Exposition 101: The “Dossier Method”
Exposition is a necessary evil in any script. We need to learn background information about the principal characters in order to understand them and begin to form an emotional connection. But if an audience is given this information too nakedly, without motivation, the attempt is likely to come off as on-the-nose and it will pull the audience out of the story. Exposition will likely make or break you, so it’s important to do it right. An audience needs to receive backstory without being aware of their being told it on a conscious level.
Here’s one trick you tend to see a lot. It might most aptly be dubbed the “Dossier Method.” It’s simple: background information is revealed about a principal character via two or more side characters looking over written text—often a military or police file—about said principal character and discussing it.
Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie’s recent collaboration Jack Reacher uses this method to the tee, even in the trailer for the film. Richard Jenkins’ DA character asks David Oyelowo’s policeman who Jack Reacher is. Oyelowo responds by reading from a copy of Reacher’s file “Jack Reacher is a ghost, served in the military police…”
The method seems obvious when pointed out, but it is used so often that is has become commonplace, and it works because it feels natural. We are learning about the protagonist just as the side characters are. The exposition is justified. We’re being told indirectly, rather than directly.
Rambo: First Blood Part II uses the method even more overtly, with Shapeshifter bureaucrat Murdock reading almost every bullet point of Rambo’s file. Serenity does it as well. Other examples are legion. Obviously, the method is easiest to use when dealing with protagonists who have military or criminal backgrounds…where an actual file on them will believably exist…but you can expand the basic concept to just about anything.
In a rom-com, you could have side characters vet one of the romantic leads for the other romantic lead via Googling the character or reading a blog or social networking site. The point is, there’s a reason why this method is used so often. It’s easy to do, and easy to do right. Finding the best vehicle to unload your exposition is a hugely important part of the screenwriting process. It can make or break you.