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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More on Exposition: Show don't tell or don't show at all.

A standard rule you may hear in writing is "Show don't tell". Actually, you will hear this applied for stage or film writing. Essentially, it's easier for your audience to "see" what they need to know about a character or situation than it is to have a character describe something. Overstating the obvious can insult the intelligence of your audience.

In my previous post on exposition, I used the concept of "telling" about a character named Uncle Henry. The telling came through dialogue between two characters in the guise of a casual conversation. It was established that Henry drank, gambled and was injured during the war. Henry's character background was established before he ever entered the scene. Now, if I were writing a play or a film , I could save some of that 'exposition' by simply allowing his character to "show" some of those details. How? Well, Uncle Henry could enter the stage with a bottle of whiskey in his hand and he could slur his words as he spoke. He could walk with a limp or even use a cane to move about.(Henry drinks) He could be wearing an old army jacket or coat with the Purple Heart medal attached to it.(Henry was in the war) Henry could ask the other characters to loan him money because he was trouble with his 'bookie'.(Henry gambles) Any of these elements would "show" the audience detail of his character without needing to establish these facts in expositional dialogue.

As a writer, one question you may find yourself asking yourself is: what do I really need my audience to know? Do I have to "Show" or "Tell" them everything? What it important to the story and what is just fluff?
That is a question I wrestle with all the time. One great example of a major 'detail' being left out is in the Cohen Brothers film Barton Fink.
Halfway through the film, a female character is murdered and the head is missing from her body. Later on, Barton receives a mysterious package that appears to be a box. The audience is not told or shown that the victim's head is indeed, inside this box, it's only an unspoken idea the viewer 'assumes'.


This assumption carries all the way to the very end of the film, where Barton is sitting on a beach and nearby character asks him, "What's in the box?" and Barton replies, "I don't know." End of film. We never truly know.

A writer may choose to omit certain facts or details. Sometimes the audience's imagination is far more powerful than what it can be shown or told.
I personally think what made "The Blair Witch" frightening is what we didn't see. The great Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu was famous for not "showing" or "telling" the audience certain details. For example, a story will lead you up to a Wedding and the very next scene will be years later, without the wedding ever being shown. It was implied, the viewer knew about it, why then waste time showing you what you all ready knew?

When it comes to exposition and telling your audience what they need to know, deciding what they need to know or in some cases not know can be a sticky wicket.
The best way to determine this, is to ask yourself: does this detail add to the story? Does it help move everything forward? Or is it just you, the writer, showing off your descriptive skills. Does James Joyce really need three pages to describe a character walking around a corner? (Well, that's what made him James Joyce isn't it? He mastered the art of "telling" which is can be tiresome in a visual medium.)

When it comes to exposition, do we really need to know "What's in the box?"

I don't know.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Writing and dreading exposition

One of the aspects of writing that I really dread is 'exposition'. Yes, I do know exposition is very important to a story or play because it establishes bits of information the audience needs to know and/or understand who's who and what's what.
I have read and heard very bad deployment of exposition in plays and stories, sentences such as:

Beatrice: "Oh! Look! Here comes Uncle Henry up the pathway. Uncle Henry of whom the family rarely speaks about since he drinks too much and lost his fortune at the race track. He appears to be limping also. It must be that old war wound he received long ago when he saved his entire platoon during his time France."

For the sake of the story, we now know critical information about Uncle Henry. Details that will hopefully, move the plot along as well as define this "Henry" character.
But in terms of this exposition sounding like a natural sentence or something you would hear spoken in everyday conversation, not so much. It pretty much screams out "Oh! Look! Here comes some very awkward exposition up the pathway!"
So, how do you avoid it? How do you make it sound a little more natural?
One trick (or cheat) I employ to establish exposition and make it sound a tad more natural is to use an "outsider", or someone who doesn't know much about the other characters. For example, in this scene about Uncle Henry, I would have someone in the scene with Beatrice, perhaps a new neighbor or someone "outside" of the loop of information. That way, Beatrice can deliver the same information in a conversational manner. Such as:

BEATRICE: Oh No! Here comes Henry.
OUTSIDER: Why do you say "Oh No"?
BEATRICE: Because, my dear Uncle Henry is a bit of a problem.
OUTSIDER: A bit of a problem? Why?
BEATRICE: Well, he drinks for one thing.
OUTSIDER: Ah! I see. And?
BEATRICE: And he always wants to borrows money. Money that he just blows at the racetrack. In fact he's blown his whole fortune at the track.
OUTSIDER: That's a shame.
BEATRICE: What's really a shame is that he was a War Hero! Saved his whole platoon over in France and got injured in the process. Shrapnel in his leg. Received the Purple Heart. And now, look what has become of him. A limping, broke old drunk.


In this scene, the same exposition about Uncle Henry was established but sounded a bit more natural. I picked up this outsider "trick" many years ago when I was a fan of the old "Doctor Who" series. (the original Doctor Who that aired in the States on PBS, not the New Doctor on SyFy)
Anyway, the character of the Doctor, who was immensely intelligent, was always paired with a somewhat less intelligent companion. The main idea behind this pairing was to a way to introduce exposition in a natural manner. When the Doctor would ramble off scientific jargon or figure out some complex plot point, the (outsider) companion would simply ask, "What does that mean Doctor?" or "How did you figure that out Doctor?".

This is also very similar to the plot vehicle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used in Sherlock Holmes. The character of Dr. Watson was outside the loop of Sherlock Holmes' deductive reasoning. Watson would ask questions of Holmes and the answers were simply points of exposition. In essence, this "outsider" is essentially a representative of the audience. Their role is ask questions out loud of the characters so that we might understand. It's a great tool for writers and helps everything flow in a natural way.

More exposition cheats, coming soon.