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!