Narrative Exposition in Film

An exploration of the way backstory is brought to light in film.

Narrative exposition, or simply exposition, is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters' back-stories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. (from Wikipedia)

Within the confines of the skeleton of a film work (the script), there are many ways to impart information which would not otherwise be assumed by the viewer or implied by the filmmaker. I posit that the way in which expository information is imparted to a viewer via the medium of film is as important if not more important than the information which is being imparted.

As with any other aspect of film as an art form and medium, there isn’t a single “correct” way of doing anything. There isn’t one particular correct framing which needs to be used for a shot, not only a single focal length lens or camera brand which would have to be used to get the only valid shot possible – and in much the same vein, there are many different more-or-less-equally-correct methods of imparting that information. I’d like to explore the mechanisms and caveats of each of them.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

It’s an interesting concept – there is no real delineation between objectivity and subjectivity as far as narration goes, if we consider that any narration is part of the artificially separate epistemic system of a film, and therefore could have a level of objectivity or subjectivity within the confines of a certain character, but which presents the same objective face to the viewing audience as a whole (in that they all will see the same footage), which will be subjectively interpreted by each viewer (since even though they physically see the same footage, each person subjectively interprets what they see differently).

If we view the epistemology of the film as a system which we mentally “enter” during the course of film viewing, we can attempt to assign a level of subjectivity or objectivity within those parameters to determine how objective exposition appears to be within that system. This is the virtual vantage point which I will be using during the remainder of my analysis of different forms of exposition, so as not to overly confuse the concepts.

Narrative exposition … through narration

One of the most popular methods for imparting information to the audience of a film (or other visual work) is by simply having either a character (through a monologue or soliloquy) tell the audience the pieces of the story or other details which the auteurs wish to impart, directly speak to the audience through a voiceover, or espouse the information through a conversation between characters – or even a character who exists only to spout expository information.

Out of all of these methodologies, I tend to look down on voiceover narration as the most egregious, because it comes across as an indicator of either laziness or over-complexity, as the auteurs did not believe that the information could be imparted in any way other than essentially having the film universe speak through a disembodied voice directly to the viewer, even if it comes by way of a character. (I make the distinction between a voiceover of a diary being written or read and this type of narration, simply because a diary-type voiceover would otherwise fall under being categorized as a soliloquy.)

Caption/crawl exposition

Popularized in modern cinema by George Lucas’s Star Wars intro crawl but dating back to silent movie title cards, crawl exposition is more or less a written form of voiceover narration, presented in a slightly varied form. It could be argued that caption/crawl titles actually present a perceptually higher level of objectivity to the viewer, as they speak with an omniscient deity-like authority rather than speaking through an anonymous narrator or using a character as a puppet of sorts.

Mise-en-scène exposition

This is where my cinematography sensibilities come in. There are many methods of using the camera as a virtual narrator, and it is a very powerful tool to use, since the camera’s recorded mise-en-scène is the lens by which the viewer perceives the whole of the film universe. This gives the filmmaker great latitude in deciding how much or how little information can be imparted from the framing and composition alone, before the actors' dialogue or motions are considered at all.

Some even consider the camera to be its own character, and though this is fairly specific to directors and cinematographers, being

In the interests of space and time, I’ll just briefly overview some of the more successful methods.

  • Frame Composition. I’ll refer to Tony Zhou’s breakdown of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well for a more in-depth analysis of how the way elements dance in and out of frame and are arranged in a single shot can tell us more about the characters than pages of dialogue or a flurry of quick cuts.
  • Frontality. The way a character can be looking directly at the viewer (although, to be fair, we only perceive that they’re looking directly at us, and for the most part, the camera is taking the place of another character) can subconsciously impart a wealth of information. It allows us to put ourselves in the place of one of the characters, and the way we perceive them can shift.
  • Lighting. Even though particular film idioms like film noir are specifically known for using lighting for exposition, neo-noir films have brought this technique back into the mainstream. Using visual idioms like casting bars of shadow across a character’s face to indicate that they feel trapped or cornered, for example.
  • Objectivity/Subjectivity can be implied by the type of shot used, and even the level of stabilization employed. If we need to get into a character’s head to imply thought, many cinematographers have used dolly-in closeup shots to imply figuratively going into the character’s head (or in the case of the intro to Fight Club, literally coming out of it).
  • 3D Forced Perspective. I don’t particularly like “3D” films, especially as they generally come off like large pop-up books to me, but the ability to force certain objects to be more apparent, and therefore more important, by using 3D manipulation is another fairly effective tool. If a sword appears to be a few inches from your nose in a movie theater, you’re going to be paying attention to it.
  • Montage theory. Exposition introduced through the process of editing is another method, more firmly in the realm of post-production – and iterated in most texts on the Soviet theory of montage – which allows the juxtaposition of images and sounds to imply certain narrative exposition or foreshadowing. Cutting to reaction shots can coerce the viewer into associating those reactions directly with the content of the prior shot. This form is quite prevalent in many visual mediums, including film, television, and graphic novels.

