(SPOILERS: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, The Matrix, Inception, Little Miss Sunshine)
One of the most difficult things to handle well in a screenplay is exposition. Exposition is the stuff the audience needs to know to understand the story but isn’t particularly interested in. Because the audience doesn’t inherently care about exposition it is, by definition, boring. Your job as writer is to find ways to make it palatable. Here are four ways to help exposition go down easier:
When you deliver your exposition is as important as how you deliver it. Never, ever start your script with exposition. Readers will toss it aside before they even get to the meat of the story. Instead, place the information somewhere the audience will appreciate it. Often it’s best to dribble the exposition out, slipping it into scenes that have other purposes. But sometimes, especially in stories with complex or fantastic settings or mythology, it can be better to have a scene that is solely for exposition.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) has a very expository scene in Act One. Two FBI agents tell Indiana Jones and his boss at the university about the clues they’ve uncovered regarding the Nazi’s search for the Ark, and then Indy explains the Ark’s history and a bit about the Staff of Ra. It lays out almost everything the audience needs to know to understand the rest of the movie.
If we opened with this scene it would be a snooze-fest in the theater. Instead, it comes soon after a long sequence of rip-roaring action. At that point the audience could use a little break. So one way to handle exposition is to place it after a tense, exciting scene when the audience is happy to take a few moments to catch their breath.
The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) demonstrates another way to time exposition for maximum effect. We don’t get the explanation of what the Matrix is and the history of how the machines have taken over the world, until Act Two. Prior to this we’ve seen all kinds of weird things – people with super powers, Neo’s mouth vanishing, and a pill that draws Neo into a strange world. By Act Two we’re desperate for somebody to explain what’s going on and we happily sit through Morpheus’s lecture. If you make the audience want to know the expository information it won’t seem boring.
2. The Character Who Doesn’t Know
It can be particularly painful to see one character tell another character something they already know. It’s obvious the dialogue is just there for the audience’s benefit. Putting someone into the scene who doesn’t know the information can solve the problem. This is why the FBI agents in the Raiders scene don’t know anything about the Ark or its religious history. That gives Indiana Jones a reason to explain it.
In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the character of uncle Frank serves this purpose. He is newly arrived to the family, so he doesn’t know things like why the brother doesn’t speak or why Grandpa got kicked out of the retirement home. He can logically ask these questions. And when the reason is explained to Frank, the audience is let in on it as well.
This is why in movies featuring a team of some kind there is usually one new member. Ariadne serves this purpose in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan). She’s new to the team and new to the process of inception, so the veterans have to explain how everything works to her.
3. Reveal in conflict
If you have to have a character deliver information known to another character, try adding conflict. If characters are arguing, they will bring up things everyone knows to support their point. When Joe and Jerry are introduced in Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) they’re debating what to do with their impending paychecks. This allows Joe to point out that they owe money to a whole bunch of people – something he would never bring up otherwise because Jerry’s well aware of it.
Similarly, when we need to learn the reasons the whole family must go in the van to California in Little Miss Sunshine, they are delivered in an argument between Richard and Sheryl. The exposition about money problems, Sheryl’s inability to drive a stick shift, etc., are necessary for the story, but well known to both characters. But the dialogue doesn't sound false in this scene because the characters are mentioning these issues to support their point of view.
Another trick to make exposition go down easier is known as wallpapering. This is when you set the scene in an interesting locale, or have something visually interesting in the background so the audience doesn’t notice how boring the scene actually is.
Inception does this. Many of the scenes where Cobb explains things to Ariadne are set in dream worlds. We see the environment shift – in one case the city folds up on itself. The cool visual effect hides the lack of drama and conflict in these scenes. Similarly, The Matrix delivers much of its exposition in a mock up matrix on Morpheus's ship that provides interesting visuals.
The Terminator (written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd) has an expository scene very similar to the ones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix. Reese explains the time travel premise and what the terminators are and the history of the future to Sarah Connor. This happens in a car fleeing an attack on Sarah Connor by the terminator. Throughout the scene, we’ll get a little bit of exposition, then a police car will catch up to them and we’ll get a little bit of car chase. Then Reese will lose the pursuer and it’s back to exposition. The car chase isn't particularly relevant to the story, it's wallpapering.
(It’s also worth noting that this Terminator scene comes about forty minutes into the movie when the audience is desperate for an explanation for what they’ve seen, and includes a character who needs to know the information. It's pulling out all the techniques to keep the exposition from being boring.)
Every script requires exposition. The key is to use these techniques to make it more palatable to the audience.