“Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos, and certainly puzzles. The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is you know there is a solution.” – Stephen Sondehim
This is why exposition doesn’t work.
Exposition is pretty easy to find. Something about it feels off. It’s lazy. And, justly so, the audience feels cheated.
As an audience, we want to be truly engaged. Stimulation occurs when we’re figuring out what the art means to us– Is this making me happy? Sad? Nosalgic? How do I feel about this? Why should I feel about this at all?
It’s a participatory experience. As a filmmaker, you are engaging in a discourse with the audience through your work. The goal is to lead them on a journey… but only so far. It’s on them to take the final steps. When a film is really cooking, the audience should be problem solving the work, resulting in a kind of intimate conversation between filmmaker and viewer. With exposition, the writer is telling the whole story. You’re not letting the audience work for it. You’re not allowing them to engage.
Think of the opening scenes of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.We are thrown into the middle of the wedding day of Don Corleone’s daughter. By the end of this sequence, we understand the themes of the film, the characters and (generally speaking) the plot.
Coppola doesn’t accomplish this through characters outright stating the intentions of the filmmaker. Rather, Coppola acts as a silent observer, directs the camera to capture little moments to form a larger mosaic. In one scene, we see a passionate, angry Sonny destroying the cameras of some snooping Feds. In another, we find the reserved Michael telling new girlfriend Kay a story about the “family business.” A drunk Fredo. The joyous celebration of the wedding itself that reflects the deeply familial Italian culture.
It’s all there. Right in front of us. But the filmmaker doesn’t spell it out perfectly. He doesn’t give it all away.
Instead, he takes a box of puzzle pieces and scatters them all about. It’s up to the audience to put it all together and see how it fits