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Writing Insights: The Art of Exposition Part 1 – Using Visuals

Writing Insights: The Art of Exposition Part 1 – Using Visuals

When you need to convey information in your script – about characters’ backstories, their relationships, the setting or story – it’s a natural instinct to turn straight to exposition, telling the audience what they need to know through dialogue.

And there’s no doubt that exposition is a necessary evil in scriptwriting. There are always going to be things that need to be established for the audience to understand what’s going on in your story!

Exposition is almost always a problem, though. Firstly, people don’t really talk in an expositional manner – stating a whole load of facts, one after the other – and they don’t tell people things they already know. So exposition often feels fake or forced, seeming to be there just for the audience’s sake.

The other problem is that it often has a negative effect on the story. An “info-dump”, as it’s often known, slows the narrative, putting the story on hold so the audience can learn things. But, overwhelmed by the amount of information being thrown at them, they’ll often just switch off!

So how do you get around this problem? How do you communicate the information the audience needs without boring them, overwhelming them, or making your characters talk like aliens trying (and failing) to impersonate human beings?

Well, the first thing you can do is to fully utilize the visual medium of film, and forget about dialogue entirely…

As a screenwriter, looking at the page all day, it can be easy to get stuck in a world of words. “Surely,” you think to yourself, “if I want to get some information across, someone has to state it out loud.”

But sight is the sense that human beings use the most, and it’s possible to communicate a huge amount about all kinds of things through nothing but visuals. An actor can tell us a lot about a character’s feelings with just a glance or an expression – or even by doing nothing at all!

The famous “Married Life” segment from UP is a great example of how to use visuals well. Decades of marriage are summarised – complete with information about the characters, their relationship, their families, and the things they go through – in four short minutes, and without a single word being spoken.

The power of visuals applies to world-building, too. The famous opening shot of STAR WARS sees Princess Leia’s tiny ship being pursued by the massive Star Destroyer of Darth Vader, and the difference of scale immediately tells us a lot about the two sides. Darth Vader and the Empire are powerful and dominant, while Princess Leia and the Rebel Alliance are the underdogs.

So whenever you think you need to use exposition to get some information across, stop for just a minute and think. Maybe there’s a way to get things across without anyone having to speak a single word. Try to picture things instead. Don’t forget – fundamentally, you’re not just writing a screenplay, you’re writing a film as well!

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this article, where we’ll be talking about those times when you can’t use visuals – and how to make exposition interesting, so that the audience won’t even notice it’s there!

Writing Insights: The Art of Exposition Part 1 – Using Visuals

The Nightmare Before Christmas – Halloween or Christmas Film?

Every year without fail, there’s a question that I can’t seem to answer. To this day, it remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in the world of cinema: is THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS a Halloween film or a Christmas film?

To some, it’s obvious. “It’s both, isn’t it?” they say. This stop-motion animated classic (usually associated with Tim Burton, although actually directed by Henry Selick) tells the story of Jack Skellington, Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, who grows bored of his usual holiday and decides to take over Christmas instead – so of course it’s both.

I’ll admit that this answer may be right, but it doesn’t help because it doesn’t tell me when I should be watching the film. Do I watch it at Halloween or Christmas, or at some strange midpoint on November 27th? Which set of celebrations should it be a part of?

This year felt like the year to try to resolve the issue. With WriteMovies running our first ever Horror Award and announcing the winner on Halloween, we’ve read lots of scripts and watched lots of films that made us think about the Pumpkin King’s holiday, whether they be scary and violent or more light-hearted like THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

And after some thought, I think I’ve finally figured it out. I think I’ve finally found an answer to the question…

Because I genuinely believe now that it’s a Christmas film.

Even writing that out now, it still looks strange to see. After all, this is the film that still, 25 years since it’s release, is most emblematic of Tim Burton’s visual style – a style that has been embraced by goths, outcasts, and lovers of the weird and spooky ever since.

It’s a film which has a skeleton as its main character, which opens on shots of ghosts and pumpkins, and which sees Santa Claus (or “Sandy Claws”, as the residents of Halloween Town call him) kidnapped by a misbehaving gang of trick-or-treaters. To call it a Christmas film therefore sounds strange even to my own ears.

But I’ve decided that it is – because thematically, it shares much more with Christmas films than anything else. Fundamentally, it’s the message a film conveys that determines where it belongs. Christmas films generally have a focus on family and community, and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is just the same.

After all his (mis)adventures, at the end of the film Jack comes to realize the folly of his mistakes. By turning his back on his friends and the town that loves him, disaster has followed. It’s only by returning to where he belongs, embracing his community, and accepting the love of the ragdoll Sally that he finds happiness again.

Nobody would ever accuse THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS of being a horror film, but I believe this shows that it’s not even a Halloween film either. It belongs firmly to the realm of Christmas, and that’s why I’ll be watching it as part of my holiday celebrations this year.

Of course, give it another twelve months… and I’ll probably change my mind again.

From all of us here at WriteMovies, a very Merry Christmas. Oh, and I supposed a Happy (belated) Halloween, too!