In a recent class I taught on Handling Exposition, we were discussing the use of Fascination to make exposition entertaining. Here is an excerpt from a forum discussion thread that started with a scene from Training Day and ended up one of the most famous exposition scenes in movie history. A post from Dean Friske:
Not sure if this, from Training Day by David Ayer, is right either. It’s exposition. I’m calling it fascinating because it’s a conversation that reveals the why of the movie, the question the protagonist has been asking for the last 99 minutes, just before he’s to be killed and he knows it.
Ayer’s has gone for two people talking about a 3rd, but he’s set the conversation against the subtext of two people also toying with someone they’re about to kill.
SMILEY: That’s why I never shake his hand. He don’t respect shit. (to Jake). Know what the money’s for?
JAKE: – No.
SMILEY: Alonzo’s a hothead. Last week in Vegas some Russian dude was talking shit. Alonzo spazzed out and beat his ass to death. Oops. Turns out the dude was somebody. Alonzo’s into the Rooskies for million, wasting that cat like that.
JAKE: How do you know?
Smiley gives Jake a look.
SMILEY: They gave Alonzo till today to pay up. But his name’s already on a list. No one thought he could get cash that big. Good thing he got his blood money, ’cause a crew’s waiting on standby. He don’t get downtown and pay up by midnight and not a minute after, Cinderfella turns into a corpse.
MORENO: It’s all about punctuality, ese.
SNIPER: Dude made a pact with some shit ’cause only coulda saved his ass.
JAKE: It’s no miracle.
Dean, this is exposition, absolutely. All of that information is backstory. And you’re right, it’s about a third character, so we are two levels removed from ‘show it, don’t say it’. So what did screenwriter Ayer do to make this exposition work?
As you point out, he uses fascination to the scene’s advantage, both the specifics of Alonzo’s situation with deadly consequences and the way Smiley conveys the information, street slang. It’s entertaining to read because it has a jargonesque lilt to it.
Also there is a subtext of conflict at work: the conflict between Alonzo and the “Rooskies”.
That said, if this were a script someone was working on in one of my writing workshops, I’d offer this suggestion: Why not accompany the backstory with images of Alonzo? You could show him killing the Russian, essentially a flashback. Or you could simply cut to Alonzo wherever he is now, staying low, freaking out, arming up, whatever. To do this, you’d have to have established a certain narrative flexibility to veer away to other peoples’ POVs.
That said, a reminder that movies are primarily a visual medium. Should always be thinking about how to enhance the visual nature of our stories.
So glad you mentioned the visuals thing. I liked that it was some 3rd party solving the puzzle for the protagonist instead of the evil villain and the use of street slang, but there was something in the staging maybe? Looking at the rest of the script, popping out at that late stage to a different pov with VO could be too much left hand turn in style. But that they were just playing cards… dunno. If they had him in the bath-tub about to blow his brains down the drain, that would’ve felt gratutious. Hindsight and all being what it is, I wonder whether they could’ve used the fact that Alonzo wasn’t there (JAKE throws his cards and starts to fight) to have them talk about where he is and why? Or would that be almost too cliched a scene? I only ask because I wonder where one draws the line in feedback. You get a note saying “it’s just guys talking” – would you push back with reasons like “the whole movie is two people talking in a car for goodness sake” or say “okay, lets look at it?”
Dean, you raise a key point, what we may call “talking head syndrome”. I read far too many scripts by aspiring screenwriters where their default for a scene is this: Two characters. Static location. Talking. Nothing inherently wrong with this… unless the dialogue is flat, the setting uninspired and the characters not compelling. This becomes especially problematic when the writer handles scene after scene like this.
But as I say, a talking head scene, even with lots of exposition, need not fall flat. One of the most famous exposition scenes in cinema history is this one from Jaws. But what have we got going on here:
Three characters: Each distinct, each with an interesting background, personal issues, and narrative arcs. Plus the combination of the three creates a kind of volatility due to their respective personalities. Plus this particular moment is set up by them drinking and basically breaking down some of the barriers between them, so in effect, the story of the USS Indianapolis is a kind of confession.
Setting: In a way, static. However, one key thing: It’s a boat. In the middle of the ocean. An ocean with a gigantic white shark roaming around. So despite their relative safety, there is a threat looming, quite literally, underneath them and therefore under what transpires in the scene.
Talking: The previous two elements create a context. But it is the dialogue itself which shines because it is Revelation (a shocking experience in Quint’s past). It evokes Action (men desperate to survive in the water while many of them die). It is Mystery (what the hell happens after the men are left floating in the water). And mostly it is Fascination (the jaw-dropping details of the horrific event).
Cap it off with Robert Shaw’s almost understated, almost ironic delivery – and we have to acknowledge Spielberg’s direction with a few judicious cuts to Brody and Hooper’s faces – and you have one of the greatest exposition scenes ever.
So talking heads can be entertaining. But you’ve got to bring your A Game when writing these type of scenes. And if you have a story like Training Day or The King’s Speech, which are basically two-handers, you have an even greater challenge.
Just remind yourself, we have tools to make exposition entertaining: Fascination, Mystery, Revelation, Conflict, Action, Humor, along with assorted tips I’ll be providing this week.
About that scene from Jaws, check it out one more time. It’s all exposition. And it’s all great!
There are different kinds of exposition, sometimes requiring us to use Talking Heads. But there are different ways to handle exposition. One of the best is to make fascinating.