Specs & The City: Writing Exposition and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’

Exposition. It’s the necessary evil of screenwriting. No one – writers, readers, audiences – enjoys or even really appreciates it, but it’s a vital component to fully understanding the main story you’re trying to tell. How can your audience truly understand the plot, themes, or characters you’re presenting if you don’t properly set the stage?  They can’t. More often than not, writers treat writing exposition like kids treat needing to finish their homework before being able to go outside and play; it’s something they simply have to endure so they can get to the “fun” stuff in their scripts.

Basil Exposition

Basil Exposition

And it’s precisely because of this attitude that so many writers tend to do what’s called an “exposition dump” early on in their script. It’s usually a group of characters standing around, asking each other questions and answering with a ridiculous amount of information.

Be honest. Have you ever written anything like this?

SUSAN
Do you want to go to party on Friday?

DON
I can’t. My brother, who is also my twin, but I haven’t seen him since college because we had a falling out over the same woman, and then he went on a trip to South America where he became a priest and lost an arm in a horrible car accident, is coming into town.

Then you, my friend, are guilty of an exposition dump. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Exposition CAN be interesting to an audience. You just have to treat these kinds of scene with respect. Instead of dumping all of the information by itself, mix it in with a scene that either moves the plot forward or develops your characters further. This allows you to sneak in the information your audience needs, while still moving your story forward in an entertaining fashion.

For a recent example of a script that had a ton of information to get out early on about its characters, and did so with humor, grace, and skill, let’s take a look at…

Writing Exposition and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine

The story of a dysfunctional family that bonds over the course of an impromptu road trip to the titular beauty pageant, Little Miss Sunshine is an indie darling that won over audiences everywhere after debuting at Sundance in 2006. At its heart, the film is about a group of damaged people who learn what it means to be a family, which means, if we’re going to care about their journey towards healing, we need to understand exactly how they’re broken. This means exposition, and lots of it.

Spoiler Alert For Ep. VII

Spoiler Alert For Ep. VII

Luckily, screenwriter Michael Arndt (who was recently hired to pen Star Wars: Episode VII), was up to the challenge. What he gives us is a thirteen page scene set around the family dinner table where most of the backstory and family issues are laid out bare for the audience. Now, thirteen pages is a gigantic amount of exposition, but we don’t mind because the scene serves so many purposes. It’s funny, it develops multiple characters, and introduces the voice-mail which is the inciting incident, all while managing to give us the following pieces of information:

  • Grandpa is living with them because he was kicked out of his retirement home for being loud and abusive.
  • Olive recently placed as the runner-up in the regional round of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest and that, due to the winner being disqualified, Olive has now been awarded the win and a chance to compete in the finals.
  • Dwayne has been observing a vow of silence for the past nine months, and plans on doing so until he joins the Naval Academy. Also, he hates his family everyone.
  • Richard doesn’t care for Sheryl’s brother, Frank.
  • Frank is suffering through a bout of depression and is recovering here with his sister Sheryl and her family from a failed suicide attempt.

And all of that is straight-up exposition, not subtext. The scene’s amazing as a whole, but the area where they discuss Frank’s suicide attempt works best as a contained example of what Arndt did so well while handling his exposition.

OLIVE
How did it happen?

FRANK
How did what happen?

OLIVE
Your accident…

SHERYL
Honey…

She shakes her head: “Don’t go there.”

FRANK
No, it’s okay. Unless you object…

SHERYL
No, I’m pro-honesty here. I just
think, you know…  It’s up to you.

FRANK
Be my guest…

SHERYL
Olive, Uncle Frank didn’t really
have an accident. What happened was:
he tried to kill himself.

OLIVE
You did? Why?

RICHARD
I don’t think this is an appropriate
conversation.
(to Olive)
Let’s leave Uncle Frank alone.

A beat. Olive has stopped eating.

OLIVE
Why did you want to kill yourself?

RICHARD
Frank. Don’t answer that question.

Frank stares at Richard. He turns back to Olive.

FRANK
I tried to kill myself because I was
very unhappy.

RICHARD
(overlapping)
Don’t listen, honey, he’s sick and
he doesn’t know what he’s…

SHERYL
Richard… Richard… Richard…

RICHARD
What?! I don’t think it’s appropriate
for a six year old!

SHERYL
She’s gonna find out anyway. Go on,
Frank.

OLIVE
Why were you unhappy?

Frank glances at Richard — deadpan victorious — and continues.

FRANK
Well, there were a lot of reasons.
Mainly, though, I fell in love with
someone who didn’t love me back…

OLIVE
Who?

FRANK
One of my grad students. I was very
much in love with him.

OLIVE
Him? It was a boy? You fell in love
with a boy? 

FRANK
Yes. I did. Very much so.

This is new to Olive. She thinks it over.

OLIVE
That’s silly.

FRANK
You’re right. It was very, very silly.

GRANDPA
There’s another word for it… 

RICHARD
Dad…. 

