Monday, July 12, 2010

Reader mail: Exposition - how much is too much?

Mike says:

I recently watched Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger for the first time in years. All three spend a HUGE amount of time on exposition, but arguably it pays off with the impact of the thrilling conclusions. Do you think a spec with that kind of extensive, intrigue-based exposition could ever sell in today's market? More to the point and your expertise, what kind of reaction/impression/coverage would you have for such a thing, if it crossed your desk? (Supposing that formatting, grammar, and the story's internal logic were sound. It just spends a LONG time setting a LOT up.)

The sheer amount of exposition might be cause for concern, but having seen Goldfinger recently, I'd say the thing that really sets it apart more than the exposition is the pacing. Thunderball is even worse in that regard, with its sluggish underwater fights. At the end of the day, I think audiences are used to having a lot of exposition in things like the Bond series or Mission: Impossible. It's an accepted part of the genre and so long as there's a way for the viewer to understand what's going on in the broad sense it's not an issue.

When you get down to it, is Goldfinger really any more exposition-heavy than either of the two Daniel Craig Bond films?

I think the thing to remember is that most of the time, the exposition gets the story rolling, and then it largely gets out of the way. Sure, there's always a scene or two in the middle where Bond regroups, touches base with M or his CIA contact and learns something new, but that often comes at a point when the movie and the audience are ready to catch their breath. Those movies never go long without Bond doing something cool.

The thing to be on guard for is if you're writing a screenplay where every scene or every other scene has to stop and re-explain the plot for the audience. That's where you're telling the story more than showing it. In Bond, you can usually help disguise this by having fun with the characters. You know how this works - Bond tries to seduce the girl and in doing so drops a few details that move the story forward, or perhaps Bond matches wits with the villain in a way that makes the scene as much about each man marking his territory as it is about setting up the evil plot.

Basically, the trick is to not have the plot be the only interesting thing in the script. Take a story like Goldfinger or Casino Royale and fill it with bland boring characters who are only there to get the story from point A to point B and you probably have an instant pass on your hands.

What does the audience take away from Goldfinger? Well, there's a bad guy who's going to rob Fort Knox - that's not terribly hard to set up. There's a cool car with gadgets that liven the chase scenes in an unexpected way - also not hard to set up. There's a very attractive woman who has a name that likely insured she was either very popular in school or got teased mercilessly. Oh, and there's the coolest secret agent ever, who gets to drive the awesome car, bag the hot chick and thwart the bad guy, all without ever being at a loss for a cool line.

If the broad strokes of your plot are basic enough that I can reduce it to a quick summary without confusing myself, then you're probably on safe ground. If you want to see an example of an exposition story that's way to complicated for its own good, check out Southland Tales and then try to explain the plot of that story to me in three sentences or less.


  1. Southland Tales is a marvelous specimen.

  2. It really needs to be stressed that these films are forty-five years old; perhaps we could argue that audiences had greater attention spans, or at least were more accustomed to slower-moving stories.

    Scripts were also written differently back then, with a lot more description, use of camera directions, etc.

    Best advice I ever got about exposition (from a lecturer at UCLA) was never answer a question the audience isn't asking. The TV show Lost followed this advice (to a fault, sometimes).

  3. One of the best uses of exposition in a movie is Raiders of the Lost Ark -- the government men go to see Indy. He and Marcus begin to school them on not only the Ark of the Covenant, but the Staff of Ra as well, and it's all done quickly and you're somehow able to retain all of the information given to you.

    You know that the Staff of Ra is important to finding the Ark.
    You know that the Ark is a powerful, mysterious weapon.
    You get the sense of urgency.

    And aren't bored during a single moment of it.
    Great stuff.