymous6:00 PM

    Hey, what about Inception? Lotsa shot reverse-shot and pple sitting on chairs talking too.

    I didn't see pple picking on Nolan for that.

  9. Most of the key exposition in Inception was done inside a dream while the environment exploded and the earth turned upside down.

  10. Anonymous6:09 PM

    Oh well, most of the key exposition in the Star Wars prequels was done on the planet of Coruscant where the dark evil of the Sith Lord lurks omniscently.

  11. Dear anonymous,

    Anybody that claims George Lucas ruined their childhood needs to be punched in the fucking face.

  12. Anonymous7:13 PM

    Exposition as ammunition. Best thing I learned in screenwriting class...And you do want to go out on a date with me, you just don't know it yet.


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