The Developmental Breakdown: Exposition

As a working definition, exposition is when a character is given dialogue as a means to educate the audience about the context of a story. More often than not we see this kind of writing in “Science-Fiction and Fantasy” film, and in many respects this Breakdown is a follow-up to my article on working within that genre. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of genre directors receive praise for their expositional dialogue. Anyone who’s read my Breakdown on “Compelling Dialogue” knows that each and every word a character speaks needs to be a personally motivated, urgent action that character is taking upon another character. Speaking for the sake of the audience undermines a character and bores the audience. There is no such thing as good exposition.

Ok. We all know that exposition is a cheap device. But sometimes it’s necessary, right? Sometimes, an audience will have no idea what’s happening unless we tell them!

Nope. Incorrect. Exposition is always completely unnecessary. Furthermore, the rationale for letting it into a scene is itself a subtle proof that a filmmaker has fallen prey to “The First Mistake” that besets a film’s development process. By fussing over an audience’s understanding of “what’s happening,” we allow ourselves to slip into passive storytelling habits. Our attention wanders away from the narrative action of a story and fixates on the context in which that story is happening. “What’s happening” is passive, and therefore irrelevant. All that matters is what our characters are actually doing.

If a character needs information to complete an urgent goal, he or she will actively go out and find it. In doing so, they reveal that information to the audience. Perhaps the most highly-praised bit of “exposition” in film history is that scene in The Matrix, where Morpheus explains the history of the world to Neo. For a moment, let’s look at that scene structurally:

All his life, Neo has been trying to figure out what the Matrix is. For some time, he’s even been chasing Morpheus down to get the information he needs. Even though the truth is something Neo is having serious trouble relating to, Neo is pushing through a discovery he has labored over his entire life. Our understanding of the Matrix is no more advanced than Neo’s, because really the information isn’t there for us. Really, we’re watching Neo learn secrets he has been ardently pursuing since the moment the movie started…

Check out the rest of this piece from Tennyson Stead.