Exposition is the necessary evil of dramatic writing. It’s the information the audience needs to know in order to understand the story – usually backstory about events that have happened prior to the main narrative; important details about characterizations, objects, or situations featured in the plot; or necessary explanations of plans, procedures, methods, formulas, layouts, and structures that will be employed in the storyline.
Expository scenes are absolutely necessary, but extremely hard to write well. This is because, by definition, exposition is extra-narrative material and therefore a way must be found to insert it into a story progression that has no natural place for it. This is why exposition scenes tend to be so clunky: explanatory text (in card or roll-up form) at the start of a script/movie; long-winded lectures by Morris the Explainer and Professor Exposition-style characters; scenes in which characters tell each other stuff they already know just for our benefit; awkwardly-inserted flashbacks that interrupt the narrative flow; and so on. And why when they are done well, they can be a thing of beauty.
For my money, the best exposition scene ever written was penned by Lawrence Kasdan in his marvelous screenplay for 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For the few who have never seen it, Raiders is the story of archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones and his quest in the days before World War II to recover the legendary lost Ark of the Covenant on behalf of the United States Government before the Nazis can get their hands on it.
The exposition in Raiders had to accomplish a number of important things:
· First, it had to tell us what the Ark of the Covenant is (the gold-covered wooden chest that the Hebrews carried the pieces of the stone tablets upon which the finger of God had inscribed the Ten Commandments and that an angry Moses smashed when he came down from Mount Horeb and discovered his people worshipping a golden calf). Thanks to the movie, we all know what it is now, but back then not many did – prior to release, most people thought the film had something to do with Noah’s Ark.
· It also had to tell us the history of the Ark – that it was originally kept in a temple of Jerusalem but was stolen and possibly taken to the Egyptian city of Tanis and placed in a chamber known as the Well of Souls shorty before the city was wiped off the map by a massive sandstorm; what it’s powers are (that it can emit a mysterious energy identified as being “Lightning…fire… (the) power of God…” that can level mountains and lay waste to entire regions; that the Nazis are after it (because Hitler is obsessed with the occult and has dispatched many teams to scour the earth for all manner of religious artifacts); that in the process they have discovered the ruins of Tanis and so are possibly close to recovering the Ark; and what the consequences could be should they find it.
· The exposition had to tell us who Indiana Jones is. The opening scenes of the movie introduced Jones first as a mysterious, scruffy-looking adventurer willing to risk life and limb to obtain a valuable golden idol from a booby-trapped cave and next as a cleaned-up, popular college professor of archaeology. These two wildly divergent aspects of the character had to be put in context. It needed to tell us that he had once had a relationship with Marion, the daughter of his friend and mentor Abner Ravenwood, who would soon become the story’s love interest. It also needed to establish Indy’s character arc – in each of the Indiana Jones movies, Indy begins as an atheist and ends as a believer in the mystical. The exposition needed to establish this atheism.
· Finally, the exposition had to lay out the movie’s “caper” – to find the Ark, Indy must first obtain an ancient medallion that can be placed atop a staff to serve as its headpiece. The entire assemblage is known as the Staff of Ra. Indy must then take the Staff of Ra to a hidden map room in the ruins of Tanis at a specific time of day. At that time, the sun will stream down into the map room and through a crystal embedded in the headpiece. The crystal will focus the sunlight and project a beam onto a miniature version of the city of Tanis and reveal the location of the Well of Souls. Indy must then gain access to the Well, where he will hopefully find the Ark. All of this needed to be explained to the audience so the viewers would be able to understand what Indy was doing in the course of the story and why.
