Good examples of exposition?
November 8, 2010 6:44 AM   Subscribe

What are some good examples of hidden or subtle exposition?

I was reading a critique of Aliens that pointed out that in the briefing scene with the space marines you learn an awful lot about them, what they do, and how they do it without anyone coming out and saying it in as many words. For example, one character asking "is this going to be a stand-up fight, or another bug hunt?" gives a lot of information while remaining an organic part of the scene.

Sick of plodding scenes where one character explains how the universe works to another, I'm in search of more stories, in any medium, where the exposition is subtle or worked in in such a way it doesn't feel like exposition.

posted by Silentgoldfish to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
James Joyce, as one 4channer put it, is the final boss of English Lit. for this very ability (okay, actually this is one ability in an amazing repertoire). He packs so much pertinent information about characters into little details with such skill it blows the mind. I'd start with Dubliners and pay very close attention to the little things!
posted by johnnybeggs at 6:52 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

My favorite exposition scene is in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the two FBI guys come to brief Indiana about the Nazis. It starts with them having all the information but then he takes charge of the scene (he even says, "didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday school?”) He starts to brief them, then opens the ancient bible and scares them with what could happen if Hitler gets the Ark. If either party had given all the exposition it would've been boring, but splitting it up gives the scene a great energy.
posted by sharkfu at 6:55 AM on November 8, 2010

There's a sequence in The Score that follows Robert De Niro's character back from a heist job through all of his vehicle and disguise changes and ultimately to his double-life identity as a nightclub owner. The end message is that yes, this guy is the ultimate professional thief and no someone to be trifled with.
posted by jquinby at 6:59 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first two scenes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tell you everything you need to know about both characters.

Also, in my own work, when trying to weed out exposition, I find it useful to remember David Mamet's rule for finding exposition: any time two people are talking about a third.
posted by dobbs at 7:03 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

The opening scene in The Rolling Stones (as in the Robert Heinlein juvie book, not the band) is a conversation between two boys and a spaceship salesman, dickering over used rocked prices, on the moon. It elegantly shoehorns in a surprisingly large amount of information about the world and its rules in the space of a few pages.
posted by pts at 7:08 AM on November 8, 2010

Sometimes David Milch is so good at hiding exposition (usually of the thematic variety) that he has to have a scene after the exposition scene where characters talk about not understanding what just happened. He does this at least twice in Deadwood, first in the Hickock funeral scene (where the reverend's speech is a summation of the theme of the show--and David Milch's personal belief that each person's belief that they are separate from others is an illusion), and again in the reading of Bullock's letter to a dead miner's loved ones. In the second, Milch pokes fun at himself but not allowing the characters any headway on determining what happened, which only serves to reinforce the importance of the preceding scene.

And, while searching Youtube for the above link I found these, which also qualify as answers to your questions:

Utter vs. Wolcott - Utter was the best friend of Hickock and we never see the development of that friendship. If one were curious as to why they were such good friends, it might be revealed in what Utter says to Wolcott as he beats him: "now you know how it feels to be helpless and have no one come stick up for ya", the implication (to me) being that Utter was once rescued by Hickcock. However, his dialogue, if you haven't seen the show, is motivated as he's delivering the beating to a man who did likewise to his friend.

Bullock vs. Alma's Father - Here the exposition is in a look, from Bullock to Alma right after he administers the beating.
posted by dobbs at 8:01 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm fond of the opening chapter to Pride and Prejudice. Two short aphorisms and we dive right into an argument between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet that introduces the main conflicts of the novel.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:54 AM on November 8, 2010

Mad Men is amazing at subtle exposition. Two of my favorite examples have to do with the relationship between Anna and Don. During one episode in season 4 Don reads a letter from Anna. Even though she always calls him Dick (because that's his real name and secret identity), the letter was addressed "Dear Don". It was a beautiful way of showing the audience how these two maintain respect for each other and are aware of prying eyes - in an episode themed around changing social morays about privacy.

