Monthly Archives: February 2015

Want to Write Great Exposition? Hide It!

Closeup of boy with tree shadows on faceExposition in story is a necessary evil. We have to know certain facts about a character or event if we are to make sense of the unfolding story. But exposition is a break in story momentum and should be handled deftly. A good way to hide it is to layer it with subtext.

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA provides several examples of good and bad exposition.

In Stand by Me, Richard Dreyfuss, a writer, relates past events in voice-over narration – often a quick and cheap way to bring the viewer up to speed. The scene, however, is static, filled with inertia, boring.

In American Graffiti, a radio dial and music immediately establish the time, place, and mood of the story. We learn through a few quick exchanges that Howard and Dreyfuss are planing to leave town in the morning. The setup occurs without lengthy and mechanical diversions.

In Silver Bears, several old mafiosi in bathrobes march down a plush corridor situated high above Las Vegas. They enter an enormous therapy pool and disrobe. Sucking on foot-long cigars they step into the water and proceed to discuss the sorts of things you’d expect to hear in the obligatory gangster boardroom scene. But placing the gangsters in a therapy pool and showing them as a bunch of naked fat old men, distracts us from the exposition and allows it to slip in surreptitiously.

In all three examples, context, mood, and necessary facts are relayed to the audience through exposition, preparing us for the story.

The first does it in a laborious and obvious way. It slows the action down and taxes the viewer.

The next two do so surreptitiously. They layer subtext in the setting and under the dialogue, keeping the audience engaged.

Summary

Load exposition with subtext to make it surreptitious and interesting.

Invitation

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Image: OUCHcharley
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Omit Needless Words

Scissors on paper“Omit useless words,” William Strunk Jr. implored. Our writing will be more polished and powerful because of it.

Unnecessary words make sentences lethargic by wasting time and energy. This is even more important in screenplays than novels where a lean, tight style cuts to the chase.

In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers provides several examples:

A plush office. Sweeping views of the city through floor-to-floor glass windows.

“Glass” is redundant: A plush office. Sweeping views of the city through floor-to-floor windows.

Matthew falls to the floor with an expressionless face.
Better: Matthew falls to the floor, expressionless.

If something is understood in a story, don’t repeat it: He looked at the clock on the wall. Clocks are usually on walls: He looked at the clock.

Don’t repeat a point once it’s made: A hand taps Mark on the shoulder. He turns. Standing there is ALICIA SASSY, a 23 year-old Barbie doll with platinum-blond hair, a Playboy centerfold rack, and curves Beyoncé envies.

Barbie dolls are blond and stacked: A hand taps Mark on the shoulder. He turns. Standing there is ALICIA SASSY, a 23 year-old Barbie doll with curves Beyoncé envies.

Don’t repeat something already mentioned in the slugline:

INT. FERRARI – MORNING

Dun has slowed the car down to normal driving speed.

We know he’s in a car. Rather write:

INT. FERRARI – MORNING

Dun has slowed to normal driving speed.

Although this sort of cut-and-thrust brevity is less of a requirement in a novel, any story will benefit by having needless words omitted.

Summary

Ferret out needless words to make your writing leaner and more powerful.

Image: James Bowe
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Scene Transitions: Repetition, Continuity, Contrast

White cups, some empty, some containing multicoloured liquidsTransitions in life, as in art, don’t get the attention they deserve.

Maybe that’s because they are transient states, in-between bits we must get through to get to the nitty-gritty.

When we think back on our lives, we tend to jump from accomplishment to accomplishment, failure to failure, or any combination of the two, leapfrogging over the small transitions that opened the gates in the first place.

Yet, stories rely on transitions. Transitions are the precursors to events. Handled badly, they make the episodes in a story appear unintentionally jagged and disconnected.

Here are three techniques, chosen from a basket of others, that may help alleviate this common problem – repetition, continuity, contrast.

1. Transition by repetition. A word, action, or response is repeated in consecutive scenes.

In Final Destination 5, a detective interrogates several suspects. To avoid lengthy and superfluous repetition, the detective asks a question in one scene which is then answered by different characters in consecutive scenes.

2. Transition by continuity. This technique can help bridge events separated by a small or large gap in time and space,

In 2001, A Space Odyssey, Kubrick famously jump-cuts from a bone being thrown up in the air, to a space station floating in space. Both bone and space station are tools indicative of man’s development, but are separated by a span of millions of years. The visual link between the two shots, reinforced by the continuity of image size and movement is so strong that it allows us to make the transition in an instant.

In a similar vain, a character could begin a sentence in one scene while someone else completes it in another.

3. Transition through contrasting words or actions. Here, the expectations created at the end of a scene are immediately reversed in the one following it.

For example, imagine a scene in which your character, sword raised high, motivates his troops by anticipating a crushing victory over the enemy, followed by a scene where the same character stands chained to a dungeon wall.

Summary

Use repetition, continuity, or contrast to create effective transitions between scenes.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday

Image: Peddhapati
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Small Acts of Kindness

Man giving man coinsOne of the most important things I learnt as a writer is that without knowing how to solicit emotion through my characters, I’d fail to draw readers into my stories and keep them there.

Emotion ties us to a story. It associates us with the characters who evoke it. It is the foundation upon which we build the whole cathedral, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the story.

Emotion does not always have to be rendered on a large canvas. Sometimes a culmination of smaller brush-strokes is just as effective as a grand gesture, especially when applied unexpectedly.

In my most recent novel The Land Below, released on Amazon in February, a minor character, the bitter and unlikable Miss Baithwate prevents an old man from visiting a boy, his only friend in the world. She asks him to leave her hostel, accusing him of making the place look untidy.

But as she watches the old man limp away, she suddenly changes her mind and invites him in. She hides this random act of kindness under a gruff tone and a crusty demeanour, but the old man recognises the good in her, referring to her as his dear Miss Baithwate.

Not a major incident in the story, but one which adds to the reservoir of emotions.

I remember feeling a tinge of sympathy for the lonely spinster when I added this small twist — a tinge I would not have felt had she allowed the old man to leave without seeing the boy.

Miss Baithwate suddenly sprang to life on the page for me. She was richer, deeper, more likable after this act. And so was my story.

Summary

Small acts of kindness deepen character and enrich any story.

Image: Chris Yarzab
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode