Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Question of Exposition

From a recent script review of a western.

"Let's start with the exposition on page 1. Halfway down the page, we find ourselves at a river bed with the gang of antagonists led by Doyle. We're given six lines of dialogue that establishes practically everything about this group. That the leader's name is Doyle. That they're being chased. That Robbie's been shot. That a sheriff is hot on their trails. That the river will slow him down until dawn. That they're heading to Settler's cabin to get the bullet out of Robbie. Ho hum. The idea for the opening, that we see the antagonists in mid-chase is great, but it's undermined by a poor approach to exposition in the dialogue. And this is important. On the one hand, it's no surprise that the dialogue felt contrived because the writer's forcing these characters to say things for the benefit of the audience - NOT because these characters would actually say these things at this particular moment. On the other hand, this is symptomatic of a bigger issue of technique throughout the script in the way that you approach exposition. I can tell from how you wrote this script that you think exposition means simply that you explain everything in the dialogue that you think the audience should know. That's not it at all. Great exposition is NOT explaining things. Great exposition is putting questions in the minds of the readers that'll get answered in later scenes and those answers would hopefully be visual ones. Thus, almost none of the dialogue was necessary in this scene that I pointed out on page 1. We didn't need to have verbalized that Robbie has a bullet in him that needs to get taken out. We could see that he's wounded and since it's a western, everyone will likely assume that he's been shot. You didn't need these guys talking about where they're going either, because we'll see where a couple of scenes later. You didn't need to verbalize WHO is chasing them. All you needed to do was establish that they're ON THE RUN, talking about someone that's chasing them, and then REVEAL in the next scene WHO it is. That's how you hook people into turning your pages by putting questions in the minds of the readers that makes them want to keep on reading to get their questions answered. To take it a little further, you also could have left another question up in the air - will the river slow the Sheriff down or make him stop chasing them until dawn? Doyle doesn't know and won't wait around to find out. And then in the next scene when we meet the Sheriff we LEARN that the river does, in fact, stop him until dawn. Do you see what I mean? As it is, I didn't feel compelled to keep turning the pages because you would consistently over-explain things in the dialogue."


Anonymous said...

Good post. One point where I partially disagree (without having read the script in question) is the advice not to reveal where they're going. I could go either way on that. If it's important, it might be worth revealing -- to get the audience looking toward the future , what's going to happen, etc.

For example, imagine a Western genre scene where some guys are being chased. One is wounded. They're talking about the badasses chasing them. So, one of them says, "We'll be okay once we get to the Alamo."

Or Civil War era soldiers saying, "Gettysburg." Or WWII soldiers saying "Normandy."

The audience (at least those who have ever actually heard of the Alamo) would instantly trigger to an even worse calamity for these guys.

On the other hand, I could see holding back the information for impact on a later reveal. These characters are on the run to safety, and "safety" turns out to be worse. At any rate, I can see using that information in various ways for different effects.

The key for me in dialogue is that characters should never say anything for the benefit of the audience. By that, I mean that characters should say only the things they would say in that situation. For the characters, the audience doesn't exist. They don't need to explain stuff to each other -- unless explaining is what they would do. For example, the show 24 contrives to add a new character every so often so often. The showrunner's purpose is to have an opportunity to recap everything for the audience. But, the technique doesn't require that the characters on the show say anything they wouldn't normally say.

Joshua James said...

It's all about the REVEAL and THE DISCOVERY, heh.

Laura Deerfield said...

Read the same script, and agree completely. I felt like there was a nugget of talent in there, so really hoped the author would take my advice to heart.

Those movies that I enjoy most are the ones that give me just enough to be interested in what comes next. There's a difference between what the author needs to know to keep the story on track, and what the audience needs to know to follow it - and that can be a tough balance to find.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much, guys.

Loved your comments, Kevin.