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.
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.