ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Exposition Waltz

So I've been a good boy this week, diligently spending at least two hours a night on the rewrite of my supernatural thriller.

I've reimagined the backstory a bit, and really done a lot of work on the main character, whose emotional journey is a lot more developed, and hopefully helps drive the story more.

My problem is that this is one of those tales with real exposition issues. Because I'm jumping into the story late, there is a lot of backstory to work in along the way.

If this was a four-hour miniseries, I could spend the first hour on what happens to my main character in her childhood and as a young woman; here, the tale begins with all of these events at least five years in the past.

So it's a constant waltz, trying to figure out what to reveal when, and how best to do it. I'm trying not to have flashbacks, because it's a device that I don't think will work well in the context of my story, so pretty much everything has to slide out via dialogue or visual moments along the way.

It's tricky, trying to parcel it out, and make it feel natural. The trick is to make it come out of the story, building so much interest into the "rules" of the supernatural element of my tale and what might have happened to my main character in the past, that the characters would naturally ask each other questions or feel the need to explain things, and that the audience will happily devour each dollop of information because they want the answers too.

So at times, to make sure I have it all in there, I'll overwrite. I'll purposely give my main character long, dense, clunky speeches about what happened, but not actually leave them in any scene. Instead, I'll carve pieces off the speeches and spin it into a piece of dialogue here, a silent moment there.

Once I get this pass down, I'm going to do an exposition pass, just jotting down what information we learn in each scene, and how we learn it. I'm going to make sure everything is there, and that I haven't established the same thing in four different scenes.

I'm going to ponder whether the exposition is something we really should learn earlier, or if it serves the story to hold it off a little later. And I'm going to think about better ways to bring across the exposition, or if certain bits needed at all; there's a lot of things the audience can be trusted to put together on their own.

It's a constant dance, one that (bad metaphor alert) I've been a wallflower with too much in the past.

But it's just one of those things that needs to be done.

11 Comments:

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Emily Blake said...

That sounds really smart. I'm gonna copy you. My problem is usually that I don't put the exposition in at all and people have no idea what the hell is going on. If you force it in and adjust it later, you know what information needs to be there.

So it works both ways.

 
At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Joe Unidos said...

My sure-fire exposition rule: "Never answer a question your audience isn't asking." I firmly believe if you follow that and everything else falls into place.

 
At 2:35 PM, Blogger deepstructure said...

wow emily, i'd love to see some of your stuff then. i've NEVER read ANYTHING by ANYBODY that didn't give TOO MUCH exposition.

really.

i find it very hard to believe there is anything about your female character that we need to know from her past five years ago that we either

a) can't figure out from the story

b) really need to know

if it's germain to your story then the telling of the story will bring that out. if it's not it won't.

i think as writers we spend waaaay too much time worrying about people "getting it," and not nearly as much time on wondering if we've really got a story worth telling.

perhaps it's from the artifice of the physical script? reading a script is not watching a movie and perhaps writing it to be readable/understandable is what creates this. editing *should* fix that, but it isn't always caught.

 
At 3:07 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Well, again, the challenge of this script is that I am starting the story as late as possible, which means there is a lot of prior story that needs catching up with along the way.

And a lot of it is important.

Still, yeah, I'm trying to trust the audience to get it as much as possible.

 
At 3:58 PM, Blogger S. A. Petrich said...

I really wanted to comment on this brave new post of yours, Scott, but my comment-to-be grew and grew and grew until it became almost two pages long.

So I posted it on my own blog instead.

You can get to it through my ID page... I wanted to post a direct link but it was too long or something.

So anyway...

 
At 7:18 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Karl Iglesias has a good exposition article in Creative Screenwriting.

 
At 7:33 AM, Blogger Mystery Man said...

There was a lot of backstory to the original "Star Wars" which we weren't told, and we all just sort of accepted things as they were without needing to know everything.

Generally, I have to agree with Emily's approach.

-MM

 
At 11:01 AM, Blogger Dante Kleinberg said...

I have similar issues with the screenplay I'm doing now. I'm co-writing it, based on my own novel. So cutting out a couple hundred pages, and figuring how to convey the important info, a lot of which was originally revealed inside the protag's head (1st person), has been a tricky thing.

 
At 4:14 PM, Blogger Chesher Cat said...

Ain't writin' screenplays fun?

 
At 7:52 PM, Anonymous steverino said...

I'm in the process of writing my first screenplay and I too have to deal with an extensive backstory.

Anyway, these might be kinda peanut gallery helpful hints, but here goes.

1. Maybe, just maybe, a voiceover would help, not hinder. If so, consider the voiceover to be spoken from one point in time in the story, so it acts as a set up that can be paid off at the end.

2. You know that you don't have to explain it all for the reader to get the idea. But the real problem is when you can't explain enough. In this case, you have to expound without exposition.

Here are two techniques I'm trying to use.
a) My guess is that one liners will not be perceived as exposition. If it takes two one liners to explain something, spread the lines over two scenes. The added benefit of spreading it out is that the audience is subconciously working on the first one liner as a loose end. Provided that you don't have too many one liners, a one liner may have an intriguing resolution in the form of another one liner, an action, a visual, etc.

b) The story is told in pictures. Don't be afraid to revisit the same image from a different perspective. That is, playing the beats should be imaginative, not boring.

 
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