This episode we’re going to be looking at Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 by James Gunn, and we’re going to be talking about flashbacks and exposition.
Using Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 as a model, you’re going to learn how to use flashbacks, and how to bury exposition in your screenplay.
The interesting thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is that it’s not just one story. It’s actually two stories taking place in two different time periods that are juxtaposed together, and those two stories collide at the end of the screenplay.
The first story is very typical Guardians of the Galaxy fare. It’s big, it’s funny, it’s action packed, it’s larger than life, it’s ridiculous, it’s wonderful, it’s got a great soundtrack, and it’s about this ragtag family defeating evil.
And underneath that story, like in every Guardians of the Galaxy movie, there’s a theme of loss that permeates everything– all done on the biggest, boldest possible palette that you could have as a screenwriter.
But then there’s another story. There’s another movie inside of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
You can actually pull these two movies apart and look at them separately.
Technically, the second story in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a series of flashbacks, but it’s also its own story: the story of how Rocket Raccoon became Rocket Racoon.
This story is built like a play. It takes place almost entirely in one cage, and it is a tiny little character-driven story inside the giant action landscape of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
If you pulled it out of the larger container, you’d have a beautiful, contained short about three animals who become Rocket’s friends and family.
There are going to be some spoilers ahead…
Like all Guardians of the Galaxy movies, you know where this is going. Guardians of the Galaxy is a series of movies built around loss: so if little baby Rocket’s just made some sweet little animal friends, you know he’s going to lose them.
What’s really interesting is that the emotional core of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is built around a flashback sequence, which, if you extracted it from the larger movie, most people would agree is built a lot more more like a play!
If you go to a Guardians of the Galaxy movie and you don’t feel that funny, action-adventure, sci-fi, crazy, awesome soundtrack, larger-than-life stuff, you’re gonna be mad.
But buried underneath all that wonderful silliness, there’s this sweet little play about how Rocket became Rocket, and about this beautiful family that came together and was destroyed. There’s so much that I love about that.
Seeing this bold little choice play out in the context of a popcorn-movie blockbuster illustrates one of the principles that I always like to remind new writers about: if you deliver to the audience the main thing they’re coming for, they will let you get away with nearly anything else.
You can do a little play buried inside your giant blockbuster movie, and as long as it ties together thematically, and as long as you’re giving them the big action sequences they want, you’re fine.
By the way, that doesn’t mean that everything needs to be buried under action sequences.
People come to a Sundance movie because they want to cry. People come to a comedy because they want to laugh. People come to a romantic comedy because they want to believe that love is possible. And if you do these things, you can get away with nearly anything else.
You’ve got to hit your genre elements. You’ve gotta feed the genre monster. You do that by writing the genre elements that you want to watch in your movie.
But once that genre monster is fed and satisfied, you have a tremendous amount of freedom to say whatever you want to say, and to go to places that would not be expected.
Now, let’s take a moment to talk about how the flashbacks in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 actually work.
In general, it’s our job as screenwriters to externalize the internal.
If a character has a feeling, an emotion, a memory, a thought, our job is to turn that feeling, that emotion, that memory, that thought into an action that they can do in the present.
Our job is to externalize the internal chaos of all people and characters and put it into something that we can see on the screen. Movies and TV shows are a visual medium so we have to make our screenwriting visual as well.
So often, flashbacks stink. But they don’t have to stink. Some of the greatest movies ever are built with flashbacks. The Godfather, Part II– what would it be without flashbacks? Blue Valentine. Sophie’s Choice. What would they be without flashbacks?
But there are some movies in which the flashbacks don’t work, in which the flashbacks feel false and expositional, in which the flashbacks feel like you’re hearing a joke by somebody who doesn’t really know how to tell a joke:
“Three guys walk into a bar. Oh, I forgot to tell you– they’re teenagers. Okay, so three teenagers walk into a ba–oh, I forgot to tell you one of them’s wearing Nikes.”
