Exposition in story is a necessary evil. We have to know certain facts about a character or event if we are to make sense of the unfolding story. But exposition is a break in story momentum and should be handled deftly. A good way to hide it is to layer it with subtext.
In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA provides several examples of good and bad exposition.
In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration – often a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. The scene, however, is static, filled with inertia, boring.
In American Graffiti, a radio dial and music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through a few quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy and mechanical diversions.
In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on foot-long cigars they step into the water and proceed to discuss the sorts of things you’d expect to hear in the obligatory gangster boardroom scene. But placing the gangsters in a therapy pool and showing them as a bunch of naked fat old men, distracts us from the exposition and allows it to slip in surreptitiously.
In all three examples, context, mood, and necessary facts are relayed to the audience through exposition, preparing us for the story.
The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer.
The next two do so surreptitiously. They layer subtext in the setting and under the dialogue, keeping the audience engaged.
Load exposition with subtext to make it surreptitious and interesting.
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