In the last post, we began to think about the writer's nemesis that he can't live without: Exposition. And I promised 10 tips on how to convey exposition without resorting to dreadful, creaky, crunchy lines where characters just say things that a necessary rather than natural. And actors sometimes spot them and ask, on set, 'I don't understand this. Why is my character saying this? It doesn't feel like something they would say.' If you're answer is 'We need to explain to the viewer x, y and z' then you have failed as a writer on this occasion. Anyway, for the first four tips, go here. Otherwise, read on.
5. Have A Blazing Row
Your character is explaining a plan. The other characters listen. Boring. Annoying. Not funny. Could someone have an alternative plan? And explain their plan, or keep interrupting the original plan – and the two characters have an argument about it. Going back to Blackadder, Baldrick’s cunning plans are always really funny, and gives our hero the chance to explain a decent plan, with jokes. Although sometimes, the plan isn’t even explained. It’s obvious. When Blackadder asks for two pencils and a pair of underpants, we’re intrigued – and then we go straight into seeing them in action (funny), and then the explanation. Which leads to asking:
6. Do you Need to Tell them this?
Backstory and exposition often seems very important when you’re planning a sitcom, or outlining an episode, but when it comes to writing it, you quite often realise you don’t need to explain yourself as much as you might think. This is especially the case with backstory. Newer writers tend to get quite hung up on where the characters have been, and what they did before – but the audience are more interested in where they are going. As I’ve written before on this blog, The Vicar of Dibley just turns up. She just arrives. No back story. No past. She’s the new vicar. (NB. As a church goer, this would never happen without consultation with the church, etc, but that doesn’t really matter. Again, no explanation needed.) If you like, you can reveal backstory and hidden depths later. In The West Wing, they do at that in Series 2, once we love the characters and want to know a bit more about their past.
7. Is Every Line Pulling Its Weight?
If you’re already got a script and are feeling it’s confusing and needs more exposition, don’t just think about adding lines. Apart from anything else, sitcom is brutal in terms of length. On BBC you’ve 28 minutes. On ITV/SKY, you’re got nearer 23 minutes. In USA, you’ve 21 mins. You don’t have the luzury or more time or more lines. Why are you needing to give the audience signposts? Is every story/routine. Make sure every scene, sequence, line – and every action - is working hard not just comically, but expositionally.
In a sitcom, everything happens for a reason. It’s there because you’ve decided to put it there. So use all these tools to tell your story. Let’s consider the work of some real comedy legends, Esmonde and Larbey and their blissfully odd sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles. (More on the title later)
Every time, Martin Brice walks in and fiddles with the phone in the hallway. He untangles the wire, or turns the phone round. He does this a lot – pretty much every episode. This tells you at least three or four things. He’s essentially obsessively compulsive. His wife, Anne, isn’t, for it is obviously her who puts the phone down the wrong way round. She is clearly happy to do something that she knows her husband will correct. And Martin is prepared to do it week after week and force a smile afterwards.
Anne comments on the phone thing in the first episode – which is well worth looking at. Watch the first bit of the first episode. It’s genius. All you need to know about the show is in the first three minutes. By then, you know all about Martin and Paul, which is ultimately the key relationship in the show. Every line and action builds and builds. He’s shouting cheerfully after the boys who’ve just been thrashed at football. He wipes his feet for ages. He does the phone thing. He talks to Paul in an overly knowledgeable way. He thinks he’s winning at life. There’s an interesting moment at 2.58 when Paul reacts to something Martin says – and looks to Anne who doesn’t see anything unusual in this comment. This is the world we are in. It’s masterful. Please. Take the time. Watch it.
8. Use your Opening Title Sequence
The opening titles of Ever Decreasing Circles (because you watched it, right?) is bold. It’s all metaphor, obviously. You’ve got an opening title sequence. That’s about 20-30 seconds that you can use to explain the premise of your show, conveying a couple of essential pieces of information or highlighting a key relationship. My Name is Earl had a brilliant, lyrical, brief opening about a winning lottery ticket and karma, which includes a car crash. (Have a look here if you like) It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch all of it. What really stand out is the end bit when he says, ‘I’m just trying to be a better person.’ That’s all you need to know. He has some money and he’s trying to be good.
