Why Exposition Destroys Story Momentum
Exposition is always and everywhere, universally condemned. You will find no lone hold outs advocating adding more exposition to your script. It’s bad. Everyone knows it; everyone believes it. Unusually, even the gurus have a good handle on why this fact obtains(69). It destroys the momentum of your story.
Let’s switch perspectives for a minute to see if we can determine why exposition is so terrible for your script.
Imagine that one of your screenwriting friends has just sent you her latest script in an email. She includes the usual remarks of self-deprecation, entreaties to read it when you have time, and then attaches the PDF in such a way that lets you know that this version of the script was just for you(70). What do you do?
Well, if you’re like me, you immediately begin a process which is intricately detailed and infallibly the same.
1. Examine the PDF for its size.
You’re looking to see that the file is in the 200-300 KB range. Why? Because you know if it is, the script is likely to be easy to read. More often than not, a script in this range is going to be from a writer who has read a fair amount of screenplays and knows how a script should “look” on the page. A script in this range generates a small bit of reading momentum simply for being in this range.
2. You look at the title.
This one doesn’t have an easily measurable quantitative element [at least not when we are discussing merely good titles], but you are hoping for something interesting. If it is interesting, even in a generic way, then you have generated more reading momentum.
3. You open the document and do an immediate check of page length.
You are looking to see something around 95-110 pages. If it is, the author has NOW GENERATED enough reading momentum to get you to read page one(71).
The reason I go through this process is because I’ve been around the screenwriting block enough times to know that there are people out there who are completely insensitive to sending their screenwriting friends material that is NOWHERE NEAR ready for consumption. [I have been this friend many times myself.] If we don’t know someone who does this to us, then we’ve been on screenwriting websites where people upload scripts with outrageous PDF sizes, that are 168 pages long.
These people always say the same thing:
Quentin Tarantino writes scripts that are 168 pages long.
Christopher Nolan writes scripts that are 168 pages long.
To which, the decidedly obvious retort of:
You ARE NOT YET Tarantino or Nolan…
Bounces off them as though their writing egos were made of Teflon(72).
If we collect these tips, we now have the following list to entice readers into completing the first page of our script:
Page One Momentum Requirements:
1. PDF size between 250-350 KB
2. A serviceable title
3. Page length between 95-110 pages
If you meet these three requirements, then you have done everything you can to get the average reader invested in your story enough to open the document and just read the first page.
Have I depressed you yet? I hope I have.
The one thing you have to realize if you are going to be a serious writer is that the world doesn’t owe you an audience. Just like you [and everyone else who taps away at keyboards] a lot of people have told me over the course of my life that I am a very good writer. I may IN FACT be a very good writer. I may even have something worth saying that it would be good for the world to hear. Not one of those statements, however, entails that the world owes me an audience. I, you, and everyone else tapping away at a keyboard somewhere, has to go out and get the audience. And don’t tell me about Carson McCullers(73) either. I know she was only 23 when she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and I don’t really care. For every Carson McCullers you can cite, I can cite a hundred T.S. Eliot’s and William Faulkner’s—exceptional writers who almost didn’t get published(74) .
Why do I make such a production of currying favor with your reader? Because, from the moment you email your PDF to someone until the moment that someone’s eyes consume your FADE OUT, your script is in a war whose rules all but ensure, defeat. Screenwriter Josh Olson summed up the climate between potential readers and writers perfectly in his article entitled:
I Will Not Read Your F@#%ing Script (75)
The thing is, no one wants to read your script. They want it to be terrible, horrible, rotten, and a miserable waste of time. Bad screenplays are easy to spot. As Mr. Olson notes in his article:
“It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.”
Both of the clauses connected by that conjunction are true. If you’ve spent any time reading scripts, it is just true that you know by the end of the first page whether the script is going to be an absolute chore to read. Now, imagine this situation from the perspective of a reader. She just opened a script and read all of page one. It was horrid and she knows the rest of it is going to be exactly as horrid as the first page. What does she do?
She closes the PDF. End of story. Game over. No worries for her.
Do you see that? She doesn’t have to worry. Her job in the industry has been protected by the incompetence of a writer who sent out a draft without bothering to learn the craft of screenwriting. Closing the PDF is the easiest choice a reader ever has to make. What you have to see if you want to get anywhere at all as a screenwriter is that closing the PDF is the choice the reader wants to make… because it makes her life so much easier.
To really see why this is so, consider the other side of this equation for a moment. Let’s think about what happens when a reader opens a PDF and the first page is good.
This should be great, right? This is the goal of Hollywood, isn’t it? They want to find great scripts, right? Right?
No. Disabuse yourself of that idea right now. No one wants to find a great script; everyone wants to be handed a great script. No one in the industry wants to attach her mojo to a lowly writer. That scenario is almost all risk and almost zero reward.
So now, reimagine our reader getting to the bottom of that “good” first page and feel her anxiety rise. The script is forcing her to do her job. She is now required to earn her money. You just made her job really hard and really dangerous. If she keeps reading and the script keeps being good, at some point she is going to be forced to make a judgment call—will she lend her approval to the script or not?
