On Exposition scenes in the Top 20 RoI Movies
So – Exposition scenes in a movies are an art form and a science, in and of themselves.
What do I mean by: Exposition Scenes?
So in James Bond movies (and novels) it’s usually obvious, namely a scene near the start where M tells Bond what the latest Big Problem is that he has to solve. i.e. When M gives Bond his new mission. Some Supervillain needs taking down or for some reason the World needs saving again – or whatever.
Of course Austin Powers spoofed it (in Spy Genre movies) with the character of Basil Exposition:
Austin Powers on Time Travel (Trek Movie)
Anyway, also recently, I heard an Interview with Tarantino – and he said that he thought the best Exposition scene (ever, maybe) was in, IT FOLLOWS. Listen to the 18 mins onwards mark, here:
Quentin Tarantino Talks About The Horror Genre And His Favourite Films – (Yellow King Film Boy)
Anyway so, on with the show.
If you are a screenwriter, You can – and should – read my PhD online, free, here.
Anyhooo ~ Here’s (below) what I think are, the key Exposition Scenes, in the Top 20 RoI Movies. I recommend you watch the Top 20 RoI and Bottom 20 RoI Movies (and – read the scripts!) to get a sense of: how they all did it! (i.e., Made over 71 times their movie production budget – and thus – became Top 20 RoI movies!) Also, read my PhD… where, I analyze it all in detail!
These “Key Exposition Scenes” in these movies – as listed below – get us (the audience) “up to speed” on the situation (like: Who are these characters – and What’s their: Big Problem?).
1.) Paranormal Activity
At Scene 25, at the 17 mins (or, 21%) mark – Up to now we’re not quite sure WTF is going on, but – here (at the 21% mark), The (paranormal) Doctor investigates, and tells them: It’s a demon, and it wants Katie-!
Also – some more Exposition on “the big problem”, is at Scene 94 (72 mins, or 87%) when Micah finds the website about “Diane”…
When do you dump the Key Exposition, in your audience’s lap? …Early? …In the middle? Near the end of the story? Spread it all out, or what?
Each story is unique (or else it won’t be seem as: new, useful and surprising, which is the definition of creativity) so each new story presents unique creative problem situations for the writer.
Anyway on to the storytelling in the #2 RoI (Return on Investment) movie.
2.) Mad Max
At Scene 31, or 19 mins (the 21-to-23% mark) – The bikie gang (the Nomads) arrives in town, and The Toecutter mourns The Nightrider’s death. We get the sense that some revenge against the road police is going to go down…!
On to #3 –
3.) The Blair Witch Project
At Sc 10 (3 mins 30 secs) to Sc 16 (7 mins) (the 5% to 12% mark of the story) – The Legend of the Witch is explained – mostly as vox-pops, as the student documentary film crew interview some locals, around Burkittsville.
On to #4 –
4.) El Mariachi
At Sc 16, or 10 mins 35 secs (the 14% mark) – The Mariachi (the travelling musician) tells us (among other things – i.e., watch the movie or read the script!): “Time was running out…” and we know something heavy (as it happens, a deadly case of mistaken identity) is coming…
5.) Night of the Living Dead
Sc 23, or 12 mins 45 secs, (the 14% mark) – The Truckdriver explains the bind that they are all in, trapped in the isolated farmhouse, as the ghouls (well; zombies) surround the house…
Sc 12 and 13, (15 & 16 mins) (13-15% mark) – Mike the boxing gym janitor tells Rocky that his gym stuff’s now on “skid row”. Rocky goes and talks to Micky the trainer about it all – and Micky fills Rocky in, on the situation. Rocky’s a bum, so – he’s out!
At Sc 6, or 7 mins (the 9% mark) – Dr Sam Loomis explains to the Nurse about Michael Myers’ backstory, and just how dangerous Michael is, as we see an escape has taken place at the insane asylum.
8.) American Graffiti
At Sc 1, or minute 1, (the 1% mark). They’re all leaving; it’s their last night in town before heading off and beginning “adult life”…
Sc 20, or 10 mins 15 secs, (the 11% mark) – Dante the convenience store clerk tells his girlfriend Veronica, some of his current problems. This gets us all “up to speed” on his current situation.
At Sc 4, or 5 mins 30s to 7m30s (the 7% mark) – Guy and Girl talk about the song he just played while busking, and that he has a day job as a vacuum repairman. She’s selling The Big Issue, and she also tells him she has a broken vacuum cleaner. We get a sense of who these 2 people are, and where they’re at. We also sense some chemistry between them…
11.) Napoleon Dynamite
At Sc 25, 16 m 40s (18% mark) – Over lunch at school, Napoleon and Pedro talk about girls – and they discuss, who to ask to the prom.
