A group of college-age friends from a small town sit around a campfire in the woods. They live nearby and have been hanging out since children. As they chat, one of the friends tells about a grizzly murder that happened in those very woods ten years ago to the day ….
AND I’M YANKED OUT OF THE MOVIE!
(Photo by Emeldil at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3782539)
This isn’t an exact scene from a specific movie, but a made-up example of sloppy exposition similar to actual scenes I’ve watched over the years. It’s the main flaw in movies that bothers me the most, especially in horror movies. What? People talking in ways they would never talk with the only purpose being to tell me, in the audience, a necessary backstory.
In the above example, the scene ignores the real lives of these friends before the scene. Has the filmmaker ever lived in a small town? EVERYONE would know of a murder legend by the time they were six — that’s how the small town do. Plus, they would have likely talked about the legend many times. It’s almost impossible this would be new news.
Might someone mention it? Sure, but not in a full sentence, story-mode explanation. If they were friends who regularly did campfires, this topic would have been visited and revisited since childhood. Someone might reference the event in a truncated form, like “Murder anniversary tonight, man,” but definitely not in the “Twenty years ago today….” way.
Here’s another talk fail I’ve seen many times in many different variations: a husband or wife reveals a deep secret at a party or social gathering, again provided only for the audience’s understanding of the plot, some reveal that is a complete surprise to one part of the couple. While not impossible, it’s also not likely that a couple married for five years didn’t know their spouse had a sibling killed by an axe murderer or that the husband had grown up in a death cult. Those things probably would have come up before, or they really need to work on communication.
The key is believability. The audience needs to believe the character had a life that didn’t just pop into existence in the scenes on the screen. If someone provides details of a past trauma or event, then the reveal needs to be in line with the character’s history with the other characters.
In 2011’s You’re Next, one of my favorite home invasion genre movies (with a wonderful use of the Dwight Twiley song “Looking for the Magic”) , the audience learns that our heroine was raised on a survivalist compound, but it’s revealed in an absolute believable way. In this movie, from the team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the character is new to the group and uncomfortable about her past. It’s not the type of information she logically would have mentioned to someone she is newly dating. When she does let us know, it’s in natural language in line with the action on the scene, not an awkward exposition. When the audience learns of her past, we believe this happened to her as she talks about it as someone who lived it would.
Some other horror movies of note that do a great job of revealing past trauma in non-expository ways are 2016’s We Go On and 2014’s The Babadook or 2019’s Spell (I’m talking the indie odd-ball movie directed by Brendan Walter set in Iceland). Each of these could have hosed it up by giving exposition to the audience but instead took the high road in letting the characters talk like real people. They do use flashbacks, which can be equally troublesome, but they are used wisely and judiciously.
In Justin Benson’s indie film Resolution, which preceded his more accessible The Endless, the movie works because the conversation between the two friends is natural. You feel the history and pain between the two friends as the audience gets snippets and pieces of their stories told in the way two friends who had known each other for years would talk. That movie would have been terrible with a phony exposition, but it never goes there, and I thank them for it. I love that movie.
Remember the History
The trick, if you want to call it that, is to never forget that if a scene and movie is to be believable, unless characters were recently cloned, they have had a full history full of conversations before we, the audience, see them. When a writer needs to ensure the audience has necessary information about events that occurred before the scene, screenwriters need to be clever, and that means not getting lazy.
LUCKWITZ’S TOP FIVE TIPS FOR GIVING BACKSTORY AND HISTORY
- Recognize that friends and spouses have had years of speaking among themselves before we see them
- Be EXTRA careful when a character reveals new information for the FIRST time; just because it’s new to us doesn’t mean it’s new to them
- Be creative in how you reveal necessary historic information to the audience; there are better ways than exposition; I’ve even seen the skillful use of clippings and photos in opening credit sequences
- When a character does provide historic information, especially about legends or trauma, make sure it’s done in a way in tune with the character’s speaking patterns; when suddenly the character begins talking like a textbook or grade school storyteller, the audience is reminded it’s a movie
- Work hard to give the audience information without them realizing you’re giving them information