Exposition Through Discovery

There’s an interesting movie called “Hardcore Henry,” where the camera only shows you the viewpoint of the hero. While this gimmick is interesting for an action film, you can learn how to tell a story from this limited point of view.

First of all, the film can only show you what the hero sees, so right away you can see how traditional films provide information that the hero couldn’t possibly see. In “Die Hard,” the hero never sees Hans the villain shoot the corporate president or order his men around. Yet this type of information is crucial to let you know how cruel the villain is and what his powers might be.

In “Star Wars,” Luke never sees Darth Vader blowing up an entire planet with the Death Star, but we (as the audience) do, which provides us with the fear and anticipation of what will happen later when the Death Star approaches the rebel base where Princess Leia is at.┬áIn most movies, don’t be afraid to show information that the hero couldn’t possibly know about because you’re really telling a story to the audience, not to the hero.

“Hardcore Henry” also highlights another limitation. Because the whole story can only be seen through the eyes of the hero, everything must be explained through the hero’s eyes. This means we as the audience must discover bits and pieces of the story as the hero discovers them as well.

In “Hardcore Henry,” the hero doesn’t speak, so every character must talk and provide new information to the hero throughout the story. Having other characters tell or show the hero something is one way to provide exposition beyond simply showing a scene where the hero couldn’t possibly be at. Yet this limitation also forces “Hardcore Henry” to constantly provide action to keep the story moving. Without constant action, the story in “Hardcore Henry” risks bogging down.

A second way “Hardcore Henry” provides exposition is by showing us something interesting at all times. An opening scene shows the hero being fitted with artificial hands and legs by a woman who claims to be his wife. Another early scene shows a room where the villain suddenly barges in and shoots the doctors around him. Although we don’t quite know what’s happening, each scene helps us slowly piece together the story as the hero does too.

So the lessons from “Hardcore Henry” in providing exposition is this:

  • Use scenes that the hero can’t be in to provide information we as the audience need to understand the story
  • Keep providing conflict that dribbles out a little more information about the story at a time
  • Have other characters provide information about the story but disguise that information in a mystery to keep us interested

What you don’t want is to add scenes without the hero that have no relevance to the story. Any scene that doesn’t add new information to the story doesn’t belong.

What you don’t want is to show conflict that doesn’t give us more information about the story. Such meaningless conflict is what makes the climactic battle between Batman and Superman (in “Batman vs. Superman”) so pointless. Watching two characters fight isn’t enough. We also need new information at the same time about the story. That’s what makes “Die Hard” and “Star Wars” so interesting because every time there’s conflict, we also either learn more about the story or we learn more about one of the characters.

In “Die Hard,” there’s a scene where the villain makes a deal with a slime ball co-worker of the hero’s wife. Although the hero doesn’t see this scene, we do and we learn more about the viciousness of the villain when he shoots the slime ball co-worker in the head.

In “Star Wars,” Luke is trying to get to the Millennium Falcon when they accidentally run into a bunch of stormtroopers. Hans Solo charges the stormtroopers and chases them. This not only is amusing but also shows his gradual change of character from someone who only thinks of himself to someone who’s starting to think of others regardless of his own safety. That sets up his eventual appearance at the end when he rescues Luke from Darth Vader.

What you don’t want is to have characters simply tell us new information without conflict or a mystery. When characters tell us information, it’s boring. When they tell us new information while fighting with the hero, that’s interesting. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero is disgusted with his mentor who is forcing him to do seemingly trivial tasks. Just as the hero is about to walk off, the mentor shows him how his seemingly trivial tasks have taught him karate moves. The conflict makes that scene far more interesting than if the mentor had simply asked the hero to do the movies without the hero getting mad and about to storm off.

“Hardcore Henry” isn’t a great movie, but it’s an interesting one to learn how the hero’s point of view drastically limits how you can provide exposition. By knowing the limitations of a first person point of view, you can see all the other ways to provide exposition in an interesting manner.

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