Tuesday, July 28, 2009


(SPOILERS: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix)

I’ve been talking about dialogue lately, and now I’d like to discuss one particularly troublesome type of dialogue: Exposition. Exposition is the stuff the audience needs to know to understand the story but isn’t particularly interested in (and it’s usually but not always delivered in dialogue).

Because the audience isn’t interested in exposition it is, by definition, boring. Your job as writer is to find ways to make it palatable. Here are some techniques I use.


When you deliver your exposition is important. 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.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) has a very expositional scene in Act I. Two FBI agents tell Indiana Jones and his boss about the clues they’ve uncovered about the Nazi’s search for the Ark, and then Indy explains the Ark’s history and a bit about the Staff of Ra. 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 II. Prior to this we’ve seen all kinds of weird things – people with super powers, Neo getting his mouth sewn shut and a pill which draws Neo into a strange world. By Act II 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.

Who’s the expositor?

Setting up a scenario to deliver the exposition can also be a challenge. One rule of thumb is you want to avoid having your leads deliver exposition. Movie stars don’t want to say the boring stuff!

It’s become a cliché to have a character in a movie whose sole purpose is exposition. This is the role the characters of Q and M play in the James Bond movies. Frequently there’s a character whose job it is to brief our hero as to what’s going on, but if you’re going to do this, you want to make this character interesting in some way.

Another trick is to give the main character a buddy. This gives our hero someone to talk to which makes it a lot easier to get information out. You can also stick ignorant characters in the scene that need an explanation. Think of the FBI agents in the Raiders scene. Indy and his boss know all about the history of the Ark but the FBI agents don’t so there’s a reason for the exposition to come out.

(Indy even makes a joke about their ignorance when he says, “didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday school?” That’s another useful trick – if you’re worried something might seem a little unbelievable, have a character comment on how unlikely it is. Then, as long as it’s plausible, we accept it. In this case Kasdan might have been worried that the audience would think the FBI agents are unbelievably uninformed so he has Indy tease them about it.)

Reveal in conflict

One of the most painful kinds of expository dialogue is when characters tell each other things they already know. For example, imagine a husband saying to his wife, “I’m tired. Let’s go back to the mansion we’ve been living in for the last three years ever since you won the lottery with a ticket you bought with your coworkers.” In real life that husband would simply say, “I’m tired. Let’s go home.”

As I’ve said, you can get around this by putting in an ignorant character that needs to know the information. Or, you can often solve it by adding conflict to the scene. If characters are arguing, they will bring up things everyone knows to support their point. Consider the introduction of Joe and Jerry 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 which 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.

Let’s look at another expository scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here’s a snippet of dialogue from when Indy goes to see Marion in Tibet.

MARION: You son-of-a-bitch! You know what you did to me, to my life?

INDY: I never meant to hurt you.

MARION: I was a child!

INDY: You knew what you were doing.

MARION: I was in love. It was wrong. You knew it.

INDY: Look, I did what I did. I don't expect you to be happy about it.

What we’re getting here is the back story of these two characters’ relationship. It’s revealed in conflict because otherwise they’d have no good reason to bring it up. Notice also how cleverly the dialogue is done. They’re speaking in shorthand since they both know what they’re talking about. They don’t spell out everything in detail, but there’s enough there for us to get the gist of what happened without it being too on-the-nose. The exposition is all in the subtext (see my last couple posts for more on subtext!)

Every script requires exposition. The key is to use these techniques to make it more palatable to the audience.

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