In Defense of Exposition Dumps

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Andrew and I got into an argument yesterday. We had just watched a preview screening of The Maze Runner at the always-excellent Alamo Drafthouse, and we both, for the most part, enjoyed it. There’s a lot of action, though I wish there was a bit more about the maze—besides the creepy-crawly-id-monsters, the maze didn’t feel too threatening. But that wasn’t my major problem with the movie, nor was it the point that Andrew and I disagreed upon. We didn’t quite see eye to eye over one of the biggest obstacles with genre fiction: exposition.

Exposition, as defined by me, is the pure information of the story. It’s when someone (character or narrator) directly gives the audience information about the world. Think Gandalf sitting in Frodo’s kitchen telling him about Isildor and the One Ring. Obi-Wan explaining The Force to that whiny blonde kid. Etc.

It is the driving force of scifi, fantasy, dystopias, mysteries, thrillers—basically anything that builds a world we are not intimately familiar with. It’s even there in something like The Fault In Our Stars, as Hazel’s world of cancer* is unfamiliar to most people and has to be described in some way. In other words, exposition is so very necessary in order to understand a world.

But there’s a problem with it, as with anything. I love it at times, and can tolerate a lot more than normal, but at some point there is just too much information. A writer might get so into telling you about this world that they neglect the story, because story isn’t information, it isn’t even about history, it’s about character. There’s talking about a character and stuff happening, and there is showing how that stuff happens and how the character reacts.

In The Maze Runner, you are delivered into the world in a great way. Kid wakes up in an elevator, is very confused. That’s it, zoom, right in there. Contrast this to opening with a monologue voiceover explaining shit, like in Divergent (and, to be fair, LOTR does it too, but it works. That’s a whole ‘nother post right there). It’s a cold open, which serves to put you right in the character’s shoes. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and neither do we.

This is where Andrew and I diverged. From this point on, there were too many direct question-answers for him. Thomas asked a question about the world around him, he got an answer (mostly). Andrew thought this was too much information, that it was too easy. The problem here is, there’s not much you could do as a writer besides giving this information. The best you can do is make it entertaining and layer in character moments.

If you are writing in this or any related genres, this is your only way out. You must give the audience information eventually, but you can’t overdo it. I thought The Maze Runner did a good job of feeding you a constant stream of exposition without really feeling like it. Questions arose naturally, as they should. If Thomas didn’t ask something obvious (Where the hell am I? Who the hell are you? What the hell is that creepy noise?) I would have lost it. And if the other characters did not at least attempt to give him clear answers, they’d be assholes and I’d accuse the writer of stalling. Amnesia is a hugantic cliché, but the movie kind of hangs a lantern on it and utilizes the form to inform the story’s direction, instead of simply as a device to make the story easier to sell. In this I’d put it in the positive category of “Stories that have amnesia as a plot point and don’t suck.” (Off the top of my head, other members are Memento and Chasm City).

While I understand Andrew’s frustration, that it could feel like an expo dump in delivering a lot of information in the first act, I never felt like it, because there were plenty of character moments. Thomas’s inherent (if a bit generic) heroism shines in his responses to the information—his curiosity about the maze, willingness to be a runner, going after Minho and Alby, etc.

The movie doesn’t do so well at the end. To me, the expo dump at the end, all about the (REDACTED FOR SPOILERZ) was too much stuff that did not serve the story. It had nothing really to do with what the characters went through. It may have explained the world more, but it clouded the story to me, which is not something you do at the end… unless you have a sequel lined up. Because money.

Andrew was fine with that. I don’t know why. You can ask him, I’m done with him and his stupid face for a while.

*Hazel’s World of Cancer: Worst Theme Park Ever.


 

cover3I have an unhealthy attachment to exposition dumps, because I really love genre. If you’re like me, you might enjoy my book Absent Hero, which has tons of geeky exposition. It also has a steampunk theme park, nerdy teens, pirates, a fox, and giant animatronic knights made of stone. Get it now for Kindle.

How To Train Your Sequel

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I’m a grown ass man that loves cartoons. No other time in history has that been more okay. Forget the Disney Renaissance, I think that we are currently experiencing the greatest period of animated films in the hundred or so years that animation has been on screen (this year marks the 100th anniversary of Gertie the Dinosaur, precursor to the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies and Oswald). In the last five years alone we’ve had Up, The Secret of Kells, and Coraline (2009); Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon, and Despicable Me (2010); Rango (2011); Wreck-It Ralph and Brave (2012); Frozen, The Croods, and The Wind Rises (2013). Of those, I count eight of them as classics.

There’s been plenty of riff-raff released too, but above is a stretch of films that I’d proudly display on a shelf and rewatch. And this year, you can add one more to the list. Yes, I’m talking about How To Train Your Dragon 2, which hit theaters this past weekend. What’d I think of this film? In a word: sturdy. The story is endearing and captivating. The characters, even more so.

I don’t think it’s a fluke that animated movies are getting better and better. The process of making an animated film is so different, and so much more intensive, than that of a live-action movie. Check out this old interview with John Lassiter and Steve Jobs to see what I mean.

Granted, they’re talking about how it was twenty years ago, when much of the technology did not exist. But it still takes years to make these movies. Every scene is planned in detail long before animation begins. Stories are picked apart and rigorously tested by many different people. For a taste of what it’s like to write one of these movies, and how much a story can change, listen to Episode 128 of the Scriptnotes podcast where the hosts talk to Jennifer Lee, director of Frozen and co-writer of Wreck-It Ralph.

There’s a culture of story surrounding modern animation studios today. Dreamworks Animation has made a few clunkers over the years, but somewhere inside Jeffrey Katzenberg are the lessons he learned from his days running Disney’s film division. He’s a shrewd business man, but he is also building the foundations of a great storytelling studio. Of the last 14 movies, I’ve left the theater a happy customer seven times, a hit rate that’s been much better than in the past (in fact, the first Dreamworks movie that I didn’t hate or dismiss altogether was Kung Fu Panda).

Which brings me back to this weekend, and my experience with How To Train Your Dragon 2. It’s not a kids movie in my mind, in much the same way that many “Young Adult” novels aren’t for young people only. They both hit upon themes and stories that anyone with a brain and functional emotions can relate to. It’s a movie with characters I care about, visuals that thrill me, music that strikes an emotional chord, action that excites me, and a story that is moving.

I’m not going to spoil anything here, because it is well worth watching everything unfold without knowing what’s going to happen. The trailers ruin too much as it is. Suffice it to say, the sequel adheres to one of the cardinal rules of series writing, which is increasing the stakes. Everything that made the original a fun, emotional ride is taken up a notch. About a third of the way through I guessed one of the major plot reversals, but when it came it was no less impactful.

There’s a rhythm to these kinds of stories that writers break at their own peril. We may never see the likes of a David Lynch animated film, and that’s fine. A Lynch or a Paul Thomas Anderson do not make films that children can understand or enjoy. But you’d be making a mistake to assume that a movie like How To Train Your Dragon 2 is the reverse of that, a film that only kids can enjoy. A broad appeal does not always equal formless, generic storytelling. The form at work in HTTYD2 is familiar but not generic. It’s predictable, but never boring. It’s bright and energetic, but doesn’t pander. It simply clicks.

Am I guilty of being one of those “immature” adults for loving these movies? Maybe, but I don’t care. So far, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is my favorite movie this year.