Of course, she also knows where she works and what happens to people who lend their approval to scripts that aren’t any good. They lose their credibility. This means that the longer your script is “good” the more precarious her situation becomes. Naturally, she looks for any suitable excuse to close the PDF on the first page. Including:
Page One Momentum Requirements:
1. PDF size between 200-300 KB
2. A serviceable title
3. Page length between 95-110 pages
By now you’re no doubt wondering what this [bizarrely] long-winded digression about the war between your script and a reader has to do with the topic of this segment, Exposition.
I spent so much time going into the reaction a typical reader has when she opens a script because I want you to know how much of a reader’s goodwill is burnt just getting her to read your first page. I think people who market material to screenwriters intentionally make a small deal of this issue because they want to sell more books. If you really tell people how hard it is going to be just to get their first page read, you risk not being able to sell them your follow-up book. A much higher percentage of people would be likely to quit if they knew. Much better [from the “How to” book selling perspective] to let people think it’s about midpoints and all is lost moments. You might give them just enough hope to get them to believe the one thing guaranteed to sell more copies of your book: The world owes a competent author an audience.
Unlike the gurus I compete with for your “how to” time, I don’t want to sell you on a lie. I don’t think it’s easy and I definitely don’t think the world has to read your screenplay. The world will survive if your script stays buried on your hard drive. What I do believe about You, however, is this:
If you are willing to read hundreds of professional scripts, organize your story effectively, and revise the hell out of an inevitably shoddy first draft, you can write a great screenplay(76).
You can see that the route I’m offering requires a lot of work. It’s as unstable as a rope bridge across the Grand Canyon. And yet, many people do make it across into the land of Hollywood Dreams. I’m here to try and convince you that each one of those that made it, did so because they wrote a script that managed expectations one reader at a time.
If you write a script that maintains a barreling feeling of momentum, you will sell that script. Period.
The problem with exposition, and the tie-in that completes this long-winded [seeming] digression has now arrived. Exposition halts the momentum of a story. It almost always reads poorly and, far more importantly, whenever it begins it acts as a crowbar to pry the reader right out of your story.
You want your reader to go get a cup of coffee; add a lengthy scene of dialogue based exposition.
That will get your script closed faster than the use or misuse of any other literary technique. As a writer, you should make a commitment to yourself right now to disallow all exposition. It’s not worth the risk. There are other ways to get the information you want to be in your story into your story.
A little over a year ago, I first began to wrestle with why exposition is such a problem for story momentum. I cast about for a suitable metaphor for the way I felt exposition should be handled. After more time thinking than I care to fess up to, I decided on:
Iceberg Exposition (77)
To practice iceberg exposition, then, is to set yourself the goal of putting as little of the backstory, rules of the world, or facts about your characters into the dialogue as possible. I believe you can actually get this percentage near zero if you try hard enough. I also believe scripts that succeed in doing this are more entertaining to read and, therefore, preserve reader momentum much better than scripts which indulge the writerly desire to include exposition.
And believe me, I get it. It feels like you have to put those lines in your script. Otherwise how will the reader keep up? How will the reader know why your main character is treating his brother with such disrespect unless you include that line about how the brother ruined your main character’s 21st birthday party ten years ago?
The reader will get it through the… wait for it… wait for it… subtext.
Subtext is a form of exposition.
Ah man, now I’ve just ruined the whole preceding segment, right? Subtext was good; it’s what we were aiming for, and now it’s linked up with this stuff called exposition which everyone knows is bad. Let me try again:
Subtext is THE ONLY good form of exposition.
That’s much closer because now we’re getting at the idea that there is something about subtext which distinguishes it from other types of exposition. The problem with that definition is that the word good is still wildly ambiguous. It’s doing a lot of work without divulging what it means in this context. Let me try one more time:
Subtext is THE ONLY NATURAL form of exposition.
There it is. That is the thing we have been trying to isolate. Subtext works, subtext is prized, because it tells us things about the people in our stories in exactly the same way we learn things about the people in our real lives.
Think about the situation we imagined a few sentences ago between the brothers with an ax to grind. Now imagine that these brothers were real and you were a fly sitting on their windowsill. Would they say something completely expository about their backstory together? Or, would they do what comes natural and just have argument whose intensity is litigated by its backstory? Substitute a camera lens for the fly on the windowsill and realize:
The exposition in subtext comes from the audience’s ability to interpret the intensity with which characters interact.
If we see these two brother’s arguing fiercely about something which brothers would ordinarily just bicker absentmindedly about, then we know there is a mystery in their backstory. Whether it be a ruined birthday or, possibly, a stolen girlfriend, these brothers [by virtue of their author only giving us iceberg hints about the nature of their dysfunction] are INHERENTLY more interesting than the brothers who we know are fighting about the ruination of the 21st birthday.
And the first principle of my beliefs about readers states that readers keep reading in order to solve mysteries(78).
