Pop a squat class, ‘cause Professor Xander is about to drop some knowledge!
Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s plane! It’s EDUMATCATIONABLENESS! Today class, we’ll be discussing how to reveal backstories and other such information within films and television. What’s that? You already know what exposition is? Well aren’t you the bee’s knees? Why don’t you go leave a comment below discussing a bee’s tensile leg strength and go get yourself some honey! Mention my blog’s name to the bee’s nest and you’ll have just enough time to run off with as much honey as you can carry. Anybody left? Alright! Let’s get started.
Exposition is a narrative tool that’s used to reveal information to the audience. This information is usually something like a character’s backstory, the world where the narrative is set in, and events from the past. It sets up the story so we can better understand the character’s situations. A classic example of exposition is found in the majority of Star Wars films: the opening crawl.
The opening crawl sets up the story by relaying events that have taken place and what happened right before the film begins. Without it, an audience could find themselves a little confused. A bunch of films have copied this type of exposition, having their own versions of a crawl or just having a paragraph of narrative info. To me, it’s a little lazy. There are other ways to provide exposition that can improve how a story is told without relying on an audience reading.
Why does Star Wars get a pass on this? Their last film to use this made about $2 Billion. When you’re making that kind of money, you can do whatever the hell you want. Remember kids: it’s not about the money. It’s about the money. But we’re getting off topic.
Some times, instead of written exposition like the crawl, a narrator reads the exposition to the audience as if it was a monologue. This is usually the case for most fantasy films that start off with “Once Upon a Time”. A great example is in the recent film Moana.
The film starts with an opening narration that describes the world and sets up the origins of the heart of Te Fiti. This works even better because the narration slips seamlessly into being a scene of Moana’s grandmother telling the story to a group of children. Because of this, we get our exposition and we don’t have to question why some random narrator is telling us this story.
Narration can backfire however. Sometimes a narrator will exist just to state the obvious. Great example: the latest Cinderella.
While one could say the narrator is used as a way to emulate the feeling of reading a fairy tale, it fails to realize that films are a VISUAL MEDIUM. Show, don’t tell. We don’t need to be told that Cinderella lived happily with her mother and father as a child because we can easily see it! It’s putting a hat on a hat, and wearing two hats just makes you look foolish. Honestly, the whole film is a hat on a hat…but again! Getting off topic.
Back to that phrase “show, don’t tell”, a good way to reveal backstory is to…well…show the backstory. Utilizing flashbacks allows the film to show the viewer what happened rather then explain it. Let’s look at…hmm…Pirates of the Caribbean.
The film begins with a flashback of when Elizabeth and Will were children, most notably we learn Will’s ties to piracy and it sets up how Elizabeth took the medallion from him. It’s brief, sets up the story and promises the danger and excitement of pirates.
Show, Don’t Tell
The ultimate way to provide exposition is to add it seamlessly into the story. As a screenwriter, if you use an example from above and it works well like in Moana and Pirates of the Caribbean, that’s fine. This is just a more difficult yet more effective method. Let’s look at Captain America: The First Avenger.
The audience learns everything about Steve Rogers in his first couple of scenes. He has many health problems and is an incredibly scrawny young man. However, we see that he is very willing to become a soldier and fight for his country, taking every chance he can get to try and enlist. He’s even willing to stand up for what he believes in even though he knows he’s going to get his ass kicked for doing so.
As you can see, the film shows us everything. We don’t need a flashback to when Steve was a kid or a narrator describing the life of Steve Rogers. A couple scenes like these and you can effortlessly reveal information.
Exposition, like most things in life, is best used in moderation. Too much exposition, and you’ll find that a story will become very cluttered and have many pacing issues. This is called information dumping or infodumping for short. A prime example is the…“sigh”…Oscar Award-winning Suicide Squad.
This film has WAY too much exposition in the beginning. It utilizes literally everything. Flashbacks, narration, words to read on the screen, etc. I’ve clocked it in, there’s over half and hour worth of exposition before the film actually gets to the plot! That’s a quarter of the film dedicated to explaining things! Most films have about ten minutes at most for exposition. But three times the amount is just insane! Because of this, it’s one of major reasons this film was so poorly recieved. But of course, that doesn’t matter. Why? Because it made almost $750 million. It’s not about the money. It’s about the money. And I know, I’m getting off topic again.
Exposition is a necessity in storytelling. When done well and used properly in moderation, it can be an incredibly effective way further the story. Using clichéd methods and overloading your story with it, and you’ll find your stories will be lost to time.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy on the Internet.
So what do you all think? How do you like your exposition? Are there any films that you feel have great examples of exposition? Leave a comment and get this conversation rolling. Until next time, this is Professor Xander signing off.