Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Exposition ABC's

In case you're looking, there's not a lot on the internet about exposition as it applies to screenwriting.

"As You Know, Bob" is apparently an expression which means "exposition that sucks" but until Karl Iglesias used the phrase as the title for his Creative Screenwriting article, I had never heard it.


Karl has five tips for writing good (invisible) exposition:

  1. Surround Exposition With Conflict - Create fights, arguments, complications and life-or-death situations.
  2. Present Exposition When the Reader is Eager to Know it - Set up the desire to know it.
  3. Make Exposition Active and Purposeful - Make a character need to say it because it contributes to the character's objective.
  4. Twist a Character's Emotions to Get Exposition - Make the character need the information and have to fight to get it.
  5. Add Dramatic Irony - Create tension by letting your character in on a secret.
John August also has five suggestions for writing better exposition:

  1. Show the information, rather than having a character say it.
  2. Try to follow a natural line of thought: A to B to C.
  3. Simplify. The reader may not need to know everything.
  4. Keep your hero active in learning the information, rather than passively listening.
  5. Balance natural speech patterns with efficiency. People rarely say things as concisely as they could.
All noteworthy.

Okay, now here comes my arrogance. As much as I know I'm not qualified to dispute professionals, session four of the American Film Institute's "Basics of Screenwriting" uses the phrase "exposition" and "backstory" synonymously. Backstory is not always exposition and exposition is not always backstory. Somebody who knows more than me, please set me straight on this.


Karl Iglesias quotes Humphrey Bogart as saying that if he ever had to spout exposition, there'd better be two camels humping in the background to distract the audience. But Dave Trottier warns us in "The Screenwriter's Bible" against making the exposition too exciting and uses the second Indiana Jones movie as an example. Funny -- I've seen the first and third Indy films more times than I can count, but with Temple of Doom, once was enough. Dave says that primary exposition is presented over a meal so revolting, that the attention of the audience is diverted from the dialogue. I wouldn't know. It diverted my attention from the entire remainder of the film -- I guess I'm just not entertained by humping camels.

Another crutch in introducing exposition is the flashback. Dave says that ninety-five percent of flashbacks in unsold scripts do not work for two reasons (1) it doesn't move the story forward and (2) we don't care about the characters or story BEFORE we get flung into the past.

Linda Seger's "Making a Good Script Great" says that expository speeches and flashbacks are most frequently to blame for the common mistake amateurs make in explaining motivation instead of showing it, which over-emphasizes backstory and the influences of other characters on the situation at hand. She says flashbacks don't work when (1) they are informational instead of dramatic, (2) they stop the action, and (3) the motivation is not here, now, or imminent.


Bill Martell's "The Secrets of Action Screenwriting" sums up dialogue this way:

"Make sure every line of dialogue:

  1. Exposes Character
  2. Moves the Story Forward
  3. Is Entertaining"

If every line of dialogue exposes character, then there's not much need to explain character motivation and the writer has more freedom to craft a story that doesn't need crutches.

One of my all time favorite lines comes from the John Lennon song, Beautiful Boy, used in Mr. Holland's Opus. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Life is happening. You just don't see it. This somehow reminded me that good exposition is always happening. You just don't see it.

ADDENDUM: Make sure that when you skeedaddle, you follow up this post with one from Unknown Screenwriter who also has a list of five exposition rules. What is it with the fives?

  1. Set limits on what your reader or audience needs to know.
  2. Spoon feed the reader and the audience just enough exposition and backstory so that you leave them wanting even more.
  3. Make the characters in your story want the information as bad as WE do.
  4. Use exposition as a setup for future action.
  5. Combine exposition and action.


potdoll said...

Hey girl!

I've added you to my list now...

nice blog!

Unknown Screenwriter said...

Very early this morning I attempted to make a comment and it turned out to be way way way too long so I hope you don't mind me posting about the same subject back home...

You're on your way though... Keep digging!


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Thrilled that somebody else is discussing exposition and amended this post to point to you as another resource.

mernitman said...

good, good, good (think I'll crib from this post to talk to my students in "Character-Driven Screenplay")...

Anonymous said...

expose my ition... exposition... good stuff

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, MaryAn! I really loved it.

Ya know, I just had 3 12-hour days in a row where I've been working on my new story. (It's sad. I'm a total addict.) But I don't recall thinking much about exposition. In fact, more often than not, I spent my time looking for ways to withhold as much information as I could in various conversations so that the audience would be more involved and asking questions and hopefully putting 2+2 together on their own. I feel like I'm playing a mean game with the audience with the way I tease them as much as I do with information, but that's the way this game should be played, I think, becuase when they go to the movies, they notice everything.

I don't know if that helps, but this was such a great post.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Thanks, doll, glad to be on your list. Tired of everyone liking you better than me though. Good thing we aren't high school cheerleaders because the popular girls get called stuck up!

Billy - crib away

Todd - ummmmmmmm! I'm tellin'!

MM - I guess you are following Karl's #2 and John August's #3 then. I know you're big on Triggerstreet so be warned -- EVERY time I've let another "amateur" read something I've written and I do mean EVERY time, the comment was made that there were too many unanswered questions in the first act or it was too "confusing" at the beginning. Well, duh.

Anonymous said...

The problem is, you didn't get a review from the "smart, cool kids" (who usually post comments on my blog). THEY get it. I usually read a story twice before I start writing what is usually a hellishly verbose 2000+ word review.) In fact, Mickey Lee, who just made Reviewer of the Month, will in fact print up your review, write on all the pages, correct all the grammar and formatting mistakes, question EVERYTHING, scan it, and email it back to you! Hehehe... I love Mickey Lee. He's sharp.

Did you see "The Departed?" SUCH a great movie. I thought of you during Leo's interview. It was all exposition, but it was handled SO masterfully. Leo's family background is actually quite crucial to the story. But the way it was disseminated in the film was through the interview and so it was also about A) whether Leo would get the job, B) a mind-game in which Wahlberg and Sheen tried to convince him he's nothing and no one so he'll accept the assignment they want to give him, C) it was thrown in his face while he was being verbally beaten down by Wahlberg so that Leo would always know who's in control, and D) it was also about how well Leo would handle the pressure. This scene also ran tangent with other scenes taking place at the same time, so these moments were given to us in brief doses. Such a great movie. I really loved it.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

Haven't seen The Departed yet. Planned to this weekend, but so far, too much on my list. Hope to go later tonight.

I am working on a post about films that break those exposition "rules" and do it so well that nobody cares.

My favorite one (of course!) is Mr. Gibbs in the POTC films. He is a character whose very NATURE as a character is spinning yarns. That's what ol' sea dogs do. And it's those yarns that provide the exposition. LOTS of it.. and it's brilliant.

PLEASE don't think I'm dissing Triggerstreet. I'm trying to get "into" it (been a member since 2004) but never have time to finish reading the scripts I get assigned because I wind up reading one for an online colleague instead.