Here's How to Avoid Clunky Expositional Scenes by Putting Your Sound & Visuals to Work
Everything in your film is telling a story. The music, action, dialog, color, even a seemingly unnoticeable facial expression -- they're all working together to give your audience information about each scene. Screentakes founder Jennine Lanouette highlights several of these aspects of storytelling by analyzing the opening scene of The Road Warrior.
What's the big takeaway from Lanouette's analysis? For me, it's that good filmmakers tend to be incredibly cinematically literate. They're exceptional visual and aural communicators. If you think about your movie as a conversation between you and your audience, being able to express and explain your story is profoundly essential to giving your viewers a chance to make sense of and respond to your film.
This is an important factor to consider right from the beginning -- during the screenwriting process. Granted, you're probably not stuffing your script full of screen directions (especially if you're not going to be the one directing the picture), but it might be a good idea to highlight key points that speak to the action of the scene, like the gas gauge bit from The Road Warrior for example -- the 5 visual and aural queues: the gauge, the meter, the audible alarm, the blinking red light, the tank's high capacity, demonstrate its importance. Would Max's mission to find fuel seem as urgent without the blinking light or resounding alarm? Would we understand that fuel is precious and hard to come by in this dystopian environment as quickly and efficiently without the tank capacity's visual clue? And how much better is it to communicate those things with quick audio and visual queues rather than long, unnatural dialog. ("Man, I hate the fact that fuel is so difficult to come by in this treacherous dystopian environment. Don't you agree, Max? By the way, I admire that you are totally adept at surviving here and still being able to maintain a heroic level of humanity. You are sympathetic, relatable, and a hero.")
If you're directing, being attuned to what each action, facial expression, gesture, etc. is saying to your audience will help you tell your story much more effectively, too. In my own experience, I've found it overwhelming at first to tackle this -- sometimes even settling for basic direction ("Yeah, whatever. Just walk over and pick up that gun and walk off-screen,") rather than being more intentional with the action ("Yeah, slowly walk over to the gun; pause; you're scared of the gun, you're hesitant, but you pick it up once you hear a scream in the distance -- the gun will help you get out of this haunted, uh -- whatever, 5-story Victorian townhouse alive,").
This doesn't mean that you have to over-think everything ("Oh jeez, should my character part his hair on the right or left!??), but if you'd like to avoid laborious expositional scenes or take your visual and aural storytelling to the next level, then it might be a good idea to study some of your favorite films and see how the action contributes to the story.