Exposition means facts – the information about setting, biography, and characterization that the audience needs to follow and comprehend the events of the story.
– Robert McKee
This is McKee’s definition for exposition in his book “Story”. It sounds like a pretty simple thing: it’s informations that the audience needs to have, so why are many writers going crazy trying to figure out how exactly how this this thing work?
Because the hard truth is that the informations that the writer is trying to convey are “necessary” but not always “interesting”. Imagine a movie where the first 30 minutes are just one character looking at the camera and going:
“I was born on April 25th. I am a lazy person. My favourite subject in school was math. I’ve been married for 3 years. Everything seemed to be fine at first but lately I’m having doubts and I’m afraid that my wife is thinking about divorce. I have a cat named Fluffy…”
You would probably walk out of the theatre after 15 minutes. The informations that this character is providing might be necessary for the story, but they are random, presented badly and boring.
Exposition means trying to be both writer and spectator at the same time, because the author needs to both control the events of the story and be able to sit back and enjoy the story like a normal audience member would do.
That’s why this word “exposition” alone is enough to make a writer sigh in frustration. In order to nail exposition you need to know:
- what (what’s the information that you need to reveal?)
- when (is this the right time to reveal this particular information?)
- who (who is the right character to reveal the information?)
- why (does the character has a good reason to give the information?)
The “how” part is the frustrating one. It doesn’t really matter if an unknown character is giving a random expositional monologue in the wrong moment for no specific reason, as long as the exposition is entertaining the audience will roll with it.
Fortunately there is a genre that allows filmmakers to skip the when, why and sometimes the who part all together: the musical.
Does this character has a reason sto burst into song in the middle of the street and dance around with such a bad weather? No, Yet Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood does it, and we as an audience don’t question it.
Musical gives the screenwriter a chance to relax and let the songs do the heavy lifting by giving essential information and making it entertaining.
The 2008 film “Mamma Mia!” and its songs are a good example:
This song plays after a few minutes into the movie and, like many other first act songs in musical theatre or musical movies, it has to tell A LOT in very little time. After listening to it we know this:
- who the protagonist is (Sophie)
- what she wants (to meet her father)
- how she plans to do it (by inviting all her mother’s ex boyfriends to her wedding)
It’s possible to give all those informations through dialogue, but it would have required way more than 4 minutes without boring the audience. In addition we get a little bit of characterization of her mother:
- Donna has never told her daughter about her past (maybe out of shame or fear to be judged), Sophie finds out the truth through her old diary.
- Donna was left heartbroken by her first love, Sam.
Lay all your love on me
This song let us peek into Sophie and Sky’s relationship. Since the main plot doesn’t involve Sky very much, this song has the job to present his character and make the audience grow fond of him.
At the end of the seng we still don’t know Sky as well as we know Sophie and Donna, but through the lyrics, that sound like a wedding vow, we are told what’s important: how much he loves his fiancee.
Slipping Through My Fingers
This song doesn’t give us a bunch of informations about backstory, characterization or any other essential piece of the puzzle that will make us understand the future events better.
It’s a different kind of exposition, something similar to a magnifying glass that expands the informations we were given before. Even if it’s not news it’s still exposition, it gives us the time and sets us in the mood to identify with Donna and understand her feelings.
In this movies we don’t get a flashback telling us about Donna and Sam’s past. So if it wasn’t for this song we wouldn’t know the dynamic of their relationship, nor that they still have feelings for each other.
Also the choreography of the scene goes along with the lyrics telling us that the main reason why they’re not together now is their difficulty to communicate their feelings for each other. It’s a musical device that allows the writer to give additional expositional informations respecting the proverbial rule “show don’t tell”.
The best thing about musicals is that they are both incredibly complicated to perform, act, stage and write; but at the same time they are easy to enjoy (and that is no small thing). Often the success or the failure of a musical depends, not just on the music or the story, but in how it handles exposition, how it makes it entertaining.
Despite the flaws that other people might point out, “Mamma Mia!” can handle exposition well. Besides it’s fun movie, and sometimes all you need it’s fun movie that lets you sing along and forget about all the problems outside of the theatre. Let’s hope that the sequel “Mamma Mia! Here we go again” will be as fun.