Monthly Archives: October 2011

What is Exposition?

One of the most difficult things to do well in writing is to integrate exposition (essential information without which the reader/audience is lost), in a way that maintains the momentum of your story. Halting the narrative flow in order to provide a detailed background about a character or event is sure to lose you momentum. Yet, supplying detailed information is often unavoidable. The usual way to establish back-story, reveal plot, and explain character motivation, is by way of dialogue, whether directly through declaration, or indirectly through hint, implication, and subtext. Sometimes, however, these techniques are either too delicate, or not delicate enough, to carry the full burden of information. Dramatizing exposition by tying it to a structurally important event such as an inciting incident, turning point, or a character reveal, is one way of ensuring that forward momentum is maintained.

Inglorious Basterds

In Inglorious Basterds, a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) reputation of ruthlessness and Machiavellian intelligence is essential in building him up as a fearsome Nazi antagonist. The inciting incident occurs when Colonel Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa quizzes the dairy farmer, monsieur LaPadite (Denis Menochet) about the possible whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, claiming this to be the last step before he closes the book on their case. While the interrogation provides an ideal opportunity for exposition, Tarantino’s handling of it is nothing short of masterful. In having Colonel Landa ask that LaPadite sketch-in the Colonel’s own background, Tarantino infuses the scene with additional tension, irony, and ramps up the stakes — all without interrupting the forward thrust of the story:

Landa: Now, are you aware of the job I’ve been ordered to carry out?
LaPadite: Yes.
Landa: Please tell me what you’ve heard.
LaPadite: I’ve heard that the Fuhrer has put you in charge of rounding up Jews left in
France who are either hiding, or passing as Gentile.
Landa: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Are you aware of the nickname the people of France have given me?
LaPadite: I have no interest in such things.
Landa: But you are aware of what they call me?
LaPadite: I am aware.
Landa: What are you aware of?
LaPadite: That they call you, “The Jew Hunter”.
Landa: Precisely. I understand your trepidation in repeating it (…). Now I on the
other hand, love my unofficial title, precisely because I’ve earned it.

Landa’s dialogue reveals that he is a cunning interrogator, entrusted by the Fuhrer to ferret out Jewish families hiding in France. His pride in his job is obvious. This is a man who enjoys manipulating, hunting, and killing — an antagonist whose back-story makes him a worthy opponent for any protagonist. In designing the exposition in this manner, Tarantino accomplishes several things:

1. He transforms the mere flow of background information into dramatic irony by forcing LaPadite, who is afraid for his family, to talk about the feared and hated Landa in neutral terms.
2. It provides important information about Landa’s job in France, and the reason for his being in LaPadite’s house.
3. He establishes Landa’s reputation as the Fuhrer’s feared henchman.
4. Finally, it allows him to illustrate Landa’s vanity in his own reputation, deepening and colouring the Colonel’s character.

Summary

Exposition should be much more than the mere communicator of background information. Crafted well, it is an opportunity to deepen character, contextualize plot, and move the story forward.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, or have any questions regarding it, please drop me a line in the comment section and let’s get chatting.

What is Subtext?

Subtext, in writing, refers to the treasure that lies buried below the surface of a story — its inner meaning. If the “text” is concerned with surface detail — that which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted, the “subtext” carries that which is implied, hinted at, or intuited through depth, subtlety, and resonance. Subtext, in the wider sense of the word, operates across different categories such as genre, symbolism, setting, character, vocation, and dialogue, since all are able to transmit hidden or interior meaning. In this post, we shall be focusing on subtext in dialogue.

Saying One Thing and Meaning Several

In dialogue, subtext arises whenever a character lies, hides something, seduces, plots, is merely polite, or is simply unaware of the deeper implications of what is being said. The common denominator is that additional information is presented in a subtle way. Inevitably, subtext acts as a kind of foreshadowing, awaiting for that aha-moment to reveal its true meaning (usually, around a turning point). In Basic Instinct, crime writer Catherine Trumell (Sharon Stone) is interrogated by detectives about the murder of Johnny Boz, a retired rock-star. Her subtext, which targets Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), bristles with veiled threats and sexual innuendo:

NICK: What’s your new book about?
CATHERINE: A Detective. He falls for the wrong woman.

The implication is that her new book is about her and Nick.

NICK: What happens to him?
CATHERINE: She kills him.

This contains a veiled threat and a warning, but also a lure in its hint of a possible sexual liaison (“He falls for the wrong woman”). Later in the interrogation:

NICK: You like playing games, don’t you?
CATHERINE: I have a degree in psych. It goes with the turf. Games are fun.

Catherine not only invites Nick to engage in a-cat-and-mouse game over who killed Johnny Boz, she also engages in a kind of foreplay prior to having sex. Because the audience, like Nick, is aware of the deeper meaning in this (Catherine is already a suspect), the dialogue serves to foreshadow the pay-off in which Catherine, after having made love to Nick, reaches for the murder weapon beneath her bed, only to hesitate and make love to him again, instead. The suggestion is that Nick too will be killed when she’s had her fill of him.

Summary

Subtext in dialogue occurs when characters hide something, lie, seduce, plot, are merely being polite, or are unaware of the deeper meaning of what is being said. Its function is to create depth and resonance in the story, as well as to serve foreshadowing.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing, in story-telling, is a technique used for creating mood, supporting plot, and deepening character. Robert McKee defines it as the purposeful arrangement of early events intended to prepare us for later ones. The use of foreshadowing is not just limited to events, actions, or dialogue, however. Every decision a writer makes regarding setting and genre also plays a role in setting up the context for conflict — the essence of story-telling — and is, therefore, a part of foreshadowing.