Also, if we haven’t figured out by now that Napoleon is somewhere on the Autism spectrum (is a bit – or is even a fair bit Aspie) then, we probably never will.
12.) Open Water
Sc 10, 2m20s, (3% mark) – As they leave, Daniel complains to a very busy Susan (on the phone) that this is supposed to be a holiday they are going on. So we get that: They’re a couple, and they’re going on a romantic holiday.
13.) Friday the 13th
Sc 15, 8m 42s (the 10% mark) – As she hitches a ride, Annie talks to the Truck Driver about her new summer job at Camp Crystal Lake, and about the (spooky) history of the place…
Sc 1, 55secs to 14m25s (the 1-16% mark) – Adam and Lawrence discover their grim situation (trapped in the basement) and they hear the tapes that Jigsaw left for them, with: “The Rules”. (Spooky!) So they (and we) get a strong sense of the situation they are now in.
At Sc 24, 18 mins, (24%) – Aaron’s voice-over (the phone message) explains the situation that Abe and Aaron are in, now they’ve invented the device. (Though arguably – the scene at 32% (Sc 39, 24m 32s) explains and updates it, much better: Namely at 32%, when Abe and Aaron test the device with a watch – and Abe explains how the machine they’ve invented works… and they draw diagrams of the `A and B end’, and parabolas, “1300 trips”, etc. The damn thing is: a Time Machine!)
16.) The Evil Dead
Sc 50, 15 mins 42s, 20% – The professor’s voice (on the tape) is played back and explains it all… There’s an incantation, that raises The Evil Dead.
17.) ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
Sc 11, 6 m19 s, 6% – We see how ET is left behind by his other ET buddies on the spaceship, and some spooky men are after him, and he’s hiding from them! (Note: This is done without dialog. Namely, the ole screenwriting “heuristic”: Show, Don’t Tell.)
18.) The Full Monty
Sc 4, 1m4s, (3%) – The (unemployed) Gaz, his son Nathan, and Gaz’s (also unemployed) mate Dave discuss how : the local Sheffield steel mill closed down ten years ago. So – since they don’t have jobs, they have: problems.
19.) Star Wars
An Opening Title Scroll! From the 0 secs to 2 mins (ie the 1% mark) (a lot like, the old Flash Gordon / Buck Rogers cinema serials) – “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire…” (etc etc). Exposition, up the yin-yang.
20.) My Big Fat Greek Wedding
At Scene 2, or 1m 18s (the 1% mark) – In the car, old Greek guy Gus tells his middleaged Greek daughter Toula that she better get married soon, she’s starting to look old. How’s that for Evolutionary Psychology and the mating (reproduction) biological imperative.
…Anyway – so, what have we learned?
Put your Exposition Scene anywhere you like, ranging from the 1% (Star Wars, American Graffiti, etc) even up to the 32% (eg: Primer) mark. According to the Top 20 RoI Movies, anyway. But – some of these movies also have additional Exposition, spread out among their scenes.
And – see my PhD on it all, for many more details!!!
Or even – read this whole PhD blog!
-Thoughts / Feedback / Comments welcome!
Hope it helps!
Oh – and here’s some random blog posts by others on: Exposition Scenes.
In the light of the above, if you take a look at the Top 20 RoI Movies: the different ways of doing Exposition, so that it’s seamlessly integrated (and not too “on the nose” or “painfully obvious) become clear.
A Counterexample: A terribly-conceived-and-badly-written movie is Lucy – the Exposition is done by: university lecture… Yawn! …Clunky!
Note: But – in some specific creative problem-situations (ie – in some specific movies), Exposition done by university lecture can work!
See say, The Da Vinci Code, or for a more informal version, see the great (classic) exposition scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy explains what The Ark of the Covenant is, (and – what it can do, if Hitler gets ahold of it) to the military intelligence guys!
JT Velikovsky, PhD – High-RoI Story / Screenplay / Movie & Transmedia Researcher
& Human & Computer Creativity Researcher
& Evolutionary Systems Analyst
See the research in my 2017 doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is reproduced here for the benefit of fellow bio-cultural scholars, and screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see also https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is a million-selling Transmedia writer-director-producer and game designer & writer. He has also been a professional Story Analyst for major movie studios, film funding organizations, and also for the national writer’s guild. He is also a judge for the writers guild and the director’s guild.
For more, see also the Transmedia-Writing weblog: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/