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9 Steps To Writing Great Exposition In Film

9 Steps To Writing Great Exposition In Film

Who could forget the famous opener “Once upon a time…” or the iconic Star Wars sequence “In a galaxy far, far away…”? Exposition is needed in every movie. It’s an art form to be able to write effective exposition. These 9 steps to writing great exposition in film will teach you how to best introduce characters, backstory, and plot points.

What Is Exposition?

Background information the audience needs to know for the world of your story to make sense is a literary term known as exposition. The technique of providing this kind of information in a story or film is another way to define exposition. The beginning of the story is where exposition is most common. It involves things like character introductions, set details and dialogue.

What’s The Purpose Of Exposition?

Illuminating the motivations, the crucial details and circumstances of film’s characters is the main purpose of exposition. So that the audience understands the central dramatic narrative, effective exposition is there to provide vital interesting information. To foreshadow an important event or to justify a character’s skills and decision, exposition can be used.

How To Write Exposition With 5 Different Techniques

The background of characters and events in a movie can be conveyed in many ways. These are the most popular types of exposition:

  1. Dialogue. Simple and effective exposition in a scene is allowed when a conversation between two or more characters occurs.
  2. Narration. A way to communicate a character’s true thoughts and desires, or give omniscient insight into a situation is through narration or voice over.
  3. Mise-en-scène. Things that are seen but not heard in a scene are known as Mise-en-scene. These details are capable of conveying a significant amount of information in a short amount of time.
  4. Text or title cards. Text or title cards are the most straight forward method that contains all the important information your audience will need to know, before the film even begins.
  5. Flashback. There are several ways to show past events in a present narrative, but flashbacks are the most visually appealing as they place your character in context.

5 Exposition Examples In Film

To show how effective exposition can benefit a film and captivate an audience, here’s five examples of exposition.

  1. “Rear Window” (1954): Director Alfred Hitchcock is a genius when it came to exposition, and this film is a perfect example. A continuous, three-minute shot to introduce the viewer to Jeff’s neighbors via their daily routines, as well as the mise-en-scène of their apartments. This expository scene gives the audience a hint of the voyeurism that is to come, and drops clues about how each character will fit into the story.
  2. “GoodFellas” (1990): Martin Scorsese’s famous mob movie utilizes extensive use of voiceover from Henry Hill to deliver exposition. The best example of exposition in the film is when Henry leads his girlfriend, Karen, through the back of the nightclub. The respect Henry gets from everybody he sees, the exclusivity and the security of their route, informs us everything we need to know about gangster life.
  3. “Shaun of the Dead” (2004): TV news and radio are often used as a catalyst to give exposition in film. But director Edgar Wright puts a special spin on the technique with this example: instead of witnessing a continuous news segment, the viewer experiences this information in small pieces as distracted main character Shaun flips through TV channels and heads to a convenience store. The comedy of Shaun’s absent mindedness, together with the tension of the scene, make for effective exposition.
  4. “Up” (2009): “Up” starts with a series of images that lead us through main character Carl Fredriksen’s relationship with his wife, Ellie. In the span of just a couple minutes, we experienced the joy, love, and loss of the couple’s time together. This scene is one of the best examples of exposition in modern cinema. Film critic Peter Bradshaw even called the montage “a masterclass in narrative exposition.”
  5. “I, Tonya” (2017): In this example, main character Tonya Harding “breaks the fourth wall” to give key information about her life. The technique is effective because these scenes also reveal Tonya’s character in interesting ways, highlighting her resentment and stubbornness along with her grit and determination to succeed as a figure skater.

9 Tips To Writing Exposition

Now that you know the world of your story like the back of your hand, it’s time to put it on paper and share it with audiences. Try the following tips for effective expository writing if you’re struggling with finding a good starting point or balancing how much information to present.

  1. Show, don’t tell. The first of the 9 steps to writing great exposition in film is to show, don’t tell. Film is a type of visual storytelling, which is why one of the rules of screenwriting is to “show, don’t tell.” This means that instead of simply telling the audience, you should always “show” things to the audience through action or character behavior. You might not even need an exposition if you show, don’t tell.
  2. Put exposition into the rising action. Good exposition is seamlessly embedded within a scene and laid out without impeding the story. It’s able to progress the central dramatic narrative at the same time that you lay out exposition. It tells how a bomb works as the hero is trying to detonate it simultaneously. Describes how evil a villain is as the hero is actively escaping from him.
  3. Supplement the visuals. To add to the action that is taking place on screen, use narration or voice over. People can benefit from the clarity or context that a narrator can provide with supplemental information even though visual clues are better left to the audience to decipher.
  4. Create characters who are a “stand in” for the audience. One good way to handle exposition in your screenplay is to have a character who is a stand-in for the audience; Rashida Jones’s character in The Social Network or Chrisann in Steve Jobs are examples of this because they ask questions of the main character that the audience would also ask. They typically help introduce the characters and the world without causing viewers to be bogged down with excessive exposition.
  5. Use arguments. Romantic partners often bring up past events during fights making it an ideal scene to slip in background information when things escalate during arguments. The wife could bring up her husband’s infidelity from 15 years earlier during a fight about household duties. This exposition feels natural because in the heat of the moment we believe that the wife may not be over the past infidelity and would mention it.
  6. Be brief. For the audience to comprehend the story, only say as much as you need to. To explore your character’s background and back story, try writing a monologue for your character. Then, start hacking away at it. How much of this information is essential and how much is fluff? How much can you say out loud versus how much you can show in the mise en scène?
  7. Give your characters expertise in subject matter. Let’s say a virus is slowly decimating the entire human race and you need to explain how. Write a dynamic scientist character who has been researching this virus for years, is an expert on it, and whose job it is to provide information about the virus to others instead of having a lay person google the information in a scene. You could write a scene where the scientist explains how the virus works to the masses on CNN or any number of other news stations.
  8. Exposition through dialogue. In screenwriting, there are many ways for conveying info to the audience. Some are unique to certain genres, or characters, and audiences expect them. However, convention can turn cliché fast. Our screenwriting goal is to bring something new and fresh to even the most basic story and avoid cliché. Having characters talk is the easiest way to exposit information. To learn things about the overall narrative, dialogue can be a natural way for your characters and the audience to learn things they need to know. But something has to motivate the dialogue or it’ll be seen as too “on the nose.” Realistic dialogue pertaining to the context can be done in ways that include necessary information. For certain genres, this is especially true.
  9. Exposition should be necessary. Last of the 9 steps to writing great exposition in film is to make sure the exposition is necessary. Your exposition needs to be organic, work with the story and naturally come out of it. It should feel natural revealing information to the audience. This is possible by making characters reveal information because that’s their job, or you allow the genre itself to take over. Through meetings or a preparation scene, a show or film that is fantasy based will likely have a scene or two that requires an explanation. Flashbacks might make sense if I’m going to write a story about a girl who loses her memory, but slowly starts to get it back. I might choose to exaggerate some aspect of a character if I’m writing a comedy. It would be best to convey how overly ambitious they are in a montage, rather than narration. Match the message with the medium.

Following these 9 steps to writing great exposition in film will help make your screenplay a better read.

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