Bad flashbacks feels like that: like you are whispering directly into the audience’s ear because you forgot to set up something earlier. That happens when flashbacks are expositional.
I want to quickly define exposition for any of you who are not familiar with the term: exposition is the crap that the audience needs to know.
It’s usually a lot less crap than you think it is, but if the audience doesn’t get this crap, they’re not going to get the movie.
Often, screenwriters think the flashbacks are the answer to give that crap to the audience.
Sometimes they’re right, but often they are dead wrong, because flashbacks– for the audience– can take us out of the structure of the story.
And often, they’re even more wrong, because when flashbacks are purely expositional, the audience tends to not even remember the information that you gave them.
To make matters worse, sometimes flashbacks don’t work because the audience doesn’t even need the information. Because, sometimes, if you just found a way to externalize the internal feeling into an action we could see, we wouldn’t need to know why, we would just need to know that. And maybe we could even go back and tell ourselves the story in a way that’s really fascinating. Or start to wonder… “Hmm, I wonder if something like this happened to the character and that’s why they did that…”
If you think, for example, of Thelma & Louise– we never find out exactly what happened to Louise in Texas. But it’s so wonderful to watch her keep on saying “I don’t talk about Texas.” It’s so wonderful to watch her make choices around that event we never find out about, “No, we’re not going to drive through Texas, no matter how much sense it would make to do so…”
We know that something terrible happened in Texas and we can start to tell ourselves the story. Just like the shark underwater in Jaws, the story we tell ourselves is much more interesting than anything that Callie Khouri could possibly have flashed back to.
So, flashbacks often don’t work because they’re unnecessary, because they’re loaded with too much information, and because they feel like an aside to the audience.
In general, the same is true for any exposition.
Almost always, you only need about 1/100 of the amount of exposition that you are actually putting in your screenplay. And if the flashbacks are just there for exposition, you probably don’t need them either.
There’s a great quote by David Mamet. (The grammar is his. So are the epithets. And I’m paraphrasing from memory) David Mamet basically says, “Any asshole in a suit can be trained to tell you, ‘I’d really like to know more about this character, I’d really like to know more information,’ And by the time you’ve made the penguin happy, both you and he will be out of a job. Because the audience doesn’t come for information. The character comes for drama.”
And the way David Mamet defines drama is, “What does her want? And what happens if her don’t get it?”
That is what the audience is actually coming for: drama.
And so often, when we’re doing exposition, we’re undercutting that drama, in favor of loading our screenplays up with so much crap that doesn’t actually matter.
And often, when we’re doing flashbacks, we’re doing the same thing. We’re telling the “joke” badly. When we could have told it so eloquently instead.
At the same time, sometimes flashbacks work brilliantly. And sometimes exposition can work brilliantly.
There’s a wonderful moment in Spaceballs. Dark Helmet enters the scene, and there’s a bunch of exposition between Dark Helmet and Major Asshole. They basically tell you everything about the planet Spaceball, why there’s no oxygen, and what their plan is. And there’s a fabulous moment where Dark Helmet turns to the camera and says directly to the audience, “You get all that?”
I love this moment, not only because it’s hilarious, but because so many writers inadvertently are doing this all the time. They’re literally asking “You get all that?” to the audience throughout their whole script, in a way that’s a heck of a lot less fun. In a way that reminds us that we’re not actually experiencing a movie, we’re being told about a movie.
We don’t want to do that.
What we want to do is bury our exposition.
We want to bury the minimum amount of exposition we can. And we want to make sure that our flashbacks are justified, necessary and structural. And so here are some keys that you can use to do that:
The first question I like to ask myself before I do a flashback is: Who’s flashing back? Is it the character? Or is it the audience?
If it is the audience flashing back, there is a 90% chance that your flashback is crap. There’s a 90% chance that your flashback isn’t necessary. There’s a 90% chance that you have not fully done your job as a screenwriter to externalize the internal, that instead you’ve taken the easy route. You’ve put some “notes” in. You’re saying, “Did you get all that?” to the audience because you haven’t yet found the craft you need to weave all that stuff into the story.
