I remember when I started writing screenplays in my teens, Exposition and Backstory were two concepts that used to really baffle me. The reason being because everyone always tells you that when writing a screenplay you have to “always move the story forward, always move the story forward.”*
For the longest time, I didn’t understand how I could move the story forward and at the same time deliver backstory. In my mind, forward and backstory were two contradictory notions: how can you go forward and backward at the same time? I thought (erroneously) that forward meant future-centric, that I should focus only on what was gonna happen in the next minute, or the next day, or the next week in the lives of the characters. I thought that talking about the character’s past was taboo. But that’s not true. Revealing the character’s past is an essential part of screenwriting. This makes the audience connect to characters in ways that wouldn’t be otherwise possible.
The Purposes of Exposition
Though exposition comes in a variety of colors and shapes (more on this below), their goal in most scenes is one these:
- Teach the audience about a character and his or her world: is the story world quaint and peaceful or scary and violent? Did all the relatives of the main characters die of old age or were they shot during a bank hold-up? Think Batman. How did Bruce’s parents die?
- Allow the audience to connect with a character by learning more about his or her traumas and pains: dissatisfaction is something that everyone feels sooner or later. Whether we are unhappy with our careers, love life, level of education, what have you, everyone is unhappy with an aspect of their lives. Remember Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)? The adventurer in Luke has his hands tied due to his obligations in the farm, although he really wants to travel and explore. Many of us have been in Luke’s shoes at some point in our lives. So here we are watching this sci-fi about intergalactic wars, and we understand exactly what the main character is feeling. That’s a connection.
- Inform the audience of a specific fear or skill a character possess: this is a kind of foreshadowing that reveals a trait that will be relevant as the story unfolds: Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, Romeo and Juliet discuss death, Ripley can operate a powerloader, etc.
Exposition Through Dialogue
The most common way to give exposition is with conversations. Lines of dialogue can offer important information about a character’s background.
Early in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), the family comes together in the exposition-packed dinner scene. That scene offers great backstory and explanation on the behavior of many characters: Dwayne (Paul Dano) doesn’t speak because he’s made a vow of silence as an attempt to show his devotion towards becoming a test pilot. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker and a life coach, who’s been trying get a book published. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), by far the person that gives the most exciting speech while explaining to Oliver (Abigail Breslin) why he tried to commit suicide, traces back to a ruined academic career and a devastating break-up with the man of his dreams, also revealing his sexual preference.
In L.A. Confidential (1997), a conversation between Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Lieutenant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) reveals the reason why Exley became a cop: his dad was shot six times by a criminal who thought he was above the law. To the question “Why’d you become a cop?”, asked by Exley after his poignant discourse, Vincennes simply replies, “I don’t remember.” This dialogue separates both men, as their motivations to become cop were different, implying their different, perhaps even conflicting senses of justice.
In an early scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) gets ups from his bed, approaches the window, looks through the blinds, and utters: “Saigon… Shit.” A two-word line is enough to present the location of the movie and Willard’s overall satisfaction about being there.
Exposition Through Mise-En-Scene
A less used but equally acceptable method is exposition through the creative use of décor and props. Any object that bares information on a character can be considered expository. A certificate on the wall may indicate that so-and-so is a lawyer or a doctor. Photographs can denote past involvement by a group of people.
In one scene from Danish short film The Charming Man (Der Er En Yndig Mand, 2002), Lars Hansen (Martin Buch) is shown applying for a job. While filling out an application form, he checks the “single” box, thus establishing his relationship status.
Exposition Through Text
The most obvious type of exposition is through the use of text or title cards. This incarnation is purely expository and rarely dramatic.
A famous example is the static title card followed the crawling text in the intro to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). The title card first introduces the time and space:
The subsequent crawling text establishes organizations (the evil Galactic Empire) and characters (Princess Leia). For a movie this complex, these title cards are a welcomed device.
A simpler version of text exposition is “once upon a time” or “three months later.”
Texts are also preferred when exposition on a more formal matter is necessary. Quentin Tarantino makes good use of it in the beginning of Pulp Fiction(1994), when a title card defines the word “pulp.”
Exposition Through Narration
Narration is one of the most emotional ways to give exposition. Narrators can be either an omniscient, disembodied person that sees all, or they can be characters that exist in the world of the movie, sometimes narrating their own story, sometimes narrating others’ stories.
