Of all the exposition no-no's, advice, and complaints I've come across this week, this one seems to be the most frequently addressed so I've decided that it merits its own post -- OVER EXPOSURE -- which (I can't help it) reminds me of Peter Venkman. Ghostbusters 2, for all its shortcomings, has some great lines.
Ray: Don't talk to me; talk to my attorney.
Louis Tully: And that's me! My guys are still under a judicial mistrangement order... that blue thing I got from her! They could be exposing themselves!
Peter Venkman: And you don't want us exposing ourselves!
That line could almost be the screenwriter's motto -- "you don't want us exposing ourselves!" Except -- it wouldn't be true. Exposition is a necessary evil. We want the viewer to see us exposing ourselves. We just don't want them to KNOW that's what we're doing.
It's kind of a reverse "Emperor's New Clothes" form of screenwriting. The emperor thought he was in magnificent robes so light and fine that they were invisible to anyone too stupid to appreciate them. If you don't see them, you're an idiot. If you do see them, you're normal. We want the same thing in reverse -- exposition so well weaved that it is invisible to anyone not purposely looking for it. If you don't see it, you're an average viewer. If you do see it, you're in film school.
But OVER exposure plays a major role in thousands of specs that implode on reader desks all over Hollywood. Most of the books, articles, & web logs that discuss exposition warn against giving the reader too much information. This seems to be the number one way for a screenplay to self destruct -- inundate your reader with busy exposition, flashbacks, and talking heads.
My top three list of the most annoying over exposure methods:
(1) YOU SEE, TIMMY - Not to be confused with "as you know, Bob"s, the "you see, Timmy" (as defined in the movie Speechless) is the lesson, theme, or moral of a story summed up the way Timmy's mother might close an episode of Lassie with something like, "You see, Timmy, birds have to be free. They don't want your affection. But Lassie always comes home because she'd die without your love."
Cue giant dog hug.
Yes, the lines are lame and cheesy (I made them deliberately lame and cheesy to illustrate a point), but they serve a purpose in summing up what Timmy learned and what the episode was trying to say. Used at the beginning of a story, it would give away the whole episode too early and rob the audience of experiencing the story from Timmy's perspective.
No fun for the viewer.
But surprising to me, half or more of the screenplays I've read by aspiring writers give all the details in the first act. Instead of dropping clues, they spoon feed the answers.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to tell me that if you show a little flesh, a man will hang around to see what else you've got. Show it all and there are no more secrets - no reason for him to stick around. We need readers to stick around.
(2) PRESS CONFERENCES - Oh, it pains my public relations soul to criticize the single most effective way for a government to confront a time sensitive, easily misconstrued, or volatile event. But I must. I once read a screenplay with an eighteen page press conference with one purpose - to detail how a man was logistically able to keep his sperm alive long enough to sell it on eBay. All the reader needs is a plausible explanation, not a detailed one. Press conferences are getting harder and harder to write because (1) they are BORING (2) they are PREDICTABLE and (3) they are BORING.
If you must, must, must write a press conference because it's a fundamental requirement of your story OR because it actually WILL move the story along, give your confrontation with reporters a twist, spin, or unexpected dialogue to lighten it up and separate it from every other press conference we've ever seen. Make it memorable.
In The Fugitive, when Lieutenant Gerard interrupts the sheriff in charge of the train wreck as he's showboating his investigation for the television cameras, we find out who Gerard is, the authority of the U.S. Marshals' Office, checkpoint locations, fugitive information, the search perimeter, and we get an unforgettable peek into the mind of Gerard as he announces that he wants a hard target search of every "gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, hen house, outhouse and dog house". Cameras still flashing.
(2) NEWS PROGRAMS - So yeah, a twelve car pile up, bomb threat, or freakish weather event is news, but a news broadcast as the primary means of exposition is painful and seriously, while some stations do frequent human interest stories, how many of them really care that a fireman rescued a cat out of a tree? Like the press conference, news programs should be used to move the story along, not just reveal exposition.
Two favorites come to mind:
Bruce Almighty is about a beat reporter who does human interest stories but wants a seat at the desk. Still, each on-camera news scene is not just original and amusing, but it tells us something about the characters in the scene. Bruce is jealous, Evan is insecure, etc.
In the 1989 Batman, news reporters are shown on aira succumbing to the poisonous effects of cosmetics and grooming products. Others are later seen with no makeup and suffering from baggy eyes, bad skin and graying lifeless hair
So there ya have it -- the three abuses of exposition that annoy me the most -- too much information too soon, press conferences and news programs. What are yours?