In addition to all the usually challenges involved in writing exposition – fitting it smoothly into the narrative and finding ways to make it interesting, natural-sounding, and entertaining – Kasdan also had to find a way to insert the exposition into his script without violating the core concept of the movie. In most scripts, exposition is doled out in small pieces sprinkled throughout the first two acts so as to avoid what many writers refer to as an “info dump” – one long scene that delivers a ton of information. Info dumps are generally avoided because they can be quite boring and because they can throw so much data at the reader/viewer at one time that it can leave audiences feeling overwhelmed and confused rather than informed. However, Raiders was conceived by its creator George Lucas as a tribute to the thrill-a-minute Saturday morning serials of yesteryear and so the movie was designed to be a non-stop series of action sequences. Stopping the plot every so often to introduce a new piece of exposition would ruin the non-stop forward momentum and thus ruin the entire premise of the movie.
To avoid violating the movie’s core concept, Kasdan decided to deliver most of the exposition in one long scene at the start of the movie, right after the two opening sequences that introduce Indy as both adventurer and professor. In the scene, two intelligence officers from the U.S. Army come to see Indy to ask if he can explain the meaning of a German telegram they intercepted the previous day. The officers’ explanation of why they have come to see Indy specifically – because he is a “professor of archaeology, expert on the occult, and, how does one say it, obtainer of rare antiquities?” – tells us just who Indiana Jones is.
The intercepted telegram mentions that the Nazis have discovered Tanis and are seeking to acquire the “headpiece to the Staff of Ra.” The two officers have no idea what Tanis or the headpiece to the Staff of Ra are and are hoping Indy can enlighten them. His explanation allows Kasdan to tell us what the Ark is, detail its history and its awesome powers, and to lay out what will eventually become Indy’s caper in the film’s second act – to acquire the headpiece, to use it to recreate the Staff of Ra, to take the Staff to the map room and use it to determine the location of the Well of the Souls, and then (hopefully) recover the Ark.
The scene also establishes Indy’s initial atheism when he explains the Biblical tale of the origin of the Ten Commandments, but then dismisses its mystical elements with a curt “if you believe in that sort of thing” and then later pooh-poohs the Ark’s incredible power by flippantly describing the destructive energy seen emanating from it in a Biblical illustration as the “power of God or something.” The final line of the scene – delivered by Marcus Brody – makes it chillingly clear why the Nazis must be prevented from obtaining the lost artifact: “An army which carries the Ark before it is invincible…”
By the time the scene is over, the audience knows everything it needs to know and therefore the rest of the breakneck plot and non-stop action can now unfold without pause, thus preserving the integrity of the movie’s concept. The only key information the scene does not provide is the history of Indy’s relationship with Marion Ravenwood. Kasdan saved this exposition for Marion’s introductory scene, which follows almost immediately after.
What makes the scene so impressive is the skill with which Kasdan executes it. There’s a lot of complicated information in the scene, but Kasdan lays it all out simply, clearly, and efficiently, which makes it easy for the audience to understand and then retain as the story progresses. Most of this information is conveyed via dialogue, but Kasdan crafts it all to sound natural and flowing in the way real conversation is, so the scene never comes across as a dry, boring lecture. And, while the scene is both a Morris the Explainer scene and an info dump, Kasdan takes the onus off both by making the scene as entertaining as possible. He starts it off with a mystery – why have the Army guys come to see Indy (“What am I? Trouble?”)? Kasdan includes visual elements (Indy’s chalkboard drawing of the Staff and the Biblical illustration of the Ark’s awesome power) to keep the scene from consisting of nothing but dialogue. He includes comedy by giving Indy a snarky sense of humor (when the Army guys seem vague on the history of the Ten Commandments, Indy taunts them: “Either of you guys ever go to Sunday school?”) and then ends the scene with dark dread and portent by hinting at what could happen should the Nazis get their hands on the Ark.
This is all really difficult stuff to pull off, but Kasdan does so brilliantly. Best of all, he makes it all seem effortless, which is really hard to do and requires an enormous level of skill. The fact that Kasdan was able to display such a mastery of the craft in his first produced screenplay is really, really impressive and one of the reasons he is one of the all-time great screenwriters.
There are many great examples of well-done exposition in movies, but for me there is none greater than this sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you need to incorporate necessary information into your screenplay, it’s the best example for you to study.
Copyright © 2020 by Ray Morton
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