Exposition & Backstory

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.

*Move The Story Forward

The gist of the always-move-the-story-forward adage is that the writer can never waste the audience’s time with pointless or irrelevant scenes or beats. In this sense, it’s totally possible to move the story forward while delivering backstory as long as the backstory is relevant to the scene or character.

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.

 

As Seen at the Movies:
High Noon (1952)

High noon mise-en-scene

Notice the grime and dust on the wall, where the flag was. This careful construct of the set implies that the judge has been there in that office for a long time. But now that Frank Miller is coming, the judge is leaving. It may indeed be just a detail, but the grime and dust communicate something. Moreover, the judge’s action indicate that the situation is serious and potentially dangerous. Thus, he is running away.

This is visual storytelling. The judge could have said something like “I’ve been in this town for a long time… Now I must leave.” But instead, this information is suggested through the elaborate mise-en-scène and his actions. This allows the dialogue to be more powerful by not being redundant.

 

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.

Some Thoughts…

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.

Film Trivia

During principal photography of The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme and his crew were ready to fly to Montana to shoot on location the flashback of a young Clarice attempting to runaway, when, after shooting the dialogue between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), in which Starling mentions the runaway attempt, Demme realized there was no point in cutting to another location when the exposition worked so well through the actors’ acting and dialogue, so he canceled the flight. In this case, less was more.

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.

THEME: What Ties it All Together

If plot is what’s on the surface of a film, easily visible to the audience, then the theme is what’s under the surface… kinda hidden like a secret gem, waiting to be uncovered. Themes are sometimes called a life lesson or a message, and the best ones are always subtle.

Some authors claim that themes are one word long:


“The theme of a story is the aspect of the ‘human dilemma’ that it will explore. Betrayal, loyalty, self-worth, ambition, jealousy, hypocrisy, obsession, alienation — these are all valid themes that could explore. Note that there are no verbs involved, no value judgements inherent in potential themes. Something like “love conquers all” or “jealousy destroys from the inside” is a value-charged thesis rather than a theme.” – David Howard, author of How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

While other authors argue that themes could be a sentence long:

“WITNESS has a point of view. Love cannot bridge the gap of two different worlds. In THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the opposite is true. Love can bridge the gap of two different worlds. […]  The message in CHINATOWN is this: You can get away with murder if you have enough money.”- David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script.

Though these two writers define theme differently, their interpretations are still pretty similar. Notice how Trottier’s examples still have  thematic words like “love” and “money” that  define what the movie is about. And regardless of what you call it, your film will always have a moral and a message. The important thing is that you know what you are trying to convey with your film, so that you can be consistent and effective.

However,  Trottier urges your caution: “This moral is not a sermon and it is not preached. Often, you don’t know that this moral or message is when you start scripting your story. Not to worry – you’ll know before you’re through. Just keep writing. CAUTION: There is a danger in focusing on the movie message. You run the risk of writing a preachy script.”

And on this  point both writers agree. Howard calls it a “thesis” and you don’t wanna bang your audience’s head too much with it. They paid $20 for entertainment, not a sermon.

Theme is NOT the Same as Conflict!

I wanted to make a special mention of this because I have seen many professors and publications make this error. If you ask someone for an example of a theme, they might answer: “Man vs. Nature” or “Man vs. Himself.” In my opinion, these are not themes but types of conflict. Types of conflict are the framework for any plot, but they are different from the theme. Below are the four most famous types of conflict:

  • Man vs. Man (Dirty Harry, The Terminator, Witness)
  • Man vs. Himself. (Finding Forrester, The Truman Show)
  • Man vs. Nature (Dante’s Peak, Noah)
  • Man vs. Society (High Noon, Milk)

Some of these overlap. High Noon, for instance, is both a Man vs. Society and a Man vs. Man kind of plot.

Theme as Unity

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) tells the story of a handicap photographer (James Stewart) who suspects a murder has happened in his apartment complex after noticing abnormal events unfold from his living room window. This is the forefront of the movie; its plot. Nobody gets out of the theater not knowing that.

The theme, however, is subtle. Most people that have watched Rear Window may or may not have grasped what its theme is. Since themes are delicate and subjective, scholars and critics may occasionally debate. But I think that in Rear Window, the prominent theme is relationship. Even more so than romance because romance implies good moments. But relationship also contains the nitty-gritty stuff: arguments, despair, and solitude.

In Rear Window, the apparently disjointed string of events is held together through this theme, which furnishes it with unity.

The romance between Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is too obvious an example, but even a superficial analysis of some of the neighbors is enough to elaborate the underlying relationship theme:

  • In the beginning of the movie, a newlywed couple moves into an apartment. All joy. Blinds drawn implies a honeymoon in progress. But as the story unfolds, their marriage deteriorates.
  • Miss Torso, a lovely ballet dancer, is often “doing a woman’s hardest job: juggling wolves.” With so many suitors, her options are plenty, though she often dismisses them all.
  • Mrs. Lonelyhearts is an old, single woman who seemingly failed to attract a man into wedlock during her prime years. Clearly disturbed, she hosts dinners for two even though no one joins her. Alone, she addresses an invisible man, product of her imagination, with whom she dines.

Clearly all these side characters and sub-plots were created to develop the theme. Furthermore, the heart of the plot – the murder – also draws a parallel to it, as one of the possible causes for the assassination was the bitter relationship in which the murderer and his victim lived in.

Theme as a Lesson

Besides providing unity and tying the story together, theme can also exist to send a message or teach a lesson to the audience. In the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer, one of the lessons expressed is: if someone wants love, then they need to take action and chase it.

500-days-of-summer

Like in Rear Window, one of the themes in (500) Days of Summer is relationship.

From the beginning, the movie builds this lesson until it’s clearly stated in the ending: “Love doesn’t just happen.” This concept also illustrates the main character’s arc. At the movie’s beginning, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the type of guy who waits for love instead of making it happen. At the end, Tom finally takes action and is rewarded.

A Little Trivia

“If you have a message, call Western Union” is a famous sentence sometimes quoted by producers to express their disdain for  themes or messages or lessons in the movies. Some producers simply don’t like to talk about it because it’s too brainy.

The quote is often misattributed to the famous producer Samuel Goldwyn (The Best Years of Our Lives, Guys and Dolls), but there’s no consensus as to who said it first.

I wish I would know how most producers, directors, and writers approach the idea of theme. Is that a priority in their movies? Or do they just allow a theme to emerge as the story progresses?

Do you agree with the themes and lessons above? Or could (500) Days of Summer be about something else? What about Rear Window? As I mentioned, themes are subjective and open for interpretation. I would love to hear your thoughts below.