Exposition: Do modern audiences want less of it in stories?

February 18th, 2014 by

I just started teaching my Handling Exposition class and we’re already into some fascinating discussions. For example in Lecture 1, I excerpted content from an infamous memo David Mamet sent to writers on the TV series “The Unit” back in 2005. You can read the entire memo from my post dated March 24, 2010 and a second post here taking on the question “Is any exposition scene a ‘crock of sh*t’”? This resulted in a forum chat in my class about the very nature of exposition. Here is a post I uploaded to the discussion:

Just in general, I think modern audiences need less exposition than they used to. We see this with the compression of events in what comprises a typical Act One in contemporary scripts. If you go back and watch movies from the 80s, they generally spend the entire first half-hour setting up the Protagonist’s Ordinary World before launching them into the adventure. Nowadays what used to be the end of Act One is often the middle of Act One, the end being when all the narrative dynamics have been set into motion. Obviously this is not always the case, but it happens enough, combined with cold opens which in effect throw the reader directly into the story without any setup, to confirm this trend: Audiences prefer to get into the action over a lot of setup. Give them just enough details and information to provide a foundation for the narrative and context for the characters, then go!

My own theory is that video games have something to do with this trend. They are such an immersive experience, the gamers creating elaborate and comprehensive story universes that the players trust they are going to learn what they need along the way. Again they want just enough to create a context, then let them get going and into the action.

One of the best examples of modern sensibilities with regard to exposition – just give us enough, don’t bore us with the details – occurs in a pivotal scene in the movie Looper:

This is when Joe meets Old Joe in the diner. In the script, it starts on P.39. This dialogue happens on P.43, Old Joe’s take on explaining time travel:

OLD JOE
No not - exactly - I don’t want to
talk about time travel shit,
because we’ll start talking about
it and then we’ll be here all day
making diagrams with straws. It
doesn’t matter.

Writer-director Rian Johnson has executed the story up to this point so we’ve seen time travel happen over and over, therefore we’ve accepted that fact as fact. Come explanation time, Johnson is smart enough to know his audience: Even with an elevated genre piece like Looper, we don’t want to sit around for 2 pages of exposition detailing why time travel works. So Johnson – brilliantly! – just has a character state the obvious – I don’t want to talk about it… It doesn’t matter –  and get on with the story. In other words, the rational logic of time travel is much less important in the movie and in particular this scene than the emotional logic: Joe facing Old Joe. What the hell is going on with these two guys? What’s going to happen? That is what we care about.

Now there are stories… and there are stories. Some of them require lots of exposition. It depends upon the genre, story universe, purpose of the scene in question, placement of the scene in relation to the overall narrative, and so forth. And you can pretty much be sure that among the script notes you receive from the suits when they buy your script, some of them will be to make things clearer, circling back to Mamet’s memo, that fear of going over the audience’s head.

But TV shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad, and movies like Looper prove that audiences can live with ambiguity and complexity, in fact even want it as one means of engaging them in a fascinating story universe. And one way to do that is provide less exposition and thereby create more mystery. Make the reader work for it. Obviously you shouldn’t confuse them, but rather make them curious and engage them in the clue-gathering process. By doing this, you invite them into the story universe as a participant which can make them a much more active partner in the read… which creates a more entertaining read.

Exposition is a recurring issue for writers. If not, why would David Mamet write a ginormous memo about it? You still have a chance to upgrade your skill at handling exposition in my new class. For more info, go here.

If you have any thoughts on expositions or Mamet’s memo you’d like to share, please head to comments.

BTW Mamet’s Memo: Good band name?

Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Explain the mission

January 4th, 2014 by

As we watch the holiday season – and specifically New Year’s Eve – retreat in life’s rear view mirror, we move back into the hard work of learning the craft of writing good dialogue. And nowhere do we have more of a challenge with dialogue than handling exposition. Which is why Shaula Evans’ suggestion for next week is spot-on: Explain the mission.

“Go inside the dude’s dream… er, something something
plant a suggestion something, uh, something…
ah, hell, you figure it out!”

The usual drill:

* Copy/paste dialogue from IMDB Quotes or some other transcript source.

* Copy/paste the URL of an accompanying video from YouTube or some other video source.

I’d also ask you to think about why the dialogue is notable. Is there anything about the dialogue which provides some takeaway re screenwriting?

