Here is the first lecture of my 1-week online class Handling Exposition:
What is “exposition”?
It starts off promisingly enough with the root word expose. A few possible meanings: “to lay open to danger, to reveal, to unmask.” That all sounds exciting. Then you hit upon the definition of the word exposition as it relates to writing a story: “dialogue, description, etc., that gives the audience or reader the background of the characters and the present situation.” Exciting? Not so much.
And here the dichotomy writers must live with is laid bare: On the one hand, we need to provide exposition to tell a story and yet most exposition is far from entertaining.
Indeed there is a saying often repeated among Hollywood writers: “Exposition = Death.” This arises from the fact that nothing can dull the reading experience and slow a story’s energy more than an exposition scene.
There was a notorious memo that got relayed all around Hollywood in March, 2010. It was written by screenwriter and playwright David Mamet (The Untouchables, The Verdict, Glengarry Glen Ross) to his writing staff on the TV series “The Unit.” I will post it in its entirety on the course site, but here are some key excerpts:
TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT
AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.
THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN DRAMA AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.
EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF INFORMATION INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.
OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.
BUT NOTE: THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.
[By “penguins,” Mamet is referring to network executives].
THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. YOU THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE EVERY SCENE IS DRAMATIC.
THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.
IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.
As I said: The attitude among working writers is “Exposition = Death.”
There are various names for this type of expositional writing in teleplays and screenplays: info dump, brain drain, talking heads. All of them are accurate and none of them are pretty when the number one rule of writing is “Don’t bore the reader.”
Unless you handle exposition well, you run the risk of doing precisely that.
Fortunately there are several proven principles a writer may follow to handle exposition in ways that both minimize the boredom factor and maximize the entertainment value.
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 about key components of the story universe.
These represent general exposition. There is also a special kind of personal exposition known as backstory, details from a character’s own history.
As another example of Hollywood writers’ awareness of the challenge of handling setting, information, data, and backstory, consider the character Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movie series. A parody of Q and M from the James Bond franchise, Basil (played by Michael York) exists to – what else – transmit exposition. Here are just a few examples of the character’s dialogue:
“Earlier this week, Dr. Evil escaped from Zedel Edel Prison in Baaden Baaden and now he’s planning a trap for you tonight at the Electric Psychedelic Pussycat Swinger’s Club in Picadilly Circus here in swinging London.”
“You’re in the Ministry of Defense. It’s 1997. You’ve been cryogenically frozen for thirty years.”
“Dr. Evil has high-jacked a nuclear warhead from Kreplachistan and is holding the world ransom for one-hundred billion dollars. If the world doesn’t pay up in four days, he’s threatening to destroy the world.”
All of that is exposition. How do the writers of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery handle it? Primarily by using this principle: Exposition as humor. It is one of six we will study in this course:
- Exposition as fascination.
- Exposition as mystery.
- Exposition as revelation.
- Exposition as conflict.
- Exposition as action.
- Exposition as humor.
We will consider each principle – one per day – during this week, analyzing actual examples from notable screenplays.
I will also provide you with six tips, an even deeper insider’s look at how professional screenwriters finesse writing exposition.
Finally you will have the opportunity to write and post scenes using principles and tips you learn here.
By week’s end, you should have a thorough understanding how to handle exposition.
The class starts tomorrow. Like all of my Craft classes, it provides indispensable information and insight. Enroll here!