We can now pull all these thoughts about exposition, readers, and generating reader momentum together beneath a single umbrella. The name of that umbrella is The Conflict in Goals Between A Writer and Her Reader. A writer wants a reader to read to fade out. A reader wants a writer to be so incompetent she never even has to open the PDF. In lieu of the stalemate this conflict assures, a contract [in the form of a truce] is accepted by both sides. The writer agrees to allow the reader to stop reading whenever the momentum of the story stalls. The upshot of this momentum deal is that it makes every line of exposition critically important. You don’t want to include anything that stalls your story(79). It allows the reader to contractually opt out of her end of the bargain.
Sometimes, no matter how much you try, you just can’t get around adding a line or two [perhaps even a few lines] of exposition. In these cases the rule of thumb reaches back to what we just talked about as a success of good subtext. Does it come across naturally? Because there are a few contexts in which information is needed and we humans go ahead and give it by way of speech-based exposition.
For instance, think of your first day on any new job. People, places, and job requirements were all thrown at you in the form of an assigned employee of your new company whose mission it was to “train” you how to do your new job. This trainer spoke to you all day in dialogue based exposition.
Professors also speak in exposition. As do tour guides, and witnesses. What all of these people have in common is some sort of variation on the master/apprentice relationship. If it is appropriate to your story to set one of your characters up as the “master” to another character’s “apprentice”, then you will be forgiven for upping the exposition ante above what is generally acceptable to a reader(80). Be careful with this technique, though– in the wrong hands, it falls flat fast.
I owe my second technique for making exposition palatable to the scene we looked at earlier from Inglourious Basterds. If you go back and read it again you’ll see [not only is it ripe with subtext] it’s [also] ripe with exposition. The reason I didn’t give Tarantino a hard time about all the exposition is because none of it disturbed the reading momentum. I barreled through his scene.
Later, when I was forced to analyze why the scene worked so well in spite of the undeniable fact that it was mostly exposition, I came to realize that Tarantino had dressed up his scene in the life and death suspense that surrounded Col. Landa’s treatment of Perrier, and Shoshanna’s family [hiding out under the floor]. I didn’t care what got said in the dialogue because I had to find out who lived and who died.
You can use this technique too. This is one I don’t think wears out. If you designed it perfectly, you could write a whole movie around it. I’ll call it the:
Cat and Mouse Technique
add it to the rest to sum up into an algorithm for this section.
Algorithm 8 (Techniques for Easy Exposition)
1. Follow the Iceberg Injunction and crop the exposition to as small a part of your dialogue as you can intelligibly allow.
2. Use the Master/Apprentice Relationship if applicable.
3. Adopt the Cat and Mouse Technique that disguises exposition in a scene with life and death consequences.
Before we leave this segment, I want to say one more word about a personal pet peeve of mine that I’d like to infect the rest of the screenwriting world with. As a reader, there is one technique writers use over and over again that drives me absolutely crazy. I call it the…
Exposition by Breaking News Alert
How many scripts have you read where a character is in a sub shop or something, and a TV hangs above the cash register and just as the main character goes to pay for his sub, a Breaking News Alert flashes across the screen and gives the main character the exact piece of information she needs to get to the next plot point. It’s so frustrating because it is so contrived.
Find another way, think of something different, do whatever you have to do, but eliminate this piece of exposition. You’d be WAY better off to have your main character just pull out her smart phone and google whatever she needs to know. As a guy who reads a lot of scripts, I’m begging you authors out there, let’s bury this trope. It just doesn’t work anymore(81).
69 I am hard on the gurus because they deserve it. How many of them tell you subtext is good? How many of that, many, give you any clue how to go about adding it? You’ll find that, in general, gurus are fantastic at identifying what works; they are positively inane on how to go about adding these successful techniques to your own works.
70 Before you think I am making fun of your screenwriting friend, I AM your screenwriting friend.
71 Keep in mind that you are going through these contortions over the script of someone you know.
72 Writers with Teflon egos are really hard to talk too, aren’t they? Personally, I think they are just confused painters.
73 I chose her because she was the first one I thought of who managed to get published when she was young enough to make you wonder if she really worked for it.
74 I leave the question of whether we really would not have Eliot and Faulkner without Ezra Pound and Sherwood Anderson to the more knowledgeable.
75 Here is the link and it is definitely worth the read.
76 As a prospective “guru”, my part in your journey comes in at the “organize your story effectively” bit. What we are doing here together is laying down “a groundwork” for how to write a screenplay. You still have to read 100’s of scripts AND REVISE on your own.
78 Mystery should be considered with a loose, rather than a strict, interpretation. There should be as much “mystery” in a drama as there is in a thriller.
79 I am forced to admit there are exceptions to this general rule. My own review of Nolan’s script for Inception serves as an enlightening counterexample.
At some point I will make a deeper study of this script [and others like it] to see what it has to teach by being the exception that proves the rule. For now, I will fall back on the Old Reliable. Unless you are Christopher Nolan, refrain from exposition based dialogue.
80 This is, by the way, what Nolan uses to pack so much exposition into Inception. I won’t challenge him on it because he’s Nolan and I’m Joel. STILL, I think he could have written the same story with half the exposition he did include. It would have been much more difficult, but he could have done it.
81 I consider newspaper clippings, garages with important papers, and google itself, to be variations of this trope. I don’t like any of them, but by far the worst is the Breaking News Alert. It actually hurts my eyes to write it.