One hallmark of a bad movie is that at the end, the villain has to explain everything for the benefit of the hero and the audience. Just telling something to the audience is dull, yet it’s often necessary. At the very least if you have to tell information to the audience, do it through another person.
What you don’t want to do is have characters tell each other exposition for the audience that the characters would have no reason to say to each other. In “Vertigo,” the hero tells a woman, “Weren’t we engaged to get married a few years ago?” That’s information that both characters would already know so it’s pointless to say it out loud, which is only for the benefit of the audience. A far better approach is to have an innocent third person ask that same question.
In “The Hateful Eight,” much of the exposition comes from three characters talking. One character wants to know what the other two characters might already know, but because he doesn’t know, the other two characters share that information willingly. To make this exposition even more interesting, there’s always conflict between the characters. In one scene, a black bounty hunter has met up with another bounty hunter in a stagecoach. Chained to the white bounty hunter is a woman. Since we as the audience need to know who this woman is and why she’s chained to the white bounty hunter, the black bounty hunter simply asks an innocent question about her.
The woman in handcuffs mouths off to the white bounty hunter, who elbows her in the face to get her to shut up. Now we have conflict between the white bounty hunter and the woman, so the story about the woman, told by the white bounty hunter, is far more fascinating since we want to know why the white bounty hunter treats her so poorly.
“Jurassic Park” takes a different approach. To teach the audience about DNA, the main characters go through a tour. Now as the characters learn how the dinosaurs were created, we as the audience do as well. Because the main characters are learning at the same time we are, it feels natural and logical. Because the cartoon character explaining how DNA works is also entertaining, this exposition doesn’t feel forced or fake.
Conflict is always the best way to introduce exposition. In “Brooklyn,” the hero is an Irish girl who works in a shop run by a mean old woman. When the hero tries to tell the elderly woman that she’s planning to go to America, the elderly woman tells her to wait because they’re going to be busy with customers soon. To highlight the elderly woman’s mean streak, she doesn’t just tell the hero to wait, but says that she suspects the hero’s news won’t be good for her store.
By making us wait, “Brooklyn,” makes the audience want to hear that information even more. By foreshadowing a conflict, the elderly woman makes the inevitable revelation more emotional because the hero finally tells her she’s leaving for America and the elderly woman says the hero no longer needs to work for her any more, which demonstrates her mean streak. while serving customers, the elderly woman reveals her meanness to a customer as well. This helps build anticipation because when the hero finally reveals she’s going to America, we already know the mean elderly woman won’t take this news kindly so we want to see how she’ll react.
So don’t just plop exposition on the audience like dumping garbage on the floor and expecting them to pick it up. Make that exposition interesting. Do it through conflict, delay, and entertainment. Exposition is necessary, but it never needs to be boring or dull.