Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Writer Choice Vs Character Desire

Not much of a lull is it? It’s only reminded me how sad and obsessed I am about keeping up-to-date with all things on-line, and all my regular screenwriting fixes. Spending some quality time with the muter though and she’s toddled off into London’s west end to do some Christmas shopping to which I say: see ya!

Picking up on some of the topics covered on the last few posts, the matter of exposition struck me as something that is a bit of a hot potato because it’s essential in the storytelling process yet somehow must be invisible and subconscious to the audience.

Achieving the invisible and subconscious is hard, damn hard. Script reader’s sensitivities towards exposition are turned up to eleven, which is unfair on the screenwriter really because we’re holding up Academy Award winning standards to judge the way you inform us that Dad has been an alcoholic for the last 10 years ever since his son died of leukaemia and his wife left him for Mindy next door.

We hear exposition all the time. Sometimes it’s acceptable, as in you’ll recognise it as exposition but it won’t be too clunky and you’ll be willing to let it go. Sometimes it’s horrible (“Hey sis, how many years since Mom died?”) and sometimes it’s interesting exposition where you’re gagging to find out about that first alien invasion back in ’43 or when Michael Biehn brings Linda Hamilton up to speed in the Terminator while they’re being chased by Arnie.

A good way to avoid the clunkier aspect of exposition is to make sure that it’s used in a dramatic context, or as McKee would say: “make your exposition ammunition.” For those out there who defensively dismiss the advice of gurus and bristle at the thought of reducing your characters and story to well-worn techniques and mantras, there is a deeper way to understand why your exposition is fouling up your screenplay.

Basically what it comes down to is what the writer wants to get across about the story as opposed to what the character wants to do in any given scene. Most writers are keen that their audience understand every bit of information about the characters and story, and so will go to obvious and painful lengths to provide them with what they need to know.

These moments of exposition usually come crashing in the first ten-twenty minutes and that’s why readers will get a good sense of whether the writer can actually write or whether the writer has reverted to the safe and easy option of foul exposition, and thus making for a dull and disappointing read.

The problem is the characters are behaving and speaking in the way the writer wants them to but not in the way the characters usually do. They’re being functional and perfunctory to the story because the writer will provide them with the basic dialogue and action that will move the story forward in an obvious and uninspiring way.

But when you have fully defined characters with their own voice and behavioural traits, then the characters speak through the medium of the writer, and the story runs along with a keen sense of drama and interest.

I’ll give you two examples of what I’m talking about, one from The Insider written by Eric Roth and Michael Mann (1999) and the other from Ghostbusters written by Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis (1984).

In The Insider, the first ten minutes introduce us to Al Pacino’s character first and his position as a producer for 60 Minutes. This is done in a tense and taut sequence where Pacino tries to arrange an interview with a Middle Eastern terrorist. It provides us with dramatic exposition about who Al is and what he does.

But that’s not the example. When we meet Russell Crowe’s character, he’s seen packing up from work, a bit grim looking. We don’t know who he is or what he’s doing. He goes home. His daughter is watching cartoons. Russell, still looking tense, pours himself a stiff drink and says to his daughter: “It’s a bit early for cartoons isn’t it?”.

His wife comes in and Russell’s summoning up the courage to tell her what’s on his mind when there’s a cry from the bedroom and Russell races to help his daughter with an asthma attack. He’s desperate and fervent, and it’s clear he would do anything to protect his family.

As an audience member, I’m really interested and involved in what’s happening because the key exposition hasn’t been served up to me on a plate by the writer & director. What’s happened is that Rusty’s been fired. The stakes are raised by the fact that he needs to provide suitable health care for his family, and he will go to any lengths to protect them especially his asthmatic daughter.

But take a look at that line of dialogue while he pours himself a whiskey: “A bit too early for cartoons isn’t it?” It’s almost imperceptible and probably wouldn’t even register on the audience’s radar but it reveals a lot about his character (& what’s going on), and Rusty’s performance heightens the character’s unease and stress level perfectly.

