Writers have an irrational hatred of “exposition” (long scenes where someone sits down and explains the plot). Supposedly, this is because the public hates it, but the fact is that we hate it even more than they do. This is why the general public liked Inception a lot more than most screenwriters did. Listening to anyone explain the rules of the plot for that long sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to us. Not only is exposition clunky, dull, and uninvolving, it’s just so… so… uncool. Cool writers are those who come up with elegant ways to elide exposition and still get the story across. Letting characters explain everything is admitting defeat.
So why not just do away with exposition entirely? Certainly, when I was a kid, we would just fastforward through all talking scenes in Raiders on the Lost Ark on VHS. Problem solved, right? But no, that doesn’t work either. The modern equivalent of my nine-year-old mindset can be found in the recent Harry Potter movies, where they now just leave all the boring “story” parts out. If you wanted to know what was going on in the latest HP movie, I sure hope you read the book. Actually, I hope you read the book three times, because I read it twice and yet I still couldn’t keep track of who everybody was onscreen or what was significant about each plot turn. It was like watching a three-hour book-trailer: “Here’s a bunch of creepy-looking suspense scenes! Don’t they make you wish you knew what was going on?”
The worst offenders of the dreaded “exposition dump” are supposedly the James Bond movies. In the Austin Powers spoofs, for example, Bond’s boss “M” was replaced by a character named “Basil Exposition”. But some Bond movies do a better job than others with all the dreaded exposition, and they can show us how to tackle this problem. In some Bond movies, the first we see of Bond is when he saunters into M’s office for a new assignment and gets smothered in facts while he listens blandly. But in other movies, we first meet Bond on a mission (presumably with little information himself), and it’s only when things get bollocksed up that he storms into M’s office demanding to know the whole dirty story. This hints at two rules:
- Don’t give the hero or the audience any information that they aren’t demanding to know.
- Information is a lot more interesting if it causes an emotional reaction in the person hearing it.