Exposition. It’s the necessary evil of screenwriting. No one – writers, readers, audiences – enjoys or even really appreciates it, but it’s a vital component to fully understanding the main story you’re trying to tell. How can your audience truly understand the plot, themes, or characters you’re presenting if you don’t properly set the stage? They can’t. More often than not, writers treat writing exposition like kids treat needing to finish their homework before being able to go outside and play; it’s something they simply have to endure so they can get to the “fun” stuff in their scripts.
And it’s precisely because of this attitude that so many writers tend to do what’s called an “exposition dump” early on in their script. It’s usually a group of characters standing around, asking each other questions and answering with a ridiculous amount of information.
Be honest. Have you ever written anything like this?
Do you want to go to party on Friday?
I can’t. My brother, who is also my twin, but I haven’t seen him since college because we had a falling out over the same woman, and then he went on a trip to South America where he became a priest and lost an arm in a horrible car accident, is coming into town.
Then you, my friend, are guilty of an exposition dump. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Exposition CAN be interesting to an audience. You just have to treat these kinds of scene with respect. Instead of dumping all of the information by itself, mix it in with a scene that either moves the plot forward or develops your characters further. This allows you to sneak in the information your audience needs, while still moving your story forward in an entertaining fashion.
For a recent example of a script that had a ton of information to get out early on about its characters, and did so with humor, grace, and skill, let’s take a look at…
Writing Exposition and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’
The story of a dysfunctional family that bonds over the course of an impromptu road trip to the titular beauty pageant, Little Miss Sunshine is an indie darling that won over audiences everywhere after debuting at Sundance in 2006. At its heart, the film is about a group of damaged people who learn what it means to be a family, which means, if we’re going to care about their journey towards healing, we need to understand exactly how they’re broken. This means exposition, and lots of it.
Luckily, screenwriter Michael Arndt (who was recently hired to pen Star Wars: Episode VII), was up to the challenge. What he gives us is a thirteen page scene set around the family dinner table where most of the backstory and family issues are laid out bare for the audience. Now, thirteen pages is a gigantic amount of exposition, but we don't mind because the scene serves so many purposes. It's funny, it develops multiple characters, and introduces the voice-mail which is the inciting incident, all while managing to give us the following pieces of information:
- Grandpa is living with them because he was kicked out of his retirement home for being loud and abusive.
- Olive recently placed as the runner-up in the regional round of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest and that, due to the winner being disqualified, Olive has now been awarded the win and a chance to compete in the finals.
- Dwayne has been observing a vow of silence for the past nine months, and plans on doing so until he joins the Naval Academy. Also, he hates his family everyone.
- Richard doesn’t care for Sheryl’s brother, Frank.
- Frank is suffering through a bout of depression and is recovering here with his sister Sheryl and her family from a failed suicide attempt.
And all of that is straight-up exposition, not subtext. The scene’s amazing as a whole, but the area where they discuss Frank’s suicide attempt works best as a contained example of what Arndt did so well while handling his exposition.
How did it happen?
How did what happen?
She shakes her head: "Don't go there."
No, it's okay. Unless you object...
No, I'm pro-honesty here. I just
think, you know... It's up to you.
Be my guest...
Olive, Uncle Frank didn't really
have an accident. What happened was:
he tried to kill himself.
You did? Why?
I don't think this is an appropriate
Let's leave Uncle Frank alone.
A beat. Olive has stopped eating.
Why did you want to kill yourself?
Frank. Don't answer that question.
Frank stares at Richard. He turns back to Olive.
I tried to kill myself because I was
Don't listen, honey, he's sick and
he doesn't know what he's...
Richard... Richard... Richard...
What?! I don't think it's appropriate
for a six year old!
She's gonna find out anyway. Go on,
Why were you unhappy?
Frank glances at Richard -- deadpan victorious -- and continues.
Well, there were a lot of reasons.
Mainly, though, I fell in love with
someone who didn't love me back...
One of my grad students. I was very
much in love with him.
Him? It was a boy? You fell in love
with a boy?
Yes. I did. Very much so.
This is new to Olive. She thinks it over.
You're right. It was very, very silly.
There's another word for it...
So... That's when you tried to kill
Well, no. What happened was: the boy
I was in love with fell in love with
another man, Larry Sugarman.
Who's Larry Sugarman?
Larry Sugarman is perhaps the second
most highly regarded Proust scholar
in the U.S.
Who's number one?
That would be me, Rich.
So... That's when you tried...?
Well, no. What happened was: I was a
bit upset. I did some things I
shouldn't have done. Subsequently, I
was fired, forced to leave my
apartment and move into a motel.
Oh. So that's when...?
Well, no. Actually, all that was
okay. What happened was: two days
ago the MacArthur Foundation decided
to award a "genius" grant to Larry
And that's when...
...You tried to check out early.
Yes. And I failed at that as well.
Olive, what's important to understand
is that Uncle Frank gave up on
himself. He made a series of foolish
choices, and then he gave up on
himself, which is something that
winners never do.
A beat. Frank looks like he could leap across the table and strangle Richard. Sheryl intervenes.
Frank’s backstory is interlaced with character moments for everyone else, and that’s what keeps us interested. The way they react to his story, and the fact that Olive’s asking the questions to begin with, tells us a little bit more about every single character at that table. If it had just been Olive asking questions, and Frank answering them, the film would have lost any feeling of momentum, and the audience would have quickly gotten bored. And that’s the vital question when you’re dealing with exposition. Does the exposition scene in your script serve any purpose other than exposition? If not, go back and rework it. Make the scene about something vital to the story, whether it’s plot advancement, character development, or both, and the audience won’t mind the information you’re feeding them.
Now go crank the volume on “Super Freak’, dance your heart out, and keep writing!
- More Specs & The City articles by Brad Johnson
- Storytelling Strategies: 'Argo' and Recapitulation
- The 7 Deadly Dialogue Sins
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