Here is our lineup for upcoming Daily Dialogue themes:

January 13-January 19: The Boss [kevinpgoulet]

January 20-January 26: Rescue [Despina]

January 27-February 2: Directions [brettonzinger]

See you in comments with your suggestions for movie scenes featuring next week’s theme: Explain the mission. And thanks in advance for your suggestions!

September is Scene-Writing Month: Day 12

September 18th, 2013 by

As noted in this post, September is Scene-Writing Month here at Go Into The Story. Every Monday-Friday at noon Eastern / 9AM Pacific, I will upload a post with a prompt for writing a script scene. Each day, write a scene per those guidelines. If you really want to get in the spirit of things, upload your scene here in the comments section of the original post. That way you can critique others’ pages and receive feedback on your scene as well.

Why scene-writing? Think about it: If the average scene is 1 1/2 to 2 pages long and a script is 100-120 pages, then a screenwriter writes between 50-80 scenes per screenplay. Thus in a very real way, screenwriting is scene-writing. The better we get at writing scenes, it stands to reason the better we get as a screenwriter.

Plus there’s this: If you are thinking about using the Go On Your Own Quest schedule to pound out a first draft of an original screenplay, FADE IN is fast approaching — October 21 to be precise. What better way to get your writing muscles moving than a series of scene-writing exercises.

A couple of logistical notes:

* Limit your scenes to 2 pages. First, most scenes are 2 pages or less in length. Second, out of fairness to everyone participating in the public scene-writing workshop, let’s not abuse anyone’s patience or time with really long scenes.

* I’m sure someone will post a way for you to write scenes and upload them so they maintain proper script format, but that isn’t a big deal to me. Rather the content and execution are the important thing. So as a default mode, do this: (1) Don’t worry about right-hand margins on scene description or dialogue, just keep typing until it manually shifts each line. (2) Don’t worry about character name position, rather do this:

SCARLETT: Rhett, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?

RHETT: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Today’s prompt: Write an exposition scene…

What is an exposition scene? Most scenes have a point. Some have more than one, but generally if you drill down to the guts of the scene, it exists to advance one aspect of the plot.

The point of an exposition scene is to convey an important piece of… are you ready… exposition.

What is exposition? For our purposes, let’s say information, data or back-story.

So write an exposition scene. Easy enough, right?

Wrong! Note the ellipsis at the end of the prompt above? That means there’s something else coming.

Write an exposition scene… that is entertaining!

I heard something years ago in Hollywood: “Exposition equals death.” It’s hard to make exposition entertaining.

Your job?

Use fascination, mystery, revelation, humor, conflict, action, whatever, but make the scene entertaining while conveying the key piece of exposition.

2 pages max.

Post your scene in comments for feedback.

If you don’t feel comfortable uploading your scene, that’s okay. I encourage you to do the exercise privately. Let’s face it: Any writing is better than no writing.

To learn more about Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Also The Black Board is joining in with National Sketch Writing Month, so if you’re a comedy writer and want to check that out, you can go here.

Tomorrow: Come back for another scene-writing prompt.

One key to handling exposition

February 20th, 2013 by

Yesterday I featured what may be an example of the worst exposition ever, a humorous frame for a serious subject: If exposition is necessary, yet also can grind a story’s momentum to a screeching halt, how to handle it?

First, let’s get specific about certain types of exposition because each may benefit from a different approach in terms of how they are handled:

  • Setting: Exposition that conveys to a reader a sense of the place, time, and culture of the story universe.
  • Information: Exposition that conveys to a reader rules, history, and special circumstances of the story universe and/or its characters.
  • Data: Exposition that conveys to a reader facts, figures, and technical details.

These represent general exposition. There is also a special kind of personal exposition known as backstory, details from a character’s own history.

In my Handling Exposition class, I explore six ways to look at and shape exposition to give it the most compelling and entertaining spin. Here are three:

* Mystery: Convey the exposition in such a way that it arouses curiosity.

* Fascination: Use the exposition to grab the imagination of the reader.

* Revelation: Place the exposition in such a way that it discloses something important.

In discussing this the other day with participants in the class, it dawned on me these three can have a natural flow, one to the other. And perhaps the best way to do that is to embrace the dynamic of question / answer.

When we think of exposition, our instinct may be to dump it out in a scene and thereby get it all out of the way in one fell swoop, enabling us to move on. What if instead we dole it out over time?

