September 6, 2014

Here's How to Avoid Clunky Expositional Scenes by Putting Your Sound & Visuals to Work

The Road Warrior
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.     

Your Comment

14 Comments

She just used the best film ever made as an example and i can die in peace now.

September 6, 2014 at 9:45PM

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Second best, Catch 22... Max never bombed the ocean.

September 7, 2014 at 12:53AM

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Shaun Wilson
DP, Producer, Director
166

"I could just walk away…from living. (The Lord Humungus translation of "I can die in peace.")

September 7, 2014 at 4:36AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Being able to tell your story without dialogue feels like a dieing art sometimes. I watched the latest TMNT incarnation just to remember my childhood and boy did they get lazy with the exposition.

+1 for show don't tell.

September 6, 2014 at 10:05PM

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David Sharp
Video Editor, Cinematographer, Teacher
419

I agree. For instance, as much I like Christopher Nolan, I believe he could tell his stories without rely too much in dialogues, he could get better. And I'm talking about one big director of today's cinema industry.

September 6, 2014 at 10:56PM

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I too am a big fan of Nolan, but I definitely understand the point you are making. The exposition in Nolan's movies never feels forced (even when considering Ariadne's 'training' in Inception) or distracting, but it would be great to see a little more VISUAL story telling. This could be a side-effect of his popularity in that he needs to be able to tell his stories to the large scale audiences he is now acquainted with. Subtlety is a little harder with blockbusters.

September 8, 2014 at 4:13PM

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Joseph Quillen
Writer/Director
88

Idem...I love storytelling without much dialogue... it's more immersive.

September 23, 2014 at 7:25AM

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Ragüel Cremades
Film producer and director
7540

Good One...

September 6, 2014 at 11:17PM

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"Show, don't tell"

September 7, 2014 at 1:11AM, Edited September 7, 1:11AM

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Very interesting. What it succeeds in most for me is convincing me to pay closer attention to the subtelties when watching a movie. Awesome analysis.

September 7, 2014 at 7:08AM

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Definitely makes you realize that participation is important when watching movies…which means I need to stop watching them while simultaneously ordering/eating pizza like a schlub. (Grease and sauce everywhere.)

September 7, 2014 at 4:35PM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

I'd much rather hear droning cinematic music with 11 wide shots of trees with the sun behind them followed by several minutes of slow motion shots that tell me nothing about the story...

September 8, 2014 at 12:24PM, Edited September 8, 12:24PM

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Josh Paul
Most often DP, Direct or Gaff
1252

Cool analysis. Films like mad max and Drive are the perfect examples where the main actor doesn't say much with dialogue but a lot with expressions.

September 10, 2014 at 3:40PM

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Pedro Perez Nuñez
Director/ Writer
81

Thanks for this wonderful tutorial :) :) :)

September 21, 2014 at 9:00PM

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Reduanul Azim
Director
88

A great lesson on communicating nonverbally, and a great lesson in how NOT to mix a video. The editor may not have had access to a mix suite, but even listening once through headphones would have revealed that the intro narration only comes out the left channel and the entire rest of the video is all over on the right.

September 22, 2014 at 9:31PM

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Joe Griffin
Sound Designer
74