Screenplay Exposition – How to Write it Lean and Mean

B. O'MalleyLast updated: Screenwriting

raiders-indy-comic-taking-idol

raiders-indy-comic-taking-idolScreenplay exposition. How much is too much?  How little is too little?  When should it happen?  

Writing it well is not always easy, especially for first-time screenwriters. Heck, writing anything with brevity and clarity is actually a difficult task, even for experienced wordsmiths. 

What is screenplay exposition?

So what is screenplay exposition?  Put simply, it’s setup. It’s what your audience needs to know about the characters or situation, in order for the events that take place in the story to have any meaning or impact.  Exposition can be a small moment, or it can be a series of small moments, or it can be a long list of things.  

Let’s take a few examples of screenplay exposition from one of the greatest movies of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the plane with Jock, having just escaped a murderous army of Peruvian indians, we learn Indiana Jones has a immense fear of snakes, as he freaks out over Jock’s pet Reggie who happens to be sharing a seat with Indy. That would be an example of a small moment of exposition, which sets up Indy’s fear of snakes, and pays it off by raising the stakes towards the end of Act 2 when he opens the Well of Souls and discovers that it’s literally crawling with hundreds of snakes.

Weighing the sand in the bag before taking the idol, using his whip to cross the chasm, dusting the tarantulas off of Satipo’s back— these are also little moments of exposition that add up in a way that tells us a lot about Indy’s character. 

But perhaps the most “classic” example of exposition in Raiders is the dialogue between Indy and the government men, at Indy’s college. In that big, talky scene, Indy gives us what amounts to nothing less than a massive data dump:  Hitler’s after the Lost Ark, the ark makes any army invincible, the Staff of Ra, the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, the Well of the Souls, etc. etc.  It’s done deftly on screen, but the text of the scene in the original screenplay draft stretches to 5-1/2 pages. It’s 100% pure exposition, and sets up nearly everything we need to know about Indy’s quest to follow, but it takes up a lot of space, as far as screenplay pages.

Here’s just one chunk of that scene from the Raiders of the Lost Ark screenplay:

BRODY

I can tell you that. Over the last two years the Nazis have had teams of archeologists running around the world looking for all kinds of religious artifacts.

MUSGROVE

That’s right. Hitler’s a nut on the subject. Crazy. He’s obsessed with the occult.

EATON

What is this Staff of Ra, anyway?

INDY

It all has to do with the Ark of the Covenant.

The Army guys look mystified.

INDY

The chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments.

Now it’s the Army men who are impressed.

INDY

An Egyptian pharoah stole the Ark from Jerusalem and took it back to the city of Tanis. A short time later, Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a year.

INDY

But before that, the Pharoah had the Ark hidden away in a secret chamber called the Well of the Souls. Which is where the Staff of Ra comes in.

Read the pages of the Raiders script and you’ll notice how the 5-1/2 pages of exposition, despite the draft’s perhaps over-verbose descriptions and action text, moves very swiftly and transmits only the data we need, which is to say, the data which pays off in some way. 

The four questions to ask of every bit of exposition you write

Whether you’re giving it to us in small chunks, or in a huge data-dumps with illustrations and chalkboards (a la the above Raiders scene),  the key to writing lean screenplay exposition is to ask several questions of every bit of exposition you’re putting down on page:

  1. Does this bit of exposition pay off later in any way?
  2. Is the information being related by this bit of exposition already related via some other bit of exposition, either implicitly or explicitly?
  3. Is there a stronger way to write this bit of exposition?
  4. Once stronger, is there a more brief way to write this bit of exposition?

Strengthen exposition by removing everything that’s not important

In the following guest-submitted script (The Beach Club by R. Paloma – Read the pages here), I’d like to illustrate a classic example of how exposition can be clarified simply by removing a lot of extraneous information. First, the original scene.

INT. PATROL CAR – NIGHT

Illumination from the dash lights and outer jail floodlights show a uniformed police officer, VINNIE PATRONE, age 34, driving the car. On his left shoulder a patch, “Eden Valley Police.” On his chest, a 7-point star badge. Above his right breast pocket, a nameplate reads “V. PATRONE.”

Patrone closes the car-mounted laptop and turns on the car radio. Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” plays on the car radio.