On the other hand, if you can honestly answer that question by saying, “no, it’s not the audience flashing back, it’s the character is flashing back,” then that’s a very good sign. You have a much better chance of your flashback working.
Assuming it is your character having the flashback, the next question you want to ask yourself when writing flashbacks is: Could the character have flashed back five minutes before or five minutes after?
If the character could have flashed back at any other time than the moment you chose in your screenplay, there’s a good chance that the flashback is not yet motivated: you haven’t earned it.
If the character is thinking about whatever we’re flashing back to all the time, then there’s a good chance the is pulling us out of the forward movement of the screenplay just to idel in place. The flashback is not actually moving the screenplay in any direction. You’re still just doing a version of “Did you get all that?” for the audience, because the flashback is not specifically tied to what the character is going through at this moment in your screenplay. Even though the character happens to be flashing back, nothing special has happened to force them to flash back, and the flashback is not a change for them in any way. It’s just more of what normally happens.
On the other hand, if the only moment they could flashback is this moment, right now, then there’s a very good chance your flashback is going to work. You’ve earned it. It’s motivated, it’s structural, it’s there for a reason.
Assuming it’s the character flashing back, and the flashback could only have happened for the character at this moment in your screenplay, the third question to ask about flashbacks is: Did the character make a different choice on the other side of the flashback?
In other words, when we came back to the present, did your character make a different choice than they would have made if they didn’t have the flashback?
If they did make a different choice, we can rest assured that the flashback is probably working. It’s for the character, it’s motivated and earned, and it’s structural– it’s there for a reason. It moves the story forward.
In other words, though it’s happening in the past, the flashback is actually happening in the present for the character, they are experiencing it now and it is motivating their action in the linear story you are telling.
When you think about flashbacks this way, you’ll start to realize that flashbacks in your screenplay work a lot like flashbacks in your life.
We all have flashbacks all the time. We all have thoughts all the time and memories all the time.
But those thoughts and flashbacks only matter structurally in our lives when we remember something from the past, and then we make a new choice in this moment.
These are the moments when the past actually becomes present, where the internal actually becomes externalized.
Which brings us back to our job as screenwriters. We have to externalize the internal, we have to make the past present.
It’s important to remember that while these three questions about how you are using flashbacks in your screenplay are valuable, they are not rules of flashbacks.
There are no rules. This is art. It’s your job to prove me wrong. It’s your job to find another way to do it. You just need to make sure you’re doing it for a reason, and you’re doing something beautiful with it. But these are wonderful rules of thumb to think about with most flashbacks.
Which brings us back to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Because… hold on a second, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 actually begins with a flashback.
We don’t know exactly what the flashback means, but we are seeing a really menacing hand grabbing into a cage with a bunch of terrified baby raccoons.
This opening scene seems like a violation of those fabulous questions I just laid out for you, right?
Who’s flashing back? Nobody. The audience is.
And when we catch up to Rocket, we don’t necessarily know if Rocket is thinking about that moment at all. Rocket’s just rocking out to some great music. And Rocket’s really much more concerned, at that moment, with his good friend Star-Lord, who is super drunk and mourning the loss of his beloved Gamora, than he is with anything related to the past.
So it seems like this scene is a violation of everything I just told you.
The opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a different kind of flashback than the ones we’ve been talking about so far.
There are some flashbacks that pop back to the past, come back to the present, and affect the future. But there’s another form of flashback, where a sequence of flashbacks work together tocreate a separate story intercut with the story you’re telling in the script’s present.
This is how my movie The Matthew Shepard Story is told. This is how The Godfather, Part II is told. This is how Blue Valentine is told. And this is how Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is told.
They’re all actually two stories that put pressure on each other, tonally and structurally.
And the character experiencing those two stories is the audience, but in this form of flashback, the structure comes from the pressure between the two stories and the way the flashbacks stack up.
