Exposition: Making it work

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  • Exposition: Making it work

    I watched Poltergeist yesterday. I couldn't help but notice a great deal of exposition, specifically when the psychic Zelda explains to the family everything about the ghosts.
    Yet, it works. This is probably thanks to the entertainment value of Zelda's look and voice on itself, and, of course, because it's an interesting explanation.

    Can you think of any other examples where exposition works, and why?

  • #2
    Exposition works in every single movie where you don't notice the exposition. Every movie has a lot of information to get across, so writers are constantly figuring out ways to do it smoothly.
    Sometimes it's hidden in jokes, or in arguments, or in a new guy coming to town so things have to be explained. Sometimes it's hidden in flashbacks, or in a diary, or in a conversation with a friend or a confession to a priest. Often it's parceled out a little at a time in dialog, and it leaves the audience with questions so they're waiting to learn more as the movie progresses.

    The art of writing is about figuring out what the audience needs to know when, and figuring out a way to get it across so it isn't noticeable and awkward, but instead seems like a perfectly natural part of the story. If you watch any movie a second time, or read the script, you can look for how and where exposition was hidden.

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    • #3
      Poltergeist came out in 1982. It was that movie which put the word "poltergeist" into the common lexicon. Nowadays, a writer wouldn't need to explain how the monster works. You could write an entire vampire script and never explain anything, never even use the vampire. Heck, you can use the common lore to create a twist - "whaddya mean the cross and holy water had no effect!?"

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      • #4
        Some techniques for making exposition palpable:

        1. The New Guy. Have a character who doesn't know what the hell is going on so the other characters have a reason to explain it to him, and the audience.

        2. Out of the frying pan and into the exposition. Have the exposition revealed at the worst and last possible moment so it not only explains what is happening, but makes what is happening seem worse because we now understand just how bad it really is and how much worse it will get. This way exposition acts as a dramatic beat to intensify the drama and raise the stakes.

        3. There's good news and bad news. The bad news is that all we have to eat is sh!t. The good news is that there is lots of it. Using humor to convey exposition make sit enjoyable to hear and allow you to deepen character by allowing the character to use unique and revealing methods of communicating exposition.

        4. Seeing is believing. Use interesting visuals whenever possible to do the heavy lifting and communicate the exposition.

        5. The Rainman. Some characters by their nature are incapable of guile and subtlety and tend to blurt out exposition. It's a character trait to constantly say exactly what is happening and why.

        6. Dr. Exposition. Using characters and situations where procedural and technical exposition is organically used.

        7. And the winner is.... Exposition is used to answer questions the audience has and wants answered. Some attempt the reverse and try to give answers before the questions are raised and it almost always doesn't work. Raising questions engages the audience and holds their interest as they search your story for the answers.

        HTH

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        • #5
          Great tips, DEM. Thanks.

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          • #6
            Even in the greatest scripts ever written, if you sat down and deliberately looked for 'exposition' you'd find it so easily. That's because we all know what it is, it's the background info on a character or plot event. What the great stories do is make the exposition a part of the story progression, and not stop mid tempo to insert a scene that explains something.

            In poltergeist, it's perfectly reasonable to assume a supernatural expert would sit you down and tell you what's going on with these ghosts in your house.

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            • #7
              I always thought that The Terminator made great use of exposition. Not only does Reese wait forever to tell Sarah (and the audience) what the hell is going on, but it's during a tense moment in the film where they are trying to hide from the police.

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