Exposition is the bane of every screenwriter. For an audience to understand what is going on, a writer has to provide needed information. Spewing expository information at an audience, however, tends to be boring and it also slows a movie down.
Ideally, you want to give this information in little bits, disclosing some here, disclosing some there, to keep the movie moving forward and also keep the audience leaning forward. Sometimes, though, there is no way around a mass of exposition. I call such a scene sending the audience to school. (I imagine others have called it this as well, but I never heard it before I thought of it so I will claim it until refuted.)
Few people like to go to school; they certainly don’t want to go to school on a Friday night at the multiplex. Which means you have to figure out an enjoyable way to give them the information they need.
My favorite example of such a scene is in the movie Jurassic Park. There is a genius send the audience to school scene early in the movie, when the audience finds out how John Hammond created all the amazing dinosaurs:
This is essentially a lecture. Ugh. But a number of things are going on that make the scene work in the body of the movie. First, the scene is perfectly placed structurally: the scene comes after we’ve first seen the dinosaurs. Right before this scene is the amazing moment where our heroes, and we the audience, see the dinosaurs for the first time. It’s a grandsense of wonder movie moment that primes us for the rest of the movie. We now want to know how the dinosaurs were created. So we’re willing to sit for a little bit of school to find out. Imagine if this scene played before we see the dinosaurs. Boring. It would stop the movie cold as we would have no reference for the lecture. We’d instead be itching to get out and see the dinosaurs. A lesser writer would have structured it that way as prep for the big moment. But Michael Crichton and David Koepp knew exactly what they were doing. And boy do they work it!
Knowing they need to keep it interesting, they come up with a number of devices to keep the scene moving. In fact, literally moving! They make it a ride! We all love rides, so they have fun with the fact that we’ll sit in a ride and listen, at least for a little while. Plus, we have the tension that is already developing between the scientists and Hammond and the lawyer. And John Hammond getting frustrated that no one will fully pay attention…talk about mimicking school! Also, it’s a cartoon, with lots of silliness to help the lecture be fun. Oh and there’s a down home country guy narrating it to keep the science, you know, on our level.
Finally, the filmmakers riff on us not wanting to be in school by having our heroes begin to get frustrated with it as well. About the time we’ve had enough, our heroes mirror our sentiments and break out of the ride, endearing us to them even more. We’ve learned enough and now it is time to go back out into Jurassic Park.
It’s a genius send the audience to school moment.
Unfortunately, not only do I see extremely boring send the audience to school scenes in script after script, scenes that stop the story dead to explain things, these scenes usually come in Act 3 where the writer has no other choice but to spew information in order to tie up all the loose ends he hasn’t been able to explain yet. Nothing kills Act 3 more than sending the audience to school. Yet I see it all the time.
Imagine if in Jurassic Park, just as the kids get back to the compound and start to be chased by the raptors in the kitchen, as our other heroes are fighting to back to the compound, we suddenly have that send the audience to school scene from the Act 1, explaining everything. It seems ridiculous, yet time and time again not only do I see this occur repeatedly in screenplays, I see it in produced movies! Sure, occasionally it is a genre element. Detective stories traditionally end with the hero summing everything up, a la The Maltese Falcon or Tell No One. Even as part of that genre it slows the movie down. But I see this happen in every genre, even by good writers. Once you hit Act 3, story reigns, you have to keep your story racing to the finish and you can’t stop to explain things you should have dealt with before.
Lay out before you on a sheet of paper all the information you need to get across to the audience. Detail it. First, cut as much as you can. Then find a way to impart this information to the audience early, in pieces if possible. If you need to do it in one fell swoop, figure out a clever way to do it, one that will keep us on our toes. Send the audience to school early, and never in Act 3.