The Expos

6 October, 2011

They're called the Expos cause they
got some splainin to do. 
Exposition, that is.

The KEY to exposition is to make your audience want to know the information you're trying to tell them. Sounds easy enough.

Here are some strategies.

1. The Mystery

The Matrix's first 30 or so minutes is basically a mystery. We know that Trinity and Agent Smith can jump impossibly high, and then she sorta vanishes some how. Then there's the "bugging," and the mouth closing over. Basically there's a bunch of things that are impossible in the real world. Then we have Neo mention, and wonder aloud about what the matrix is. The audience is along with Neo as he's trying to figure out what the Matrix is. So when we have that set piece where Morpheus directly explains what the Matrix is, it's mind blowing instead of dull exposition.
You take the Red Pill, then I explain a bunch of crap to you.

The Thirteenth Floor, which is a very similar movie from the same year uses the same thing. Except they use the mystery as almost the entire plot.

Instead of coming right out to the audience and saying "Okay, so this movie is set in the year 1995 and there are wizards." You can have little hints about the fact that wizards or magic exists and then the main character and the audience are looking for clues about what's going on.

What's he standing on?
The mystery plot is overdone in sci-fi and stories set in the future. For example, the Will Smith I, Robot film is entirely based on a murder mystery. The founder of US Robotics, James Cromwell, perhaps jumped to his death. Will Smith thinks it's murder and is suspicious of all robots. So you go along with Will Smith as he suspects a robot, then a broader plot, and then a robot takeover of the planet. He follows hints left by James Cromwell. Ultimately it turns out that the giant AI running the robots and the city infrastructure decides to takeover the world in order to prevent human deaths from wars and pollution and such. And James Cromwell wanted to stop it, so he commanded a robot to kill him, and then left these hints for one specific detective to follow so he can stop the AI from taking over the world. But...wait a second. Why have yourself killed to leave cryptic hints? Why not just call him up and tell him what's up? Or, since he's the founder of US Robotics, and works in the same building as the evil AI...why doesn't he just destroy the AI like he vicariously gets Will Smith to do? It really doesn't make sense if you think about it. The screenwriter decided it would work better if there was a mystery angle and didn't bother to make Cromwell's actions realistic or logical.

2. The Lay Person

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away...they had these laser
sword things and they went all WOOSH and were awesome.
Make a character not know the exposition either. Luke Skywalker doesn't know much about the force, and neither does the audience. Then it makes sense to have someone explain it to them. See many other movies.

3. The Info Dump

Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are pretty big fans of this. Just throw a ton of information at the audience right off the bat. Make them read if you want to. This is the laziest and least dramatic way to do it. However, it can be effective for delivering a lot of information quickly and therefore getting the story moving faster.

4. Small Talk

"Hey Timothy Johnson, how are you doing since your son, Chris, died five years ago. I bet that's been hard to get over. How is your wife, Cindy, handling it?"

This happens far too often in films. You can adeptly deliver exposition through conversation, but it takes some finesse, other wise a lot of the audience will immediately see right through it.

5. The Expostion Device

Nice head. Too bad it got blown off. I mean...oral sex. 
Starship Troopers uses the fake propaganda videos to deliver information quickly. The beginning of Tropic Thunder shows a fake trailer for a movie starring each of the main characters, thus establishing each character and their acting persona very very quickly and it's funny. Get Him to the Greek uses a similar device, a music video for Russell Brand's musician character. Children of Men uses a news report about the death of the world's youngest person, an 18 year old, to very quickly establish that there are no kids being born.

6. Bad Narration

(V.O.) And then I pointed my gun at him and
made a squinty, wrinkled brow look to show
him I meant business.
The use of a voice over at the beginning or peppered throughout is the favorite tactic of meddling studio execs trying to ruin a film. They thought Blade Runner needed a poorly worded voice over to make it make sense. They thought Dark City's mystery plot was too confusing so they just had Kiefer Sutherland deliver a short narration at the beginning that gives away most of the mystery plot, thus leaving the audience watching the main character stumble around in the dark trying to figure out the mystery that the voice over just gave away. Not all voice overs are bad, but it's usually a bad sign.

7. The Status Quo Beat

One of the most popular ways to deliver exposition is to have a 10-15 minute sequence at the beginning of the film, showing the main character in action doing what they do, prior to the real inciting incident. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we get to see Indiana on a mission, running from the big-ass ball, and then he goes back to being a teacher. Then the real plot begins. We've established his character by showing him in action. Minority Report (another Spielberg flick) does the same thing. We see Pre-Crime in action for a quick mission, establishing the characters, the setting, Pre-crime and how it works, and all while on an otherwise meaningless mission that has nothing to do with the real plot. That starts right after we've set up the status quo. Gladiator also uses this method. There's a quick battle that has nothing to do with the bigger plot, but establishes Maximus as a badass.

Before we get to the plot, first we have to show
the audience how this cool Operating System works. 
So if you have a lot of information to deliver, you are probably going to use one of these. Your situation dictates your choices to some extent. If you have no lay-persons that need things explained to them, then that's obviously out. The info dump, the small talk, and the bad narration approaches are the laziest. Unless you really know what you're doing, I'd advise against them. That just leaves the Mystery, the Device, and the Status Quo beat. Mystery works well, but does take up plot time, so if you have a more complicated plot in mind, perhaps the exposition shouldn't dominate the first bit of plot time. The Expo device is one of my favorite, but you need to find a way to make it original or to have it not be so transparently exposition. The Status quo beat is one of the safest ways of doing it. You give us the setting, the main character, lay down some rules for how this universe works, but without the pressure of having to get to the big plot just yet. It forces you to find something actiony for the characters to do, and that's basically the candy to help the medicine go down. Exposition is the medicine. Don't forget that, the audience doesn't like it. They're like dogs, you gotta hide it in their food.

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