The other example is in a more recent episode of Season 4...Don is in his office and there are lots of people milling about, discussing things. The scene is showing how chaotic Don's life is. One element of that is Don discussing with Miss Blankenship (his secretary) whether or not his calls to California have gone through. It's just a blip of a conversation really, but if the viewer is paying attention, it allows us to know that something is wrong with Anna (who is in California) by the fact that he can't get through. A less careful viewer might dismiss that as overt exposition for the idea "Don's life is so busy and chaotic" (this tactic I would call "dogwhistle exposition") or "Don's clients in California are problematic" (misread interpretation).
posted by iamkimiam at 9:04 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not quite sure this is what you're looking for, but I'd suggest Twelve Angry Men. The entire play/movie is the jury deliberations at a murder trial—the viewer sees nothing of the trial itself, so all of the details of the case are delivered through the jury's discussions, so naturally there's a lot of exposition. And while I'm not sure I'd call it "hidden" or "subtle," it's always done very naturally and never feels contrived or forced.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:34 AM on November 8, 2010

As one critic put it, after watching the opening credits of Dexter one knows everything they need to about his character.
posted by bfranklin at 10:09 AM on November 8, 2010

I take it you mean films with straightforward stories and presentations; there are several cheats I thought of, for example films without dialogue (like The Quest for Fire or The Naked Prey), metaphorical films (like a lot of stuff by Alexandro Jodorowsky or Lars von Trier) or surrealist films.

I'm a character junkie, and to me that's the easiest way out of having stuff explained to me. As you probably know, there were heaps of films in the 70's that defied traditional storytelling and even cultivated a spontaneous atmosphere. Some experts from that decade and beyond: John Cassavetes, Tennessee Williams, Fritz Lang, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Jane Campion, John Sayles, and Terry Gilliam.

Some individual films that exemplify what you describe: The Browning Version (1951), The Music of Chance, Mikey and Nicky, Festen, Payday (1973), Cutter's Way, Night Moves, Bone (1972), Miami Blues, The Stunt Man.

If you're specifically looking for sci-fi, action, or suspense films, I would point towards Friedkin's Sorcerer, Shoot to Kill (1988), and (don't hit me) Lynch's Dune. They each have some "we've got to"-type dialogue in places, but they all also defy audience expectations or even hopes of having things explained. Dune was so famously thick that theaters literally handed out glossary sheets to ticketholders. Shoot to Kill isn't a literally great movie, but it impressed me because it refuses to even introduce its main characters, instead leaping credits-first into a hostage situation. It also eschews suspense in a few places to instead surprise the crap out of you.
posted by heatvision at 2:38 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions! I've got some watching/reading to do.
posted by Silentgoldfish at 7:11 PM on November 8, 2010

Pedro Costa's movies do this really well, in my opinion, but it's so subtle and so film-specific a lot of people miss it entirely and just find his work dreadfully boring/pointless. But. The scene early in Colossal Youth with the two men playing cards or whatever, with their thermoses, in a painterly way. A lot of his scenes are like that, where they're paintings, and tell you as much super silently, as good paintings (Hopper's come to mind) do. Later in the film when the main character is going up and down those stairs, and the way the railing and the wall has been painted you can tell the sequence of events that lead to what was built on top of what, and what that might mean. Just stuff like that.

Ozu is excellent too, in a different, precise dialogue and lingering shot sort of way.

Fassbinder's Veronika Voss is very efficient at telling you visually the actress' back story both in stark historic terms as well as the movements in her emotional landscape through the years.
posted by ifjuly at 7:36 AM on November 9, 2010

I thought the X-men movies did this actually quite well. They had all of them a large group of principle characters that by and large were acting independently. That's a lot of people to relate to, and a lot of stories to follow, all in a timeframe that traditionally only accomodates one or two points of view. As an audience-member, I remember being a little surprised by their effectiveness at getting me to relate to and "get" these characters. They did it by paring the character development down to sketches of pivotal moments and packing the scenes with non-verbal cues.
posted by Ys at 8:51 PM on November 11, 2010

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