Expository Mode


It can be argued that the expository mode arose from these inaccuracies that the poetic mode was susceptible in presenting, as well as the “distracting qualities” of fiction films[1]. Consequently, the expository mode aims to educate the audience and “evoke and gratify a desire to know”[2], thus it can perhaps be assumed that it portrays an accurate representation of a given reality. While the logical, linear structure of expository documentaries reinforces this and the chronology of reality, its typical convention of voice over arguably distorts the mode’s ability to represent reality accurately.

Perhaps the most familiar example to use is Night Mail (1936); an early documentary that follows a postal train’s overnight journey to Scotland in which its mail is sorted, dropped, and delivered.


Although the voice over is arguably informative, relative to the workers actions, its lyrical format in fact seems to have an underlying propagandist intention. I.e. to encourage the working class of their own importance at a time when an industrialised war appeared imminent. This to some extent reinforces Nichol’s idea that the audience are expected, or at least encouraged; to accept that there is a “direct relationship between the images and voice over”.

Nowadays the expository mode is mostly associated with nature documentaries such as The Blue Planet.

Here, David Attenborough’s voice explains the evolution, environment and habits of various inhabitants of the ocean. Assuming Bill Nichols is correct in regards to there being a relationship between the images and voice over, it can therefore be argued that a preferred meaning is constructed within the documentary as the audience are not encouraged to personally interrogate the images and narrative independently.

Although this theoretically does indeed misrepresent reality, it should be considered that the intentions of the expository mode are educational and therefore research must have been conducted in order to legitimately present a certain view, particularly in the case of science orientated documentaries like The Blue Planet. Considering this, it can be assumed that there is some general agreement in the views that the voice over expresses, thus the expository mode can be successful to some extent in presenting a ‘factual’ documentation of reality.

Nevertheless, it should be considered that in the same way the poetical mode directs the audience to a particular conclusion through the means of emphasised visuals and poetical manipulation, the expository mode also succumbs to presenting a constructed reality through the dominance of the voice over and the guidance this brings to the audience in understanding complex, detailed narrative of expository documentaries.


[1] Nichols. B (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary Indiana University Press, pg 32.

[2] Renov. M (1993) Theorizing Documentary Routledge, pg 140



It can be argued that the expository mode arose from these inaccuracies that the poetic mode was susceptible in presenting, as well as the “distracting qualities” of fiction films[1]. Consequently, the expository mode aims to educate the audience and “evoke and gratify a desire to know”[2], thus it can perhaps be assumed that it portrays an accurate representation of a given reality. While the logical, linear structure of expository documentaries reinforces this and the chronology of reality, its typical convention of voice over arguably distorts the mode’s ability to represent reality accurately.

Perhaps the most familiar example to use is Night Mail (1936); an early documentary that follows a postal train’s overnight journey to Scotland in which its mail is sorted, dropped, and delivered. Although the voice over is arguably informative, relative to the workers actions, its lyrical format in fact seems to have an underlying propagandist intention. I.e. to encourage the working class of their own importance at a time when an industrialised war appeared imminent. This to some extent reinforces Nichol’s idea that the audience are expected, or at least encouraged; to accept that there is a “direct relationship between the images and voice over”.

Nowadays the expository mode is mostly associated with nature documentaries such as The Blue Planet. Here, David Attenborough’s voice explains the evolution, environment and habits of various inhabitants of the ocean. Assuming Bill Nichols is correct in regards to there being a relationship between the images and voice over, it can therefore be argued that a preferred meaning is constructed within the documentary as the audience are not encouraged to personally interrogate the images and narrative independently.

Although this theoretically does indeed misrepresent reality, it should be considered that the intentions of the expository mode are educational and therefore research must have been conducted in order to legitimately present a certain view, particularly in the case of science orientated documentaries like The Blue Planet. Considering this, it can be assumed that there is some general agreement in the views that the voice over expresses, thus the expository mode can be successful to some extent in presenting a ‘factual’ documentation of reality.

Nevertheless, it should be considered that in the same way the poetical mode directs the audience to a particular conclusion through the means of emphasised visuals and poetical manipulation, the expository mode also succumbs to presenting a constructed reality through the dominance of the voice over and the guidance this brings to the audience in understanding complex, detailed narrative of expository documentaries.


[1] Nichols. B (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary Indiana University Press, pg 32.

[2] Renov. M (1993) Theorizing Documentary Routledge, pg 140

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