Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #12: Exposition

There will be times in your screenplay when you need to give your audience some important bits of information. The worst way to do this is to have one of your characters just blurt it out directly like, “Hey, Ronnie, remember how you fell out of that tree when we were kids and that gave you the fear of heights that you’ve had ever since?” Of course he remembers the traumatic incident that caused his lifelong struggle with heights. How could he forget it? You know you’re in trouble when one of your characters asks another if he remembers something. Another red flag is when characters begin a sentence with “As you know,” or “Okay, let’s go over this one more time.” Those are sure signs that the audience is about to be spoon-fed some information, which is a great way to disengage them from the story.
You always want to sneak exposition into your screenplay so that the audience isn’t even aware of it until it comes up later and then they say, “Oh, that’s right! He refused to get his daughter’s kite out of the tree earlier, so he must have a fear of heights. It all makes sense now!” Presenting information through this kind of character behavior, as long as you do it subtly, is a great way to keep it hidden from the audience until the moment that they need it. Ideally, the audience won’t even know that you have exposed information to them until you pay it off. Just be sure to leave some room between the exposition and its payoff so that it has time to sink into the audience’s collective subconscious. Nothing is less satisfying to an audience than giving them information and then making use of it immediately. Except maybe for getting one of those stale, chewy milk duds. Because ew.
Another good way to expose information is through conflict. Rather than having two characters simply state information to each other, have them argue about it or at least disagree about it. For example, instead of a character saying, “How have you been doing since having heart surgery two weeks ago?” it’s better for her to say, “How can you be out here skateboarding just two weeks after open-heart surgery, you idiot?!” Just treat your exposition like those heartworm pills that dog owners hide inside a bowlful of Puppy Chow. Bury it deep inside of something yummy like conflict or some inconspicuous action that the character takes or maybe an offhanded bit of dialogue and your audience will eat it up. Wow – worst metaphor ever.

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