9. Use the Title of your Show
Miranda Hart’s show is called Miranda because it’s telling you the show is about her. She’s in every scene and the show is entirely from her point of view. So the audience subconsciously knows that every character in the show is defined by their relationship to Miranda. Him and Her – is about him and her, and their relationship. Ever Decreasing Circles is telling you this is about a man who’s going round and round and slowly going insane. Your show has a name. It’s another tool in the armoury. Use it.
If you’ve still got a whole ton of exposition to crunch through, you might just have to cheat. Cheating’s fine. Two of my favourite shows do it. Modern Family and Parks and Rec have a very murky, ill-defined documentary style that is wildly inconsistent with odd looks to camera at very points. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t. I think they’re able to get away with this because of the language and grammar of television has been heavily influenced by ‘Fly on the wall’ documentaries and reality TV in the last fifteen years, and then The Office.
You can cheat by having a narrator. This is how Arrested Development crunches through an amazing amount of story in such a short time. Ron Howard’s voiceover is never really explained (It is? Does it need to be?) but again, it doesn’t seem to matter. More cunning and less cheaty is the voiceover in Desperate Housewives who is a character speaking from beyond the grave. Nice move.
You can have a character talk directly to camera. Miranda does that, and it’s incredibly useful from a story point of view, as she can relate previous incidents in her life, announce the story of the week and give us a heads-up on foreseeable problems, which will hopefully lead to unforeseen ones. Miranda’s pieces to camera also give her an extremely deep connection with her audience.
Finally, you can cheat in the most brazen way possible by having a character called Basil Exposition. It was only on the third time of what that movie that I got that joke.
So, there are ten tips on dealing with exposition. If you have others, I'd love to hear them.
Wednesday, 11 June 2014
I’ve just written a novel. Okay, okay, I’ll stop banging on about it. (Four quid on Kindle etc) But I’d like to write about writing the novel for a moment – because there are two aspects of it which are quite interesting for a sitcom writer. And it’s more interesting than putting receipts into a spreadsheet which is what I would otherwise be doing.
Size Does Matter
The hardest thing about writing the novel is the length of the thing. 80,000 words is a lot. But for me the problem was not thinking of those words or the story or character or anything. Once I had the idea and the characters and the basic structure, writing prose wasn’t that hard. (You be the judge of whether that prose is any good).
What I wasn’t used to was not being able to remember what I’d written. You need to have what you’ve written in the back of your mind because it informs what you’re going to write. You want to avoid repeating yourself, or assuming you’ve established something earlier on when you haven’t. You have to go back and check previous chapters to make sure you’ve kept the continuity or whatever – and it can take ages to find the chapters, read what you wrote, resist editing it and go back to what you were writing 40,000 words later. This was a new experience for me.
|Some Memory Sticks. Clearly.|
The problem is you just can’t retain a novel manuscript in the back of your mind, or even the front and the sides, without it dribbling out of your ears and nose. A sitcom script, being about 5-6000 words for 24-28 mins, requires about 100 MB of mental memory. And that’s about the size of my actual memory, or back of my mind, or bit where scripts tend to lurk. So when I’m writing or re-writing and I need to check on a line or a prop, I can usually find it within a few seconds and I’m back writing. But a novel is about 1.5 GB of mental memory – and it’s not super-fast flash drive memory, but old school hard drive-type whirring-moving-parts memory. Finding what you wrote several weeks earlier in a chapter you can’t quite remember was like wading through treacle.
However, there is an upside to writing a novel that makes it waaaay easier than a sitcom script.