PATRONE

(to himself)

Sorry, Dolly. Nine P.M. to five A.M. is more my style of hours. Real cops work when it’s dark.

He presses the dash radio pre-set button to change the station to a classic rock tune.

Now let’s remove some of that extraneous information and do a few other tweaks and see what we end up with:

INT. PATROL CAR – NIGHT

VINNIE PATRONE (34) – a cop, drives his cruiser.

Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” plays on the car radio.

PATRONE

“9 to 5.” Pfff. Real cops work the graveyard shift.

He changes the station to a classic rock tune.

Omitted: “Eden Valley Police,” his badge, his nameplate, the illumination from the dash lights, the jail flood lights, the car-mounted laptop.

Why did we omit all that?

The point of the scene is to set up Patrone as a cop, and to set up his love of the nightshift. Mentioning all the accoutrements of being a cop (laptop, badge, nameplate, etc.) isn’t necessary. Just writing that he’s a cop does all that lifting for us. Paring all that away lets us focus on what’s really important: his character. The bits of character being introduced in this scene are 1. Patrone’s a cop, and 2. Patrone loves his job and loves the nightshift. Those things are illustrated by the author in what amounts to a somewhat comedic way by having him switch off such a signature, upbeat, working-class song as Dolly Parton’s “9-to-5.”  That little bit of business counts as some solid character exposition, because it says bundles about who he is. In the first version, however, that gets lost a bit.

Screenplay exposition is not scene description

Scene description does provide exposition, of sorts, in that it helps paint a picture for the reader. That being said, description is not screenplay exposition. In fact, when scene description is rendered poorly, it can actually detract from the screenplay exposition, by confusing or overwhelming a reader. 

In this next scene from the same script, we spend a bit too much time and verbiage on an opening:

INT. / EXT. JENKIN’S TOY STORE – NIGHT

From an outside large plate glass window, we see LINDSEY O’DELL, early-20’s, petite, dirty-blonde at the cash register tidying up. Happy, humming, not a care. Aisles of toys are throughout the store. Various toys and board games are on display behind the  register. O’Dell moves to a back storage room. She has a bounce in her step.

In this particular case, we have a scene that’s too long for its content. The point of the scene is to serve as a teaser and/or inciting incident. If it’s larded up with information we don’t need, it hinders the screenplay’s exposition in two key ways:

  1. It bombards the reader with non-important data and non-important description right as they’re supposed to be learning what this film’s “universe” is all about.
  2. That useless data gets mixed in with the data the author has decided is actually important, and the reader has to do a bit of parsing to tease out what’s important data from what’s not

So how should we rewrite it for more clarity?  How about this:

INT. JENKINS TOY STORE – NIGHT

LINDSEY O’DELL (22), petite, dirty-blonde hums at the cash register.  She heads for the storage room.

“Late exposition” needs earlier exposition to have any impact

Finally, remember that screenplay exposition isn’t something that only happens in the opening pages of your script. It can, and often does, appear quite late, depending on what sort of information you’re trying to pay off. In situations where you’d like to reveal data towards the end of your story, that data may or may not be counted as exposition. But in those instances, what does count as exposition are the moments earlier on where you make it possible for that data to manifest itself. 

For example, revealing on p. 80 that a character is actually the brother of the villain means nothing and has little impact if, earlier on in the script, you hadn’t crafted a bit of exposition that either asked that question, hinted about that question, or stated the exact opposite of that question’s answer.

In other words, pulling a rabbit out of a hat doesn’t have much emotional impact later if you don’t set up the hat earlier.

That “setting up of that hat” is exposition as well. Asking the question. Setting the state.

Exposition winds its way through a good portion of your script. Wherever it ends up, make it count. Make it do something. Make it pay off.

If it doesn’t, omit it, and leave room, both on the page and in the reader’s eye, for more important data you’d like your audience to feel or experience. As I demonstrated with Raiders, exposition can be long, and dense, if it’s all necessary information. When it comes down to it, the fewer things you have to transmit to your reader, the higher the chances of that reader receiving those things you’re trying to transmit.

For some more info on exposition, here’s a great article by author Chuck Wendig:  How To Make Exposition Your Bitch

And here’s another quick post on screenplay exposition that could help: Four Secrets for Better Exposition

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