How To Break The Rules: Stealing The Exposition Dump From John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.

Title of Work and its Form:  Escape From L.A., feature film
Author: Written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell.  Directed by John Carpenter (on Twitter @TheHorrorMaster)
Date of Work: 1996
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The film has been released on DVD.  As of this writing, the film can be viewed on Netflix Instant.  Want to see the official trailer?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: The Exposition Dump

Discussion:
Friends, I often don’t sleep well.  One of the ways I try to lull myself to sleep is to watch movies.  (If one of them puts me to sleep, it’s not necessarily the film’s fault, of course.)  Once in a while, a writer or director does something in a film that pleases me as a storyteller.  I selected Escape from L.A. on Netflix and saw this:

John Carpenter began Escape from L.A. with what is called an exposition dump.  Mr. Carpenter had a TON of exposition to get across.  Why?

  1. The film is a sequel to Escape from New York, a film that had been released fifteen years earlier.
  2. The film is a science fiction story about a world very different from our own.  The big one hit in the year 2000 and Los Angeles is now an island.  The Constitution has been changed significantly.  The U.S. now has a President-for-life.  The capital has been moved from Washington D.C. to the President’s hometown.  Morality is being enforced in a disturbing manner.
  3. The setting of the film (Los Angeles, of course) is now a type of penal colony.

Some might say that Mr. Carpenter violated the classic writing dictate of SHOW, DON’T TELL.  Indeed, the calm-voiced female narrator is TELLING us all about how the world has changed.  The truth is that Mr. Carpenter executed a very skillful exposition dump.

Different stories require different kinds of exposition and different kinds of exposition will have different effects on the reader or viewer.  The first couple minutes of Escape to L.A. immerses you in an unpleasant world very quickly.  We all like Los Angeles…we see it destroyed.  We all want freedom of conscience when it comes to religion (or lack thereof)…it’s gone.  We’re all grateful that we live in a country in which power is transferred peacefully and according to election results…not anymore.  There’s a visceral shock in this exposition dump.

Compare this section of the film with what you see in most Twilight Zone episodes.  I don’t want to ruin any episodes of the program for you…but you should have already watched them!  Mr. Serling and his writers reveal secrets slowly and hide information from you in such a way as to preserve the final shock of the program.  Mr. Carpenter keeps secrets from you, but they’re all related to Snake and the adventures he’s going to have.  Mr. Carpenter realized that it was not a good idea to hide how American society has changed between the year the film was made and the year the film takes place.  2013–eek!

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider an exposition dump to get your reader up to speed.  It can be fun when a writer pretends that you are in the world of the book or film, or being dropped into that world like a lobster into the pot.
  • Keep only the secrets you must.  You and the audience are on a similar journey.  You certainly want to keep some details and plot developments from your company, but you must make sure that you are both at the same places on the path.

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