Following on from last week, I’ve been thinking more about parcelling out information. Whereas there are undoubtedly lots of different approaches to this, two examples always spring to mind.
My mind, anyway. Maybe not yours.
These examples are polar opposites yet are equally as effective as each other. As I’m sure you’ve deduced from the title of this post, the first of those is Jurassic Park, the second is Rose (the first episode of the current run of Doctor Who).
Both are master-classes in delivering exposition and yet take totally different approaches.
Jurassic Park goes for the info dump. The first … what? Half an hour? 45 mins? … is a science lesson. We get told how dinosaurs died, evolved, what a velociraptor is (because none of us knew back then) what DNA is, how it’s extracted, how it’s spiced with things, how it’s turned into new dinosaurs, how incredibly fucking stupid that is … and so on.
The genius for me here is I didn’t get bored. I didn’t roll my eyes or start yelling “Get on with it!” at the screen … I just sat there and learnt the things I needed to know. The fact a lot of the exposition was disguised as either a theme park ride or a story told to scare a child/accountant helped. The fact the theme park info-ride didn’t go the way Hammond planned nicely foreshadows what’s to come.
To me there was the perfect amount of information, all clumped together so the following action can be uninterrupted thrills and spills.
That’s version one for me: get it out of the way upfront and then get on with the story. But make it fun and thematic and part of the story.
Version two makes me think of Rose. Russell T. Davies does a fantastic job of feeding us the information in tiny sips. This was probably the best choice here because half of the audience were Doctor Who fans who knew all this, the other half were brand new who had no idea what the show was about.
So he feeds us a morsel at a time.
We focus on Rose*, we see the normal, boring world from her point of view – it’s normal and boring.
Then something scary happens! And there’s this guy who shows up and saves her! He’s weird! He’s exciting! He’s called The Doctor! He blows something up!
And then he’s gone.
And life is even more boring without him.
Who is he?
And then there he is again! He’s an alien! He’s clever, he knows things we don’t!
And then he’s gone again.
Just before the mystery tips over into confusion (which is problematic), there’s a conspiracy theorist who gives us a mini-info dump … which we deserve. We’ve earnt a little respite from the mystery.
Now we have some answers … and a lot more questions. Is this guy immortal? Is there more than one of them? Is he some kind of time traveller?
And then he’s there again and it’s all action and adventure! And we’re in the TARDIS, which is … what? Another mini-info dump. It’s a spaceship, it’s bigger on the inside … stuff like that.
There’s only about ten minutes to go now and we nearly know everything … except we don’t. The Nestene Intelligence hints at things even hardcore fans don’t understand – why is it scared of the TARDIS? What’s a Time War? Something’s happened in the 16 years the show was off air. Something we won’t find out about for a few weeks yet.
Even when all’s resolved, there’s still one more piece of information. The very last line of the first episode completes the basic set up:
45 mins to fully educate the new audience as to the nature of the show. Without leaving people confused or bored.
Well, I wasn’t anyway.
True the actual story feels a bit light … but that feels inevitable in reintroducing the concept to the masses. It’s a simple story with few twists and turns … but they are there and the sense of mystery the episode creates makes up for the lack of story.
I think so, anyway. You may have a different opinion. Good for you.
Those two extremes are how I think about exposition. Which serves the story better? Is one inherent to a film (because you have a captive audience in a cinema and more (or less, depending on how you look at it) time to tell the story?) and the other better suited to TV (because people will change the channel if they’re being lectured for 30 mins)? Can you do a mixture of the two? Is there a better, third way?#
All these questions and more will probably never be answered by me because by now I’ve either forgotten I’ve written this or am already bored of thinking about it.
I just like to think about these two examples whenever I start a new project.
*To me, this centring the show on the companion is both a genius move and a bit of a problem. I may talk about this in more depth at some point … or I may not.
#Depends, probably not, possibly, I imagine so, probably.