Wednesday 11 June 2014

Top 10 Tips on Dealing with Exposition

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.

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