In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Red (Morgan Freeman) describes how he sees Andy (Tim Robbins) – a technique that allows for a better scrutiny of Andy’s persona. If Andy were talking about himself, the narration would come out as awkward and maybe self-important. But Red offers a third-person view that matches what the audience sees. Also, since Red had been in prison longer, he can share knowledge about life behind bars and predict what Andy is going through:
RED: “The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
Note that the voice-over allows for a more poetic tone of the descriptions (“naked as the day you’re born” and “those bars slam home”). Writing narration is extra hard because it allows the characters to be more colorful than they would in a dialogue. The writer must never be redundant to the point where he shows and says the same thing. Crafty narration enhances picture and elaborates the story.
In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) opens the movie with a humorous narration about the population of New York, narrowing it down to the company for which he works and, finally, himself, disclosing his work hours and even salary.
Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) brings a twist to the norm. The main character, Ada (Holly Hunter) is mute, but she’s also the narrator:
ADA: “The voice you hear is not my speaking voice – but my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why. Not even me.”
In all the films above, the narrators are also characters in the movie, thus having influence on the plot. The other type of the narrator is the omniscient or disembodied narrator, who’s not part of the filmic world, but that “knows all.”
Network (1976) opens with a lengthy exposition by a disembodied narrator. The 2-minute narration condenses more than six years of a character’s live. Observe how much information and backstory is revealed in so little time:
NARRATOR: “This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share.
In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.
The news was broken to him by Max Schumacher, who was the president of the news division at UBS. The two old friends got properly pissed.”
Exposition Through Flashback
Another alternative is exposition through flashback, a technique that should be used mainly to replace major story moments that cannot be reduced to a simple conversation.
Casablanca (1942), for instance, has a lengthy flashback that shows how Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) met, plus the romance they lived in Paris. There’s no way an exposition so long would be accomplished with such mastery through dialogue – flashback was indeed necessary.
Another possibility for flashback is when a character thinks something so intimate that he or she doesn’t talk about it. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a couple of flashbacks show Clarice’s (Jodie Foster) memories with her dad.
A Word of Caution
Quite often, we talk about “show, don’t tell” which is one of the most enduring notions in filmmaking and screenwriting. But I wanted to warn you that you shouldn’t use that concept to justify flashbacks. What I mean is that, although you may think that flashbacks (showing) should replace dialogue (telling) this is not always the case because flashbacks are sometimes a detraction to the flow of a scene or sequence. Remember, move the story forward.
So when should you resort to flashbacks? Like everything else in filmmaking, there are no fast-and-hard rules. My advice is avoid flashbacks when you can and use them sparingly. For instance, if you can reveal backstory through dialogue, then maybe dialogue is enough. However, if you think that you can dramatize it better in a flashback, then flashback could be the way to go. Decision, decision, decisions. Isn’t storytelling awesome?
Exposition Through Music
Another great way to reveal backstory is through music. This approach, however, may not be called upon by the writer, unless music is an essential part of the plot. More often than not (as we see occasionally in Disney movies) the director or composer will select key moments of the plot to augment through music. From Snow White to Frozen, Disney has always amazed everyone in this department. But here’s one of my favorite non-Disney example.
During the initial credits of High Noon (1952), the Academy Award winning-song Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling plays and introduces the plot:
Do not forsake me O my darlin’
On this our wedding day.
Do not forsake me O my darlin’
Wait, wait along.
The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.
Remarkably, before any of the characters utter a single word, the second stanza from the song already establishes the premise: A deadly killer is coming in the noonday train, and the main character must kill him or die.
By its very nature, expositions are about the past. And thus that means that they could slow down the progression of the story. Therefore, screenwriters must be aware of when to use them, and the effect each of them has in the story.
The main purpose of exposition is to transform characters into 3-dimentional creatures by allowing the audience to understand them and therefore participate in their emotions. However, sometimes exposition can be used to foreshadow or justify someone’s skills or behavior.
In Thelma & Louise (1991), Louise (Susan Sarandon) shows great fear towards going to Texas, a place that brings undisclosed bad memories to her. It is later implied (but never revealed) that Louise was raped in Texas, which explains why she shot the man that was seconds away from raping Thelma during the first plot point. In this case, a later exposition validates an earlier act that would otherwise be considered arbitrary and implausible.