Exposition is the screenwriter’s toughest, thorniest, deadliest foe. In a sitcom script, you have scene descriptions and dialogue. That’s it so you have conveying exposition and all relevant information using these tools that doesn’t involve stupid lines like ‘So, tell me again, what are we trying to achieve here?’ or the ultimate: ‘So how long have we been brothers?’ And some people try and fix the latter with a stage direction which is ‘JOHN turns to PETE, his brother.’ Great. You’ve told the cast and crew these two guys are brothers. You haven’t told the audience.
The joy of writing a novel is that you just tell the reader stuff. You don’t even need to be in the first person to justify it. You just describe what happens – as well as the reasons for it happening, what went before, what comes after. Easy. So so easy.
But this is not a novel-writing blog, or even a screenwriting blog. It’s a sitcom-writing blog. And in sitcoms we have to do our exposition much more subtley. So here are 10 tips on doing exposition, at least the first four:
1. Show Not Tell, blah blah blah
You know this, but Show Not Tell is easier said than done, ironically. But it is worth going back over your scrip and checking it over with this in mind. Are characters saying how they feel? Or do we see it? Are they saying they are angry, or are they doing things in anger? Blah blah blah. This is all very well, but how to do we explain plot, highlight quests, specify goals and convey relevant backstory?
2. Write a Joke
It’s a sitcom. A few decent jokes go a long way and cover a multitude of exposition. And there’s no better than Curtis & Elton on this. A certain Blackadder line could read:
George: Are we going to attack the enemy? How exciting!
Blackadder: Yes. And we’ll all die in the process. This war is a completely waste of time.
That’s exposition. And not funny. Here’s the same exposition with jokes:
Lieutenant George: Great Scott sir, you mean, you mean the moment's finally arrived for us to give Harry Hun a darned good British style thrashing, six of the best, trousers down?
Captain Blackadder: If you mean, "Are we all going to get killed?" Yes. Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
Not only is the latter version 1000% funnier, it also gives us so much more information about their characters. We’re only four minutes into the series when these lines crop up and these are brand new characters for us, since the previous series was set a hundred years earlier where George was the Prince Regent and Blackadder was the butler. Now Blackadder is a Captain. George is a Lieutenant – and calls him, sir. We also learn in the two lines that George is insanely patriotic and overly optimistic – so probably a bit thick given how previous attacks have gone. We learn that Captain Blackadder is a realist, cynical and unimpressed with the general directing the battles and their futility. This isn’t just exposition.
Clearly, the tone of Blackadder doesn’t suit every show, but a joke can really help. So cover some exposition by writing one. If you don’t want to write jokes, write a drama. But you’ll still have this exposition problem, so read on.
3. The Value of Supreme Idiocy
Blackadder is surrounded by idiots. Baldrick, George, Generals, etc. In series 2 there was Lord Percy, too. Idiots are very useful – partly because they are often joke machines. But another good reason to have an idiot-character in your show is because they can get the wrong of the stick and then the other characters have to explain or clarify what’s going on to them, which will also clarify things nicely for the audience.
I wrote a sitcom set in Bletchley Park during World War 2, called Hut 33. In it, I had a character called 3rd Lieutenant Joshua Fanshawe-Marshall, possibly the stupidest man on earth, brilliant played by Alex MacQueen. I did that because codebreaking and the job they actually did in the huts at Bletchley is really hard to understand. So I needed a military person, not an intelligence person that would need explanations. Joshua is colossally stupid who thinks that German already is a code and the enemy should play fair and speak English. But Joshua also needs to know what’s going on because he’s sort of in charge, being the embarrassingly inept son of gung-ho Patton-like British general. So his idiocy, position and backstory all made him a character who needed stuff spelled out to him. This was very useful for explaining exposition – and generating jokes at the same time.
4. Why You’ve Gotta Love a Man in Uniform
Who is everyone? How do they relate to each other? What they’re wearing can explain an awful without a word of dialogue. One upside of military comedies – at least ones on television – is that they all wear uniforms which indicate rank. And even if we don’t know what rank slide means what, you can tell who’s in charge given who calls who ‘sir’ or, in the case of Bluestone 42, ‘boss’. And who snaps to attention when someone walks in.
