One of the most basic functions of every film is to communicate information over a length of time to an audience. How this film is communicated often determines how engaged an audience may be. One of the most difficult types of information to weave naturally into a story is exposition. What is exposition? In this article, we’ll define exposition and take a look at a few examples of how exposition in film can be implemented without disengaging an audience.
First, let’s define expositionExposition can be delivered through many vehicles, but all serve a basic function. What does exposition mean? Before we dive into the means of implementing it into a script, let’s first establish an exposition definition.
What is exposition?
Exposition is a comprehensive description or explanation to get across an idea. It is a device used in television, films, poetry, music, and plays. Exposition in literature is a writer’s way to give background information to the audience about the characters and setting of the story.
This exposition definition applies directly to film, which can be dialogue, narration, or even visual information the audience receives that helps them better understand what is going on in the story.
What is exposition used for?
- Reveal theme
- Describe the story world
- Entice audience curiosity
- Establish the rules of a film
- Reveal more about character
What is exposition of a Story
The purpose of exposition
There are many secrets to writing great exposition in a screenplay, but they all rely on its main function. The purpose of exposition is to reveal details around the circumstances that surround a film’s narrative. This can be character traits, motivations, background information or themes that all allow the audience to further comprehend the central narrative of a film.
Expository "info dumps" often get a bad rep when they aren't used well. But it can be a necessary component for a film to function. Using the right tools gives exposition meaning. In this video, Thomas Flight constructs an argument for its use despite poor uses in cinema.
Exposition in film can often be difficult to implement naturally. Too little and the audience becomes confused — too much and the audience becomes disengaged. The right amount of exposition is usually a product of a filmmaker trusting the audience's ability to be able to put things together while also recognizing what information is absolutely necessary for them to know.
This video by Lessons from the Screenplay examines how Ex Machina executes the balance of information perfectly to keep the audience engaged throughout the film.
Take note of how Alex Garland cut pages of expository material from the final cut of the film because he trusted the ability of the audience to put things together. This is an important aspect that is often overlooked. It can result in information being spoon-fed to audiences through lengthy dialogue scenes or completely unnatural conversations.
So how exactly do filmmakers implement this information naturally into a film while keeping the narrative engaging? The first way is through visuals — using what we see instead of what we hear.
Visual Exposition Examples
Define exposition with visuals
Visual exposition is often more engaging, but also more difficult to pull off. Sometimes it is used through the mise-en-scene of a scene. For example, a character's bedroom often reveals their personality traits.
Using visual aids is among our list of tips in this video breakdown of how to write exposition into a screenplay. Watch how Jurassic Park makes the genius decision to reveal scientific jargon and concepts through an educational video.
Although this scene is extremely efficient at communicating information, not every narrative has the luxury of introducing a concept in a matter-of-fact video. To incorporate crucial information into a film visually and organically, it is up to the script must first entice curiosity in the audience.
We brought The Matrix screenplay into the StudioBinder's screenwriting software to break it down. In this scene, Neo and the audience first encounter “the real world.”
The scene enables the audience to understand the central narrative of the film and how the world of the film operates.
To better understand how well The Matrix implements expository material into its narrative, this video breaks down various action sequences that also serve as visual story and plot information.
As shown in the video essay, The Matrix does not only use visuals to exposit key information. There are other means of communicating the plot details of a story that utilizes what a character says to either the audience or to other characters in the film.
What is exposition through voice over?
Exposition meaning in narration
Beyond the visual elements of a film, filmmakers also utilize sound to communicate information. One of the most efficient ways to do this is through voice over narration.
When it is executed well, narration can connect an audience to a film’s protagonist while communicating vast amounts of information over a short amount of time. Few filmmakers do narration better than Martin Scorsese. Voice over narration is a common aspect of Scorsese’s directing style and screenplays.
In this scene from Goodfellas, Scorsese uses voice over narration to establish the backstory of Henry, introduce the power of the mob, and highlight Henry's motivations all within three minutes.
For more exposition examples in The Goodfellas script, download and read the entire screenplay. By using voice over narration filmmakers have a way to directly communicate exactly what they want to the audience. This can be both a good and bad thing depending on how you write a voice-over in a screenplay.
Narration can often spoon-feed audiences information and disengage them completely. It is important to use voice over narration with restraint and use it to complement the visuals of a scene rather than take over the scene completely.
What is exposition in dialogue?
Deliver exposition through dialogue
One of the more engaging ways to include vital info in a scene through sound is through dialogue. What is exposition in dialogue used for?
Dialogue is one of the more difficult ways to lay out the details of a story. Poor dialogue is often criticized for being unnatural. When used naturally and correctly, it can be incredibly effective.
Take a look at this video that analyzes exposition examples in dialogue —both poor and great examples that make a scene memorable.
As you can see from the examples shown in the video essay, good expository dialogue has to be motivated. When it isn’t, it becomes "on the nose" and can distract or disengage an audience. Writing realistic dialogue can be difficult, but can also be the most natural and effective way to communicate information to an audience.
Tips for writing great exposition
What is exposition? It's an opportunity to bring the audience into the film. Now that you understand the importance of handling this information carefully and how it can be necessary for a film to function, read on to learn about specific tips and techniques that will help you implement exposition seamlessly into your script.