How the Inciting Incident Foreshadows the Obligatory Scene

Foreshadowing creates anticipation, either directly or indirectly, through character predictions, warnings, and new information, and, through setting. Shakespeare, for example, uses inclement weather, and bizarre occurrences (such as horses eating each other — Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 4), to ramp up anxiety and foreboding in his plays. While foreshadowing takes many forms, perhaps its most important function is to heighten the sense of impending crisis to be played out in the obligatory scene — the climactic moment in which the protagonist confronts and answers the chief dramatic question of the story: will the primary goal be achieved, despite setbacks and opposition? In the example below, we look at foreshadowing with specific reference to a story’s overall dramatic question.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carey) learns that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), has had her memory of their failed relationship erased through a new scientific process performed by Lucana Inc. Devastated, Joel decides to follow suit. While undergoing the procedure, however, he realises that he’s made a mistake. He attempts to hide memories of their relationship inside other more obscure ones, in order to preserve them, but ultimately fails. The story is an interwoven catalogue of Joel’s memories, wishes, fears, and influences stemming from the Lucana procedure, ending where it began — with Joel and Clementine running into each other again, as if by accident, destined to try again.

Foreshadowing and the Dramatic Question

The inciting incident, in which Joel learns that Clementine has had him erased from her memory, asks the question: how will Joel deal with the news? Prior to the story’s mid-point, Joel’s answer is to try and forget Clementine ever existed. This provides the dramatic context for the first half of the movie, allowing the scenes to rally around it. But this early version of the dramatic question also foreshadows the overarching question, which is answered only in the obligatory scene: will Joel and Clementine manage to get together again? Joel’s realisation, at the mid-point, that memories are precious, provides the context for the second half of the story. Seen in this light, foreshadowing is the pilot that keeps the story on track, endowing events with a sense of inevitability and truthfulness. In Eternal Sunshine, the suggestion is that love is transcendent — greater than the pain rooted in individual memories.

In Summary

Foreshadowing prepares us for the story climax and resolution. It takes its lead from the inciting incident and culminates in the obligatory scene. Used skillfully, foreshadowing helps to give cohesion and context to your stories by asking and answering the main dramatic question.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.

The Second Turning Point in Your Story

In Making A Good Script Great, story consultant, Linda Seger, reminds us that in any screenplay comprising of three acts, the first act deals with the set-up of the story, the second with its development, and the third with its climax and resolution. Each act, therefore, has a different focus — a different job to do. This “chunking” of material into sections, is of course, not limited just to screenplays. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle suggested that all stories comprise of three main sections – a beginning, middle, and end. This, in many ways, is the structural essence of any story. Much of the wisdom on structure by the so called manual writers such as Seger, can therefore be applied, with some modification, across a variety of writing platforms – the novel, the stage-play, and of course, the screenplay.

Turning Points as moments of Transition

The transition from one act to another is via an elevated action, or event, commonly referred to as a turning point, which usually involves the protagonist. Because the second act tends to be twice as long as the first or third acts, the former requires additional underpinning – the mid-point. In an earlier blog, I suggested that the first turning point represents the moment in which the story truly gets underway. The mid-point, by contrast, represents the protagonist’s “moment of grace”, a moment of insight in which he or she weighs up progress towards the goal against inner and outer resources. The second (and final) turning point occurs when the protagonist confronts another major obstacle, marshals all remaining assets, and pushes forward towards the goal in a do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. As with the inciting incident and the first turning point, the relationship between the first and second turning points is one of magnitude and direction (see earlier blogs). During the first turning point, the protagonist identifies the goal and embarks on the journey to achieve it. But the task is not easy. Obstacles and problems abound. Some are unsolvable. The second turning point, therefore, readjusts the initial direction, refocuses the goal, and, in the light of new information, strengthens the protagonist’s resolve.

In the film Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a ruthless killer in his youth, is a down-and-out pig farmer who can hardly shoot straight or stay on a saddle anymore. Because of his past reputation, he is approached by a young gun calling himself The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to assist in killing two men for cutting up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny, in turn, solicits the help of his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and together with The Schofield Kid, they set off to do the deed. Accepting the Kid’s offer is the first turning point. Ned’s decision to pull out of the deal is the mid-point because it offers Munny the opportunity to cancel the job at hand (which he refuses to do). The murder of Ned is the second turning point – Munny now has no choice but to take revenge on those who killed his friend. His goal, therefore, goes from killing the two men he was hired for, to killing everyone who participated in the death of Ned. Not even the saloon keeper, who allowed Ned’s body to be displayed outside his establishment, is spared. This precisely illustrates how the story goal can be refocused in the light of new information.

One Last Turn before the Climax

As with the first turning point, the second turning point achieves the following:

1. It spins the action in a new direction.
2. It revisits the central question of the story.
3. It elevates the stakes.
4. It sets up the next (and final) act.
5. It speeds up the action in the last act by tightening the protagonist’s goal around the looming confrontation with the antagonist.
6. It injects new information about the existing problem.
7. It leads directly to the story’s climax.

In Summary

The function of the second turning point is to inflect and refocus the story goal (initiated by the first turning point). Additionally it increases the stakes, pace, and tension, and leads directly to the final confrontation with the antagonist in the story’s climactic scene.