First we use the exposition to posit a question, which establishes the mystery: What does this information mean?

Then we can come back to the question and tease the answer, perhaps providing a bit here, a piece there, even use disinformation to mislead the reader. This can help create fascination as we lure the reader deeper into the mystery.

Finally when it suits our purposes, we provide the answer to the question, thus creating a revelation scene, and providing a reader with the satisfying psychological experience of mystery solved.

Maybe the most classic example of this tripartite construction with exposition is Citizen Kane. In the opening, it establishes a mystery:

A dying Charles Foster Kane holds a snow globe, whispers the word, “Rosebud,” then dies, his death underscored by the snow globe smashing to bits.

Why a snow globe? What does Rosebud mean? Why was it so important to Kane, his last mortal thought? The scene uses questions to arouse our curiosity.

Throughout the story, screenwriters Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles tease the mystery, coming back to it on a regular basis:

* In the newsroom scene: “Yes, Mr. Rawlston, what were Kane’s dying words?” / “Rosebud!” / “What does that mean?”

* The “El Ranco” cabaret: Thompson interviews Susan Alexander, then afterwards asks The Captain: “When she used to talk about Kane – did she ever happen to say anything – about Rosebud?” / “I asked her. She never heard of Rosebud.”

* Thatcher Memorial Library/Vault Room: As he’s leaving, Thompson asks Miss Anderson, “You’re not Rosebud are you?”

* Bernstein’s Office: Thompson meeting with Bernstin: “We thought maybe if we could find out what he meant by his last word – as he was dying.” / “That Rosebud? Maybe some girl. There were a lot of them back in the old days.”

* Then later in the conversation, Bernstein says: “You know I was thinking. That Rosebud you’re tying to find out about – maybe that was something he [Kane] lost.”

* Xanadu/Great Hall: Toward the very end, Thompson talks to Raymond, Kane’s chief valet: “That ‘Rosebud.’ That don’t mean anything.”

* Later a photographer asks Thompson about Rosebud: “Did you ever find out what that means, Jerry?” / “No, I didn’t.”

But we get to find out what it means in the movie’s very last images:

All those references throughout the story tease the mystery, creating an increasing air of fascination, ending with the big revelation, providing a whammo of a jolt for the moviegoer.

So the next time you are dealing with exposition, see if you can figure out a way to strip it out into three movements: Question [Mystery], Tease [Fascination], Answer [Revelation].

Worst exposition ever?

February 19th, 2013 by

I just got done teaching a one week class called Handling Exposition, so perhaps my senses are on Acute Awareness this week, but I think I may have found the worse exposition ever. It’s from an episode of the 70s TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man” and features not only Colonel Steve Austin, the SMDM himself, but also the Bionic Woman in eavesdropping mode. Here is the scene, Steve under house arrest with members of the SMDM team Oscar and Rudy:

Here is a transcript of Steve’s dialogue:

Steve Austin: I promised to keep it a secret. You’re not going to believe it. In the California mountains, there’s a colony of aliens, explorers from deep space. They’ve been here 250 years. They can move forward through time in the blink of an eye.

Okay, so far so good. But then…

Steve Austin: They also control the Sasquatch. A group of rebels broke away from the main complex. And they took the Sasquatch with them. They’ve been using Bigfoot to steal these materials to create some sort of magnetic force field around the new base to make it invulnerable. Remember last year when I disappeared in the mountains? Bigfoot took me to the complex. I met these people, I talked with them. They erased my memory. I know it all sounds crazy, but it’s true.

O-kay. Then a quick memory flash and…

Steve Austin: Wait a minute. They gave some of their wonder drug. It could cure most all diseases and help heal injuries in no time. They called it… Neotraxine. I gave it to you [Oscar] to give to Rudy to have it analyzed.

When asked why he can remember this now instead of back then…

Steve Austin: Because they sent this woman Gillian to ask me to try and help them. But she must have been captured by the rebels when the Boron 3 was stolen. Wait a minute. There’s proof for you. I was taken prisoner, but the Boron 3 was still stolen.

Confronted with the fact that the Boron 3, which leads a radioactive trail, stopped at the edge of the compound…

Steve Austin: Well, that’s right. Because Bigfoot carried it out. Then the rebels must have taken it, using their TLCs traveling much faster than normal. Which means the infrared trail must still be there, just much fainter than normal. I can trace it with my eye. All I need is a helicopter.

