The following example is from “Class Action” with actors Gene Hackman as Jed and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Margaret. It demonstrates a well-crafted example of exposition.
Related articles contain a full line by line analysis of the scene, see the bottom of the page for details.
First, look at the list of points which are incorporated in the scene. It’s important to make note of the large amount of information the writers need to get across. Then read the scene itself to see how all the background information was incorporated with the minimum of dialogue – 15 lines of dialogue in a scene which takes just 1 minute and 15 seconds to play.
Points for Exposition in the Scene
Jed and Margaret are lawyers. As they are leaving separate courtrooms at the courthouse, Jed and Margaret bump into each other in the lift.
- Humour and wit; and
- Warmth and bonhomie.
- extremely professional;
- respected by her peers;
- used to winning; and
- used to being control at work, but has to work hard at it.
In this scene, it’s discovered that:
- Jed and Margaret Ward are father and daughter.
- Jed Ward has been a crusading human rights lawyer.
- He has written books, and is famous for his work, his cases, and his theories.
- Jed likes to make everything look relaxed and effortless.
- Margaret’s image is very important to her, nothing is effortless and she works hard at maintaining the respect of others.
- Margaret is a woman in a man’s world and is used to fighting for everything.
- Jed’s career has taken precedence over his 35-year marriage and family life, and relations with his family have suffered as a result.
- Jed and Margaret do not have a good relationship
- Margaret as a lot of resentment and pent-up anger against her father.
- Margaret’s bad relationship with her father has been a motivating factor in her making a success of her career, as if becoming a successful lawyer will be a way of scoring a point against him.
- In confrontations with her father, Margaret always seems to lose and Jed Ward always comes out on top. This is a source of extreme frustration for Margaret.
The following scene takes one minute, 15 seconds to play and conveys all of the plot points and backstory hoped for in the above synopsis in just fifteen exchanges of dialogue.
Margaret is with her two associate lawyers Brian and Howard, leaving the courtroom and heading to the elevator.
I heard something big’s happening with Argo Motors. You know anything about it?
Mm nn.. no Argo? (to Howard) Have you?
Uh no, I haven’t heard.
You guys want to big time lawyers, you’re going to have to learn to lie better
They enter the lift
Maggie, Maggie, lawyers don’t lie, they tell the truth judiciously to guarantee utter confusion.
Just as the lift doors are closing, a hand in stops the lift doors from closing. The doors re-open. An older man, Jed enters with his Assistant who is carrying a gift-wrapped box.
Goddamn you could lose your hand in one of these things.
Maggie recognises Jed. She looks away quickly and sighs.
Jed sees Margaret. He looks down and exhales slowly, composing himself.
Jed’s assistant hands a gift-wrapped parcel to Jed.
Jed takes it self-consciously. Margaret’s meets his eye, she forces a small tight smile and the merest hint of a nod.
Mr. Ward excuse me, Howard Cahill. I’ve read all your books, in fact I’ve read “Civil Rights on Trial” twice.
Margaret grimaces and gives an almost imperceptible shake of her head in disbelief, then stares straight ahead at the lift doors.
Congratulations, you found a copy they hadn’t burned.
Jed smiles and exchanges a look with the other associate, Brian. Jed is expecting some appreciation of the humour in his remark. Brian glances at Margaret nervously. He doesn’t know how to react. He gives a flicker of a smile to Jed then looks away awkwardly.
Margaret looks over at Jed, and nods towards his gift-wrapped box.
It’s a present for your mother. Anniversary. Hard to believe we’ve been together 34 years…
Margaret raises her eyebrows at him. She feels that she is on top. She believes that she has won the point.
Jed tenses, then looks at her long and hard, he slowly shakes his head to himself…
You’re biting your fingernails again, Margaret?
Jed raises his eyebrows at her. Jed knows he has won the point.
Before she can reply, the elevator doors open and Jed exits with his assistant. Brian and Howard exchange a look as they exit, their eyes are wide. The atmosphere is electric.
(furious, turns to Brian and hisses…)
Don’t say a thing.
Minor flesh wound, he didn’t even draw blood.
Brian, my father always draws blood.