Present Tense Exposition

In every story, the characters and their world existed before the film began. Some of the elements of their history are necessary pieces of information for understanding what happens between Fade In and Fade Out. Much like how characters meeting each other is an opportunity to stage a revealing conflict, the presentation of expository information has its own opportunities and challenges.

Here are a few examples of how others took their backstory and wove it in to the present tense action of the film.

The Adventures of Tintin

After becoming suspicious about the model ship that he’s just purchased, and how several people were eager to try and take it off his hands, Tintin heads to the library to read up on the history of The Unicorn, the ship the model was based on. While a person reading aloud from a book doesn’t sound like a thrilling set piece, there are a few tactics used to add tension and conflict to the moment.

There’s a small beat before the scene in the library where we see an unknown figure watching Tintin and Snowy through a pair of binoculars. Those binoculars watch them leave and retrain on the model of the Unicorn in Tintin’s apartment. This plants questions in the audience’s mind: Who was watching him? What’s going to happen to this model? It also reinforces the earlier question, why is this model ship so important? These bits of unresolved tension carry us into the scene in the library.

While in the library, Tintin’s research reveals that The Unicorn was a ship that sank with a secret cargo. This isn’t a direct conflict within the scene, it posits another question to the audience: What was the secret cargo? This mystery is useful in how it suggests a connection to the questions already asked of the audience. Could the people interested in the model of the ship be interested in this secret cargo? How is the model connected to that?

The scene cuts from Tintin reading to an overhead shot of a man skulking about in the shadows, watching him. We’re reminded that Tintin is under surveillance. The surveillance beats sandwich the new information, helping to the audience to interpret that these things are related, and that while we just spent a little over a minute listening to somebody read aloud from a book, that information is crucial to what’s coming next.

Children of Men

Taking place in a future with some key differences from our present, this film has some serious world building to do. Over the opening credits, the audience is treated to audio from the intro to a TV news broadcast. The patter sounds familiar, helping to bridge the gap between our world and the imagined future of the film, but the stories that they discuss are dystopian and extreme. Then we come to the kicker: A reporter informing us that “Baby Diego,” a man in his twenties who was the youngest person on the planet, has just died.

This is a straight infodump, but it’s effective because the information it gives is layered and shocking. In that one moment, we’ve learned that there are no new people being born, and that the chaos teased at the beginning is directly connected to the conditions arising from a world without birth.

Alright. So we have our information. We’re done, right? Not by a long shot.

In walks Theo, trying to push through the the people watching the news report in a coffee shop to get his order. It’s a small conflict, but it helps to define his character. A world is in shambles, human biology has been halted, people are mourning the death of a celebrity symbolizing the planetary crisis, and Theo just wants everybody out of his way so he can have his morning coffee.

The Departed

Billy Costigan is called in to be vetted for undercover work. This could be a cut and dry scene discussing resumé items, but what elevates it and disguises the exposition is the dialogue of Det. Dignam.

Dignam doesn’t sit behind a desk. He doesn’t stop moving for more than a few seconds at a time. And every time he reveals something of Billy’s backstory as part of the interview process, he does it in the form of a verbal attack. For example, “You have different accents? You did, you fuckin’ snake. You were like different people!” or “You got 1400 on your SATs. You’re an astronaut, not a statie.”

Yes, we’re being directly told the backstory, but there’s a clear motivation for it being delivered this way: It’s a test. Dignam is trying to figure out if this guy is cut out for the job. Costigan’s going to have to stand up under even more intense scrutiny and pressure if he’s going to go undercover, and Dignam’s interrogation is the a hint of how personal history and characters trying to get a read on each other is going to be crucial to the rest of the film.

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Inside Baseball

Any time you have jargon or character motivations that can only be understood with an existing thorough knowledge of the world of the story, that’s Inside Baseball.

This isn’t to say that you don’t want to place your story in a specific world, or that you should shy away from telling stories that take place outside of the normal experience of the majority of people. It’s a question of balance.

There are ways to ease an audience into a specific world. Consider the Audience Surrogate. Ever notice how many TV pilots involve a New Person being introduced into an existing world, and how people need to explain things to this New Person?

It’s because we, the audience, need this information. If we’re going to follow anything that’s happening, we’re helped by having somebody inside the story that needs to find out the same information we do.

This doesn’t mean that a Surrogate should be on the receiving end of pages of expository dialogue. The difficult task is finding clever and sneaky ways to hide information for the audience inside the action of the story, like sticking a disgusting chewable pill in a spoonful of peanut butter.

The larger point, though, is never take for granted that your audience will have the same level of understanding of a specific world that you do. In fact, you should know more about it than they do. But, as you tell your story, you need to remember to let the audience in on the workings of this world. Be it a mythic kingdom or the trading floor of the stock market, the audience needs to be able to follow the rules if they’re going to have any hope of paying attention to the specific story you’re trying to tell.