So when you’re thinking about flashbacks like this, the flashbacks are not the reminiscences– or at least not purely reminiscences– of a character that affect the present. The flashbacks are actually their own movie with their own structure. That’s what we’re seeing in Rocket’s story.
In the way you serve that past sequence of flashback to the audience, though, you still have to earn your flashbacks.
Something has to happen that makes it feel like it’s worth going back to the past or returning to the present. You still have to earn it, but you can earn it in a different way. It’s not necessarily as tied to character.
Now of course, James Gunn still does find a way to tie his series of flashbacks to Rocket’s present day journey. It just takes us a while to catch up to exactly how.
Another warning, I’m going to spoil the beginning of the movie right now. And eventually I’m going to spoil the ending as well. So if you have not yet seen the movie, yet, now’s a safe time to put it on pause and come back…
Early in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Rocket Raccoon is mortally wounded during an attempt to abduct him. It turns out the electronics inside him have a “kill switch.” If the right code isn’t entered, any attempts to save his life will actually kill him.
This is what gives the Guardians of the Galaxy their new mission in the “present” story: they have to go retrieve this code from the man who made Rocket.
And of course, that man, The High Evolutionary is horrifically deranged, and obsessed with Rocket. So that’s their impossible mission: as they say 100 times in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3– “let’s go save our friend!”
Now, Rocket is a vital part of the engine of Guardians of the Galaxy.
As we were talking about earlier: if you give people what they came for, they will be delighted. But if you don’t give them a good dose of awesome Rocket Racoon stuff in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, we’ve got a problem.
The audience came for Rocket. They love Rocket. He can’t just spend the whole time in a hospital bed and still keep the audience happy. But he’s mortally injured, so what the heck is he supposed to do?
The way that James Gunn deals with the problem of an incapacitated Rocket Racoon in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is by making the past present. He keeps Rocket “alive,” even as his friends are trying to save his life, through a series of flashbacks.
Intercut with the fun action-adventure stuff set in the “present,” James Gunn builds a little play about Rocket set in the past.
Now, Rocket in this case can’t follow the “proper” answers to Jake’s normal questions, right?
Sure, it’s possible to argue– with the exception of that first image of the movie, which maybe is just like a fun little teaser for the audience– that we’re kindof flashing back from Rocket’s perspective. Maybe Rocket is remembering all this stuff while he lies unconscious on the hospital bed.
But when we come back from each individual flashback, there’s nothing Rocket can do that’s different. He’s literally stuck in a hospital bed, dying. He can’t make choices. He’s completely immobilized.
So, instead, the structure is contained in the flashbacks themselves.
It’s the flashback story that’s growing. It’s a “different” character, a different, younger version of Rocket, that we are watching. The story of the flashbacks is actually a very typical superhero movie trope– it’s a creation story—intercut with the salvation story in the present.
These two stories are putting pressure on each other, and all those flashbacks stack up— if you were to cut out the present day action stuff in between— to make their own little movie with its own structure.
Though at the end of each individual flashback in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 Rocket cannot make a choice, at the end of the whole movie, when Rocket is saved, he is going to make a different choice based on the experience of all those flashbacks that we’ve witnessed.
So some of the elements that we talked about are not honored in the way that we’re used to— in this form of flashback, we get the structure from the way the flashbacks relate to each other, out of the way that the past and present put pressure on each other. But still, we’re seeing the third question in action, albeit in a different way: at the end of all of that, the character makes a different choice based on the flashbacks.
Again, it doesn’t have to be that way.
In The Godfather, Part II, we don’t actually see Michael make a different choice based on what happened to Vito, or vice versa. These are just two stories that put pressure on each other. One is the story of Vito becoming the Godfather, and he’s doing it for all the right reasons, to protect his family and his community. And the other is the story of the aftermath of this decision, the story of Michael, who just can’t get himself out of the ugliness, who’s murdering his own brother out of his need for vengeance. The structure comes from the pressure of the stories on each other.