OLIVE
So… That’s when you tried to kill
yourself…?

FRANK
Well, no. What happened was: the boy
I was in love with fell in love with
another man, Larry Sugarman.

SHERYL
Who’s Larry Sugarman?

FRANK
Larry Sugarman is perhaps the second
most highly regarded Proust scholar
in the U.S.

RICHARD
Who’s number one?

FRANK
That would be me, Rich.

OLIVE
So… That’s when you tried…?

FRANK
Well, no. What happened was: I was a
bit upset. I did some things I
shouldn’t have done. Subsequently, I
was fired, forced to leave my
apartment and move into a motel.

OLIVE
Oh. So that’s when…?

FRANK
(hesitates)
Well, no. Actually, all that was
okay. What happened was: two days
ago the MacArthur Foundation decided
to award a “genius” grant to Larry
Sugarman.
(deep breath)
And that’s when…

GRANDPA
…You tried to check out early.

FRANK
Yes. And I failed at that as well.

RICHARD
Olive, what’s important to understand
is that Uncle Frank gave up on
himself. He made a series of foolish
choices, and then he gave up on
himself, which is something that
winners never do.

A beat. Frank looks like he could leap across the table and strangle Richard. Sheryl intervenes.

Frank’s backstory is interlaced with character moments for everyone else, and that’s what keeps us interested. The way they react to his story, and the fact that Olive’s asking the questions to begin with, tells us a little bit more about every single character at that table. If it had just been Olive asking questions, and Frank answering them, the film would have lost any feeling of momentum, and the audience would have quickly gotten bored. And that’s the vital question when you’re dealing with exposition. Does the exposition scene in your script serve any purpose other than exposition? If not, go back and rework it. Make the scene about something vital to the story, whether it’s plot advancement, character development, or both, and the audience won’t mind the information you’re feeding them.

Now go crank the volume on “Super Freak’, dance your heart out, and keep writing!

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2 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Writing Exposition and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’

  1. Brad JohnsonBrad Johnson Post author

    Randall,

    Thank you so much for the kind words. What you said in the beginning part of your comment is EXACTLY why I started Specs & The City. It’s extremely gratifying (and humbling) to hear that it’s being of some benefit to writers out there, so thank you!

    As for your request for an exposition laden film w/o a huge cast of characters, I think I’d point you in the direction of The Matrix. Neo has to have an entirely new way of understanding the world laid out for him, bit by bit. The solution in this film is the extended training sequence between Neo and Morpheus. While Morpheus is basically laying out heavy handed exposition, we don’t because it’s being done in an entertaining fashion. Everything Morpheus explains is made manifest for Neo and the audience during their session, and it also moves the plot along by allowing Neo to emerge as a fully trained warrior. It’s basically a sci-fi training montage filled with exposition, and it works remarkably well.

    Best,
    Brad

  2. Randall

    Great example, and advice. And written in a… I don’t know; a ‘helpful’ way, for lack of better term.

    I read a lot of screenplay advice, and can easily understand the theories and the concepts involved, but I have difficulty thinking with that level of abstraction when I’m trying to write something creative, like a script. Many advice articles give real world examples, which help conceptually, but the advice usually remains abstract and therefor (at least for me), difficult to use in practice. They are helpful, but mostly to help find areas of a script that either hits or misses the mark.

    So I usually end up just doing my normal thing, and writing whatever (following my instincts), and I’m lucky enough that my exposition usually comes out feeling pretty natural. But it’s nice to have concrete, ‘strategic’ guidelines to fall back on, and I can usually find those in (or find a way to ‘read them into’) your articles.

    Advancing plot and developing characters is a concept, and for me, too abstract to use while writing. But “Frank’s backstory is interlaced with character moments for everyone…. The way they react to his story, and the fact that Olive’s asking the questions… tells us a little bit more about every single character at that table” — that, at least for me, is somehow extremely useful.

    It’s not just using an example, it’s an analysis of the example. So thank you for this, and various other articles.

    The only problem I find; “Little Miss Sunshine” was an ensemble piece, and a lot of scripts aren’t. Maybe you could find the time (I know, that’s the hard part) to review, and more importantly ‘analyze’ another movie/script that manages to provide a high level of exposition in an organic and entertaining way.

    You wrote, “If it had just been Olive asking questions, and Frank answering them, the film would have lost… momentum, and the audience would have quickly gotten bored.” Let’s say we’re writing a movie that only features those two characters — what sort of guidelines or ground rules might we use to achieve the same sort of wonderful results?

    It’s been a while since I watched “Paper Moon,” but the scenario I just outlined brought it to mind. More recently, “The Road to Perdition” also fits the mold, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a movie about an adult, Parental figure and a child. Besides, the key to handling exposition in those films seems to be, to spread it out over the length of the story, and that probably won’t sit very well with busy Hollywood executives (while both are beautiful, Hollywood doesn’t make very many movies like that now).

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