May 13, 2015

How the Opening Sequence of David Fincher's 'Se7en' Perfectly Demonstrates Exposition

Exposition is one of those narrative conventions that requires a lot of finesse to do right. One perfect example of a great expositional scene is the opening sequence from David Fincher's Se7en.

Tyler Knudsen breaks down this scene in this Press Play video essay.

There is so much to learn from this scene about storytelling, like how to set up tone, characters, and tension. But let's focus on how Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker share information with their audience (exposition) in such a way that it keeps them guessing all the way up until the very gruesome end.

Chekhov's Gun

Also called "unity" in academia, this dramatic principle observed by author Anton Chekhov essentially states that every detail in a story must be relevant, essential, and irreplaceable to the narrative. Chekhov explains:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.

Audiences are perceptive and are expecting to be given hints and information about what's to come in the story, so if they see Somerset throwing an ornate knife at a dartboard in one scene, they're going to expect him to use it in some effect in a future scene. (As Knudsen mentions, part of the brilliance of the film is that that expectation is set up as something violent, but ends up being "a key" instead.)

(Another great film to study to learn more about unity is The Silence of the Lambs.)

Showing, Not Telling

As filmmakers, we should know that the name of the game is to show, not tell. When we're busy telling our audience through excessive dialog what to think and what to know, it takes away their opportunity to participate in the storytelling by solving the many mysteries that exist in the narrative: "What's going to happen next?" "Can this person be trusted." "What is that person really thinking?" Once your audience is one step ahead of the story it's all over.

This is why Somerset doesn't say, "Man, I'm a very inquisitive guy. I sure will miss solving mysteries once I retire from being a homicide detective." Instead he says, "Did the kid see it?" Really, that says it all.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is a Straight Line

It's good to not bottle feed your audience by setting up plenty of mystery and intrigue, but sometimes you just need to get information out. Names, professions, settings -- things like this are usually good to just tell your audience. "What's your name?" "Somerset." "Hi, Somerset. I'm Mills." However, there are plenty of ways to do this creatively so it's not as stale.

Objects Can Speak Louder Than Words

In the opening scene of Se7en, Somerset's character is revealed completely in a single shot: a white handkerchief, a small square of wallpaper, his badge, his knife, and his gun all laid out in perfect order in an overhead shot. When it comes to crafting an expositional scene with finesse, it doesn't get much better than this.

  • The white handkerchief: Somerset is unblemished, but is tasked with ridding the city of the grime it has been accumulating.
  • The square of wallpaper: Not only does this nod to Somerset's inquisitiveness (this old rose-patterned wallpaper was revealed underneath a tear in the new wallpaper), but it hints at his desire to return to the "rosy" world that has been hidden underneath a layer of crime and murder.
  • His badge: Plainly, he's in law enforcement.
  • His knife: We learn that this isn't a tool for violence, but rather a key. Somerset is the keyholder.
  • His gun: He's also a deadly enforcer, but the gun is in its holster, which could signify his lack of brazen violence. (In contrast, if this shot was Det. Mills', the gun might be tossed arbitrarily on the bed free of its holster.)

Of course, there are plenty of other interpretations for these objects, but you can see how Fincher and Walker use them to communicate to their audience without using words.

What are some creative ways to relay information to audiences without using overly expositional scenes? Let us know in the comments below.     

Your Comment

5 Comments

I like when films introduce characters and fill in backstory later. Raiders of the Lost Ark was great at revealing details of Indy's background as the film progressed. First we meet him in the jungle on an adventure then later we see him as a professor in a university and then he is sent on a secret mission where he meets up with a former love interest. The whole movie was an interesting character reveal.

May 14, 2015 at 11:51PM

10
Reply
Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
793

very insightful...thanks for this article,Im going to try and incorporate a little more stubtilty in to my next project.

May 14, 2015 at 11:54PM

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Stefan Foderingham-Garraway
Director/Cinematographer
223

the video players sucks guys. No not my broadband

May 15, 2015 at 4:15AM

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Lourdes joe Arputhan
Filmmaker
81

+1000000

May 15, 2015 at 11:27AM

3
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Not to rain on your parade but this wasn't actually intended to be the opening scene. The Blu-Ray commentary makes that clear. The famous credits sequence wasn't going to be used either, but they ran out of money for the intended one (which is also why the opening scene changed). Last interesting change with Se7en - it wasn't intended to be rain-washed either but Fincher had no choice because of the weather on the first day's shooting. Yet the relentless rain becomes not only an awesome feature of the film's vision, it also becomes a great metaphor with the final journey into the blazing light of the desert. If Se7en shows you anything, it's how a great director can take problems during a shoot and turn them into gold.

May 17, 2015 at 8:00PM

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