What’s important to understand is, yes, these are really good rules of thumb for most flashbacks when we’re just flashing back once. But these are not required rules. These are just ways of thinking about flashbacks, because all of this is actually just serving a couple of very simple concepts.
The first concept, which is vital to landing flashbacks, exposition and structure in general is externalizing the internal.
Our job is to take what’s inside the character and get it out: into visuals and actions and things that character does.
Number two is the idea of making the past present.
The past can’t just live “back there.” It needs to inflect the present-day story, even if it’s just doing it at an emotional, symbolic level. Even if it’s just putting pressure on those two stories through a juxtapositions of feeling, or tone, or structure, or the journeys of the characters.
And finally (and most importantly) flashbacks need to be structural.
They either need to be structural within the present-day story, or they need to be structural in connection to each other, so that we can feel movement rather than static. So that we can still feel like we are moving forward, rather than moving backwards or standing in place.
The important thing to remember is that movies move. TV moves. Even plays move. They move forward, they do not stay in one place. So if you’re staying in one place– or even worse, if you’re going backwards– you have to ask yourself, “How do I make it structural?”
The story that we end up seeing in the flashbacks in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is such a beautiful story. It’s the emotional heartbeat of the film.
The thing that all Guardians The Galaxy movies have in common is that they make you cry. The way they make you cry is by plucking your heartstrings. And the way they pluck your heartstrings is by riffing around the theme of loss.
If you’ve listened to my previous Guardians of the Galaxy podcasts for Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, you have already immersed yourself in this idea of the theme of loss and how it works through these wonderful action movies.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 we watch two different families, linked together around the same thematic idea: it’s good to have friends. (Which of course will eventually pour into the theme of loss that’s on the other side of all these films).
In the past story, we’re going to watch the story of Rocket making his first friends.
It starts when this poor little creature first gets abducted by this scary, disembodied hand (we’ll later learn who it belongs to).
And then, when we catch up in the next flashback, Rocket has been put in a cage, and his head has obviously been operated on, and he can now speak. Rocket says one word, “hurts.”
And he meets these three other creatures who are kind to him, other surgically altered animals who have also been part of this experiment, and who are also developing their own languages.
These creatures believe that they are being built for a utopia. They don’t know that they are really just the test subjects along the way. They name themselves: Lylla, the genetically altered otter who will become the primary relationship for Rocket. Teefs, the modified walrus, and Floor, the not-so-bright, but very sweet, modified rabbit.
These three characters, together with Rocket, become a family. They learn to dream of a better life together and they develop the lovely part of what it means to come together— the theme: it’s good to have friends.
Meanwhile, juxtaposed with the flashbacks of Rocket’s story in the past, in the present-day story, we’re watching another version of that theme happening in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.
Star-Lord has been reunited with Gamora, who’s come back to life, but who has no memory of her past. Who doesn’t understand their love. Who doesn’t even understand that they are friends. Who doesn’t even understand that it’s good to have friends.
And Star-Lord, of course, is still wildly in love with Gamora, and wishing for something that can no longer be. Of course! Because Guardians of the Galaxy is always about loss.
And Star-Lord is unaware– or at least not completely aware– that he’s just been hopping from woman to woman to woman, trying to fill something in himself that really can only be filled by going home. And this group of ragtag Guardians, that are all so different, comes together as friends, to save their friend, because it’s good to have friends…
I’m going about to spoil a little bit. Actually, I’m going to spoil a lot. But for the purposes of learning screenwriting, it’s important to understand this…
In the process of saving their friend, the Guardians and Gamora become a family again, and Gamora comes to care about Star-Lord again. Gamora, ultimately, is going to end her journey with Star-Lord with this beautiful line: “I bet we were fun.”
It’s an acknowledgment– after refusing to acknowledge that there ever could have been anything between her and Star-Lord– that something beautiful once existed.