But Oscar and Rudy don’t trust Steve who leaps out the window. The question is to save the day… or save his butt from this 3+ minute ‘talking heads’ scene crammed with exposition.

This is not to slight the writers involved. God knows producing TV is a grind, scripts due and the clock never stops. Plus the series was escapist fare and did have a certain camp feel to it, so if you’re going to talk about time travel, Bigfoot, Boron 3, Neotraxine, whatever, I suppose this was the series on which to do that. But if one of the most basic tenets of what we do is “show it, don’t say it,” what we have here in this scene is gobs and gobs of “say” with scant “show.”

We can use this post as a catch-all per your questions and observations about writing exposition. Indeed I’ll pick up on the subject tomorrow in this same time slot. It’s an important, even critical issue, especially for writers new to the craft who may tend to rely on dialogue when movies are primarily a visual medium.

“Exposition equals death.” That’s something I heard or read years ago. While hyperbolic, it’s not a bad thing to keep in mind, forcing us to step up our game when handling exposition.

See you in comments… and more tomorrow.

Handling exposition

February 4th, 2013 by

In Hollywood, there is a saying: “Exposition = Death.” Why? Because nothing can bore readers more than the delivery of setting, information, data and backstory. Yet every script, play or story you write requires you to include exposition.

That’s why I created the Screenwriting Master Class course Handling Exposition. In this unique 1-week online class, we will break down exposition into various types, then by analyzing numerous examples from well known movies, delve into six key principles and techniques on how to best handle it:

  • Exposition as Fascination
  • Exposition as Mystery
  • Exposition as Revelation
  • Exposition as Conflict
  • Exposition as Action
  • Exposition as Humor

Plus you can workshop exposition in your own stories using the principles and tips you learn in the course.

The class consists of:

Seven lectures written by Scott Myers
Special insider tips
Daily forum Q&As
Workshop writing exercises with instructor and class feedback
A 90-minute live teleconference between instructor and class members

Trust me, you need to know how to handle exposition. That’s why I created this course. And this is the only time I’ll be teaching it in 2013!

That’s right, I’m offering this class just once this year.

So join me beginning Monday, February 11 for Handling Exposition, a 1-week immersion in this critical aspect of the screenwriting craft.

Enroll here!

Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Exposition

November 3rd, 2012 by

As we wrap up a week’s worth of Daily Dialogue posts featuring Kevin Smith [thanks to a suggestion by Sean Harris], we move toward next week’s theme: Exposition [courtesy of Dean Scott].

There is a saying in Hollywood: Exposition = Death. As in there is nothing more likely to kill a story’s momentum and energy than information being delivered by some talking heads.

Thus this week we have a rare opportunity to explore exposition in dialogue, both good and bad.

The usual drill:

* Copy/paste dialogue from IMDB Quotes or some other transcript source.

* Copy/paste the URL of an accompanying video from MovieClips or YouTube.

I’d also ask you to think about why the dialogue is notable. Is there anything about the dialogue which provides some takeaway re screenwriting?

Here is the lineup for upcoming Daily Dialogue themes:

November 12-18: Teacher-Student [Teddy Pasternak]

November 19-25: Breaking The Fourth Wall [Shaula Evans]

November 26-December 2: Giving Birth [blknwite]

December 3-December 9: Confessions of Love [SabinoGiado]

But this week our focus is on exposition.

See you in comments!

BTW look out for my 1-week class called “Handling Exposition” which I will be offering in the first quarter of 2013.

Dispatch from The Quest: Brandon Cohen

August 20th, 2012 by

Last week as we did here on GITS, the Quest writers focused on the subject of Dialogue. Today’s dispatch: Brandon Cohen reflects on the dreaded necessity of writing exposition:

Exposition might be the hardest part of writing for me. Ya see, I grew up in NYC, and have a twin sister and a younger brother, and my one true love alludes me. SEE – that was me trying to write exposition, and it was horrible! It had nothing to do with what I was talking about, and completely took you out of what I was trying to say. Anyway, exposition is like if you’re about to tell your friend the most amazing anecdote ever, but before you can get into the story that’s going to blow them away, you have to bore them with the backgrounds of all the pertinent people so that it’ll make sense. The set up isn’t fun; let’s get to the story (or go into the story as Scott would say) !