Thinking about costume applies to all screenwriting. What do the characters wear? What does it say about who they are – and how they relate to other characters? Do some people have to wear a uniform and others get to wear 'managament-style' suits? Do someone wear their clothes inside our, or back to front, or refuse to wear the right thing? What they are wearing says a great deal about where they’ve come from and, more importantly, where they’re going – both literally and figuratively.
So that’s four. Six to go. Numbers 5-10 in the next blog post.
In the meantime, buy the novel that's full of exposition. In a good way.
Tuesday, 3 June 2014
I am an over-educated thirty-something man. There is, therefore, a good chance that I’m obsessed with World War Two. I am. This is partly why I wrote a sitcom set in Bletchley Park, called Hut 33, and more recently written a novel about D-Day, called Crossword Ends In Violence (5).
Where does this obsession comes from? Is it the astonishing amount of war documentaries that fill the schedules on all those cable channels? Are they there to meet the demand, or are they just passable cheap television? After all, there’s plenty of footage of the war available to pad out the show, and plenty of war veterans still alive happy to talk about their experiences. These interviews can be very difficult to focus on as as you spend most of the time trying to work out how old they are before deciding whether or not they look good for their age. Add some reconstructions with non-speaking actors and, hey presto, you’ve got some cheap, interesting-ish telly.
You can make hours of this stuff because, as the name suggests, the War took place all over the world. So you can cover the Western Front, the Eastern Front, The War in the North Africa, the Pacific, the Far East and then there’s Resistance, the spying, the technology and the list goes on. On top of that, every year brings a new anniversary commemorating everything that took place from the invasion of Poland in 1939 until the fall of Berlin in 1945. All of the above produces books, films, computer games, memorabilia, tours and, erm, my novel. Hence this blog.
There’s also the simplicity of the war – at least that’s how it appears at first glance. Allies good. Axis bad. Easy. But the more you read, the more you realise it was a lot more complicated than that. Stalin was our friend, but with friends like that, you don’t really need enemies. Stalin was one of a cast of instantly recognisable leaders that are kind enough to have been really easy characters to understand. They are, what we call in the sitcom world, larger-than-life characters. Characters like Churchill, with his cigar and defiance, Montgomery, with his implausibly large beret and arrogance, and Patton, with his Yosemite Sam spirit, would be criticised as clichés were they to be invented and portrayed on a big screen. The same could be said of Hitler, who has been a reference point of evil for over seventy years.
There's also something about the 'board game' phenomenon too. Hitler invaded country after country like he was playing Risk. In a similar fashion, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt decided the fates of entire continents on scraps of paper passed across tables, bargaining with countries like betting chips. You can almost imagine Stalin saying, ‘I see your Moldova and I’ll raise you a Ukraine.’
Maybe the biggest attraction is not just arguing over what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Russia (Germany would have won the war. No question), or getting excited about experimental aeroplanes introduced in 1945. Al Murray does this brilliantly in Watching War Films With My Dad, which I highly recommend.
Within many of us, I suspect, is the question: ‘What would I have done? How would I have coped? Would I have done my bit?’ It’s a terrifying thought, and in our days of lattes, wifi and therapy, we fear the worst. That generation seem so different from us. So much braver. More stoic. Less prone to assert their rights. More prone to give them up for the Greater Good. Happier to even believe in the Greater Good.
But the war wasn't just full of action men assaulting machine gun nests, or going behind enemy lines. And Crossword Ends in Violence (5) is more about the more bookish types. The indoor-crowd. Crossword setters and code-breakers, both in 1944 and the present day. Sure, there’s the odd Luger and a bit of fighting. Churchill puts in a couple of brief appearances. There’s even a guy trapped in a gulag. But it’s not so much about the heroes who fought D-Day, but those who made it happen, planned it and somehow, miraculously, kept it a secret. People knew how to keep secrets back then. That's another they can do that we can't.
When crucial codewords appeared in the national newspaper’s crossword days before you land a million men in occupied Normandy, you’re going to at least look into. This is an amusing version of that story. At least, I hope it is. You be the judge.