But of course, by the end of the piece, because this is a piece about loss, it’s lost. The friendships are broken apart, even if they’re broken apart with love and understanding.
In the flashbacks of Rocket’s story in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, we’re watching the same thing happen: we’re watching beautiful friendships be born and then broken apart.
Of course, in the past story, the friendships are broken apart in a far more horrible way. In the past story, Rocket’s friends are brutally murdered. They are terminated because they are not necessary for The High Evolutionary– only Rocket has value to his creator. And all of Rocket’s dreams of a utopia are killed with them.
All of this culminates at the end in a really wonderful, fun, and maybe even politically relevant moment (if you’re into the idea that animals should not be tortured for human gain). The Guardians rescue all these children that were going to be either forced into a horrible utopia, or (probably more likely) destroyed by the High Evolutionary– the man who created Rocket Raccoon.
But after all of the kids are saved, Rocket makes a different decision: He’s not just going to save the kids. Even if it means risking his own life, he’s gonna save all of the test animals on that spaceship. All of the lab rats, all of the creatures like him.
This is the completion of that structural journey for Rocket, his own little Noah’s Ark moment. And though it happens in flashbacks, from a storytelling perspective it’s not moving backwards at all. It’s moving forwards from the past to the present.
In between the execution of Rocket’s friends and the completion of his journey, there’s a really gorgeous moment where the flashbacks and the present day story intersect.
In the present day story, it looks like Rocket is truly going to die. And as we watch his death sequence, this is the moment that makes you cry, because Rocket actually gets to go to the little utopia he always dreamed about. And there’s Lylla waiting for him. And Rocket realizes they’re finally going to get to be together after all this…
And then Lylla says, “Not yet.” And Rocket is thrust back into the present day story where he’s going to have to deal with the “real-life” problems rather than drifting off into his little utopia.
So— to sum it all up, underneath this wonderfully silly action movie is this beautiful little play about a troubled raccoon, who has lost the friends that he most loved, and has become the person he is because of that. He finds the friends he loved for a moment, and then loses them again– at least for a time. But he makes a new choice that changes him forever and that honors what those friends meant to him.
This is a structural journey, where these two independent chronological pieces come together into one film. This is how you build structure with flashbacks. This is how you use flashbacks for structure rather than exposition.
But what about exposition? What if you have exposition that you absolutely have to deal with in your screenplay?
Sometimes you can bury exposition under action. Sometimes you can bury exposition under a choice. Sometimes you can sneak in exposition. And sometimes you just have to find a really fun way of dealing with that exposition.
Fortunately, we have an example of a fabulously fun way of dealing with an exposition dump in the elevator scene of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Remember, whenever we’re dealing with exposition, the audience needs the bare minimum of exposition possible. And if you’re going to do an exposition dump– first, try not to!
But if you must do an exposition dump, do it in the most fun, wonderful way that feeds the genre monster of your particular show.
This is a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Which means we want to laugh, we want to be entertained by action, and we want to cry a little bit. That’s why we came. Those are the genre elements, that is the genre monster that you are feeding.
Your exposition can’t just exist as an addendum or a footnote to that, it has to be woven into that.
By the time James Gunn is writing the third installment of the series, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, he has a big problem: a lot of crazy, incomprehensible crap has happened in the previous movies! Enough crap that the exposition dump for us to actually get it all is so big, it would take a whole movie just to capture all of it.
So we’re going to discuss how he boils it down to the bare minimum that the audience needs to actually understand what’s happening.
What we, the audience, need to understand for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to make any sense for us is that Star-Lord loved Gamora, and we need to know that she has no idea who he is, and no memories of who she was. And we have to believe, if we haven’t seen the other two movies or if we don’t remember them, that that makes some kind of sense.
That is all the exposition we need. That’s all we need to know about the past. Everything else can be dramatized.
Even the magical arrow, which we may know nothing about— we can just watch the character playing with it and trying to use it, and we can feel the success when he finally does it. We can feel the structure of that even if we remember nothing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
We don’t need all the exposition, we just need a piece.