These can be used in conjunction with one another, or, as in the case of De Palma’s Mission Impossible, they can be used to deliver contradictory viewpoints. In Mission Impossible’s first reveal sequence, Voight’s character allows Cruise’s character to use dialogue to confirm his intended exposition – which is false – but De Palma shows a series of flashback sequences from slightly different angles, revealing the true nature of the exposition, even as Cruise’s voiceover contradicts it. Cruise is lying to Voight, but telling us the truth.

Holistic exposition

Holistic exposition is the dissemination of information through observed character movements, actions, and observed and inferred intents. An auteur can impart vast amounts of information through the situations and non-discrete expositional phrasing. (I make the distinction between “holistic exposition” and “mise-en-scène exposition”, even though the latter is a subset of the former, for the sake of dividing between camera-based exposition and all other types of holistic exposition.)

For example, if a character is lonely, the character does not have to state “I am lonely” for the viewer to understand the character’s loneliness. It is just as effective, if not more so, to allow situations to unfold where the character is allowed to imply that same loneliness by actions, or even in non-explicit dialogue.

There are a number of caveats to holistic exposition.

  • Intellectual Laziness. There’s a certain percentage of any viewing demographic that does not want to have to think about how information is presented – they just want the characters to come out and say whatever they’re thinking.
  • Ambiguity can be introduced unintentionally if there is more than one potential cause or source for the holistic expositional element. Is the character picking up a knife because they’re scared, hungry, or angry?
  • Actors make or break this style of exposition. If the actors lack subtlety or under- (or over-) act their part, it can destroy carefully planned exposition.
  • Planning. It requires much more subtlety to reveal information through holistic means than to simply tell the viewer what you want them to know, which requires a greater level of planning from the writing on down to the director in the chain of auteurship.

Respecting holistic epistemology (or “Only tell what you need to survive”)

Not everything has to be explicitly told or known for a story or universe to be complete. As I had mentioned in my first piece of film epistemology, epistemic closure isn’t a necessary thing; the lack of it can has the ability to change the perception of a film by the viewers.

It should be noted that some of the wave of independent filmmakers starting in the 1990s seemed to rely on over-telling stories by introducing potentially irrelevant information to the plot through over-loquacious characters who buried their narrative exposition in paragraphs of misleading dialogue. Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino are two examples of this school of narrative over-exposition, but there have been many who have attempted the same techniques with varying levels of success. (It takes a certain level of craft to create dialogue which works this way but does not come off as cloyingly banal or irritatingly uninteresting.)

“Dark City”, an exercise in comparison

Alex Proyas' gothic neo-noir/horror/sci-fi classic Dark City offers a very apparent dichotomic illustration of the differences in narrative exposition choices. The theatrical cut begins with a paragraph of indulgent voice-over narration provided by Kiefer Sutherland’s character (spoilers, of course):

First, there was darkness. Then came the Strangers. They were a race as old as time itself. They had mastered the ultimate technology – ability to alter physical reality by will alone. They called this ability “Tuning.” But they were dying. Their civilization was in decline, and so they abandoned their world, seeking a cure for their own mortality. Their endless journey brought them to a small, blue world… in the farthest corner of the galaxy. Our world. Here, they thought they had finally found… what they had been searching for. My name is Dr. Daniel Poe Schreber. I am just a man. I help the Strangers conduct their experiments. I have betrayed my own kind. (courtesy of script-o-rama)

The narration sets up the basics of the plot, and now the viewer knows far more than any of the principal characters other than Dr. Shreber. The other principals spend the majority (at least two thirds) of the film coming up to speed with this information, while we watch along – textbook objective viewing.

The director’s cut, however cuts out the narration entirely, as well as extending some scenes to add additional dialogue and action to help round out certain parts of the plot. The major change which this has on the perceptual quality of the film is that we don’t know what the characters know (unknown knowns), and we don’t know what the characters don’t know (unknown unknowns). This, at least in theory, gives us greater subjectivity in our relationship to the perceptions and situations of the principal characters. We don’t even know the name for the villains until the third act. It also creates the potential for a fair amount of confusion in the first act, as we don’t know anything outside of what we holistically learn – John Murdock wakes up in a bathtub near a corpse, and someone is chasing him.

I found that while viewing the director’s cut of Dark City, the “larger truth” (or the “bigger lie”, depending on your perception) behind the city seemed to come as more of a revelation. I say “seemed to come” as I’m incapable of watching a second version of the film in a totally objective light ; my context has been clouded by my previous viewings. For example, it’s less noticeable that there is never any sunlight, as the characters seem blissfully unaware of that detail.