The biggest eye roll moments I have when watching TV or movies is lazy exposition. Especially in television, it seems like all too often it’s something that is shoehorned in at the last moment. “Oh shit, people won’t understand that he’s sullenly eating dinner with his aunt and uncle because his parents were killed five years ago in the big factory accident!” Couple quick key strokes in Final Draft and then the scene opens with the uncle saying – “Dammit, Billy. You won’t be able to bring them back by moping over your meatloaf. The factory accident was over five years ago! They’re both dead – your parents that is, both mom and dad in the same factory accident…well, you know how it happened, not sure why I’m reminding you – what I’m saying is, you gotta move on!” The viewer then leans in and sarcastically whispers to his girlfriend, “I think his parents are dead!” They’re mocking your writing!

Most of the time it’s not that blatant, but for a lot of shows (especially crime shows for some reason) that’s not too far off. People watch a movie or a TV show to escape, and I feel like as a writer, when you include dialogue like this in your story, it immediately just snaps people out of it and reminds them that they’re watching actors.

I always find myself impressed when writers are able to throw in a lot of exposition without it being blatantly obvious. The best way to do that, as we learned last week in the Quest, is through clever dialogue. It’s possible to get Billy’s backstory across without dialogue, but I think that an even cheesier method than shlocky dialogue is just a shot of Billy in his room with a newspaper clipping dated five years ago with the headline “Billy’s Parents Dead in Horrible Factory Accident” as Billy sheds a single tear Native-American-seeing-trash-style.

I understand the desire to just pack the exposition in as quickly as possible to get it over with so you can get to the real meat of your story, but the audience will thank you if you make them work for it a little bit. Not only will it keep them in your story world, but it just sounds more realistic. Realism was another main focal point of our dialogue discussion last week. The audience will suspend disbelief that aliens have come down to Earth to conquer us and use our blood for fuel, but as soon as the main character starts expounding about how this fight means so much to them because their youngest son died because of a blood disorder, the audience is going to be like “whoa whoa whoa, what kinda bullshit is this?”

Real people don’t speak in an expositional manner, but if you can present it in a way that doesn’t feel expositional, it will keep the audience engaged in the real story you’re trying to tell. How you actually do that is something I’m still trying to figure out myself.

I heard a saying many years ago in Hollywood: “Exposition equals death.” How often have we read or seen scenes that slow everything down to a standstill because it is two heads talking, conveying information to each other. Boring. And yet our stories require a certain amount of data, facts, backstory, etc. This is such a vexing issue, I created a 1-week Craft course called Handling Exposition. It’s a subject I will be working on with the Questers throughout the duration of our time together.

Tomorrow: Another dispatch from The Quest.

About Brandon: NYC native, fan of all things comedy. I cry every time I watch Big Fish, Forrest Gump and Marley & Me. Don’t judge me. Twitter: @brandandco.

Go On Your Own Quest — Week 5: Dialogue

August 17th, 2012 by

“The Quest” has entered Week 5! And so did Go On Your Own Quest, an opportunity for anyone to follow the structure of “The Quest” to dig into screenwriting theory [Core - 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep - 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages - 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

This week, we are reflecting on the subject of Dialogue, mirroring the content the Questers are engaged with in Core V: Dialogue. They are working through six lectures I have written building off the 5th Essential Screenwriting Principle: Dialogue = Purpose.

For those of you who plan to Go On Your Own Quest, we began our week-long discussion on Dialogue Monday asking this question: Do you ‘hear’ your characters ‘talking’ to you? You can read that discussion here. Tuesday’s question: Does dialogue come easily or hard to you? That discussion here. Wednesday’s question: What tips do you have for writing subtext? Discussion here. Yesterday’s question: How is dialogue different than conversation? Discussion here. Today’s question:

* What is the best way to handle exposition in dialogue?

This week, you can do some serious reflection about the nature and importance of a dialogue. If members of the GITS community really engage in a wide-ranging conversation about the subject, there’s no telling what insight each individual can gain, perhaps even a critical key to unlocking your understanding of the subject.

I strongly encourage you to Go On Your Own Quest. First off, you can’t sell a script unless you write it. Second, you can’t get better as a writer unless you write. Third, if you don’t write that script now, when are you going to write it?

So consider this your very own Call To Adventure. Will you heed the call?

I will be teaching the 1-week online writing course Core V: Dialogue beginning September 24.

For background on “Go Into The Story: The Quest,” go here and here.