We need to know who Gamora is, we need to know that she doesn’t know who she is, we need to know that Star-Lord loves her. And we need to know that there’s some reason why all this happened that makes some sense.
So watch how James Gunn deals with this in this wonderful scene in the elevator.
Let’s talk about why this giant exposition dump in the elevator works in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.
Here’s what’s wonderful: Star-Lord has come with a very strong objective, which is “let’s do this without hurting anybody.”
Gamora, who has no memory of her friendships, who the Guardians are, who Star-Lord is or who she is, takes the violent route.
This is going to become the ongoing debate between these two characters, and a source for a great deal of the comedy. What’s the right way to handle this kind of stuff?
Even though this scene in the elevator is an exposition dump, it’s an exposition dump for a reason.
The purpose of the exposition dump is to make sure you know those three things we talked about, but the way they’re doing it, the scene is not about the exposition.
The scene is about, “I love you, Gamora. But I don’t love this you.” This scene is about, “you’re not being who you’re supposed to be.” And the scene is about playing all that, because it’s Guardians of the Galaxy, for humor and for pathos.
The scene is about the gag of this poor woman, who works for the bad guys, who his being held hostage by Gamora and Star-Lord, and who has a little bit of a crush on Star-Lord, even though Gamora can’t see why and doesn’t believe Star-Lord could ever use his charisma to get what he wants, because she doesn’t remember who he is! So Gamora’s trying to take her own, more efficient, and infinitely more violent route to success, because she has no memory of who he is, who she is, and how all this is supposed to work.
We get the exposition dump, but the exposition dump is being used for three reasons, all related to the game of the scene.
#1 – It’s being used to build the Game of the Scene – to make this poor hostage feel really, really uncomfortable while Gamora and Star-Lord have their personal squabble around her.
#2 – It’s being used by Star-Lord to try to get what he wants from Gamora, “Don’t you remember who I am? Don’t you still love me? Is this really how you want to be?”
#3 It’s being used to land the genre of the piece. To feed the genre monster. To land the comedy. We’re going to end on a joke: “she came back a total dick.”
All that exposition has been hidden under fun.
There’s the structure of the scene— which always ties to the characters’ wants. And the exposition is only a tool used by the characters to try to get their wants met.
There’s Star-Lord, who wants Gamora to love him, and wants her to do it the way she used to do it. And Gamora, who doesn’t understand who he is, what he wants, or why he keeps having these expectations of her– who just wants to get through this with violence the way she’s been taught in her new embodiment.
And underneath that game, we get all the exposition we need. We understand who Gamora is, we understand that Star-Lord loves her. We understand that there’s some reason why all this crazy stuff happened.
Even though we probably don’t understand most of the things Star-Lord said (unless we have actually watched and remembered the previous two movies) the importance is not the details, it’s the gist: the key elements that the audience must take away.
In fact, even the writers acknowledge this in the line they give to Nebula at the end of the scene:
“You left out some important information, but that is the gist of it.”
You can see it, with Nebula’s little punchline there: this is just another version of “You get all that?” But not the bad kind of “you get all that?”, the good kind.
There’s a meta level to what’s happening that feeds the humor of Guardians of the Galaxy. If we remember what happened in the previous movie, we get it. And if we don’t remember what happened, we’re basically being told by the writers, “that’s okay. You didn’t need to get all that.”
This is a lesson in exposition. The lesson is: it’s about the big things that the audience must take away, not about all the little details.
It’s not about the past, it’s about how the past becomes present, just like it’s becoming present in the drama of this scene and the pressure between these characters’ wants.
Flashbacks and exposition actually work the same way. Their job is to drive the structure of the piece forward, and to feed the genre monster of what you are building.
So go have some fun with flashbacks. go bury some exposition. And remember that your job as a screenwriter is never information. Your job as a screenwriter is drama.
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