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?