The other example, from Ghostbusters, involves the first ten minutes also but specifically, how it introduces each of the main characters. After the librarian gets spooked by the ghost in the opening sequence, we cut to Bill Murray’s character who’s testing two volunteers to see if they have any psychic talent.

One’s a geek, the other volunteer is a pretty but vacuous blonde. The scene is played so that Bill Murray favours the blonde’s answers, even though she’s getting them all wrong, while he continually persecutes the geek with small electric shocks, even when he guesses a response correctly.

It’s a really funny scene but it tells us all we need to know about Bill’s character - Peter Venkman - without us stopping to think. He’s a scientist but he doesn’t act like a scientist. He’s funny, he’s charming, he’s an oaf. Clearly unprofessional but loveable nonetheless.

And just when he’s about to get lucky with the blonde, in bounds Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) full of boyish enthusiasm and zeal about the prospect of paranormal activity in the library that they have to check out. CUT TO the library where they hook up with Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). It’s no fluke that Egon’s already there: he’s bookish, stiff, a bit of a nerd and studiously listening to one of the tables as Peter & Ray arrive.

It’s extremely effective screenwriting (and performances naturally). Both examples tell us what we need to know without making it obvious or banging the exposition on our heads. And this is the problem with a lot of spec scripts that I read every day. They’re laden and leaden with poor and unmotivated exposition that do nothing to either characterise the players or dramatise the story.

The writer is using his characters and plot as explanation and information rather than the characters reacting to the drama and situation of the story. It’s writer’s choice versus character desire. It’s something that easily marks the more assured and professional writer from the overzealous and amateur wannabe.

Professional scribes still fall foul of the trap every day - Scott the Reader gave an example of sloppy writing from a script he was reading recently - but this is usually down to complacency rather than naïve and inexperienced notions of drama.

One thing is for sure, the problem of what the writer wants to convey as opposed to how the characters want to behave is a constant source of aggravation and frustration for dramatists the world over, and will continue to do so until the art of story is taken over by MP3 “script problems solved!” downloads in the (not too?) distant future.


Warren said...

Great example from Ghostbusters there. I attended a lecture on horror writing this weekend, and the teacher noted exactly this issue. He pointed out that scene in The Ring where Brian Cox's character is about to electrocute himself in the bathtub with all of the electrical equipment. All he's giving Watts and the audience is exposition about where the tape came from, etc. But it's remarkably dramatic becuase of what he's doing. It's also good because, like Ghostbusters - where the exposition was made funny - here, it follows the tone of the story (horrifying) and the theme (electrical equipment (the tape) can kill you). A pretty solid example, I think.

Ismo Santala said...

Great post, Danny.

"Basically what it comes down to is what the writer wants to get across about the story as opposed to what the character wants to do in any given scene."

Yes! It took me by surprise that the rough draft of my first screenplay was so thoroughly placid (and it's supposed to be a hectic thriller...). From my progress journal: "The greatest flaw is a general lack of tension: too much information was intended to be imparted through undramatic means (after the dust has settled, the characters shoot the breeze). The mind boggles."

Well, at least such an immense structural flaw keeps me busy during the rewriting stage!

Konrad West said...

A great post, with really great examples as the exposition is so deeply embedded in the scenes that it doesn't really involve tricky dialogue to get the stuff across. Keep it up!

Stephen Gallagher said...

Cherishable exposition from the opening of a 70s TV movie: lake in a park, dead body floating, cops everywhere.

Two detectives walking away. One says, "Two weeks as Chief of Police and look how he ends up. Some days I wish I wasn't head of Internal Affairs."

Danny Stack said...


I saw about 2.5 secs of a film on C4 last night but this is what I saw:

Helicopter with serious looking agents land in a remote area where a hot blonde babe is working on something scientific.

Agent: "We've got a very serious situation, something only you (godammit) can help us with. You're the best we've got. It's a dangerous viral-thing situation. You've got to help us."

Babe: "What's the situation?"

Agent: "Bats."

At which point, I turned over.

Danny Stack said...

Oh, and that was before the credits had even finished.