Author: The Cinefile

Some people have religion. I have movies. I'm a life-long film buff who grew up loving the works of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Jim Henson. I've always had a fascination with special effects and the technical aspects of filmmaking. I've spent the last four years working towards a career in Screenwriting. That's what this blog is devoted to: the quest to learn more about the craft, improve what I know and share that knowledge.

Exposition Dumps

Greetings, Movie Buffs! Love ’em or hate ’em, exposition is a necessary evil. You have to convey information so that the audience can follow along, yet you have to make it oblivious to the audience that you are conveying that information. So how do we do it?

There are several little tricks I’ve noticed in the past that I really wish I knew how to execute while writing my last couple of projects.

 

1. The Preemptive Tension Method (Pulp Fiction):
When we first meet Vince and Jules, they’re just two guys in a car, shooting the breeze. Cut to them retrieving guns out of the trunk and commenting that they “should have fuckin’ shotguns for this.” Now, we’re intrigued. What exactly do these guys do?? We can make the guess that they’re hitmen/gangsters from that statement.

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So what exactly follows that reveal? A conversation about a woman and television pilots to an exposition dump about some guy called Tony Rocky Horror. Is that story relevant to the following scene in the apartment? No, it’s not. The story deals with this guy giving the aforementioned woman a foot massage, and her husband finding out, and throwing the guy out a window.

That exposition doesn’t get paid off for about fifteen minutes later when Mia is practically throwing herself at Vincent, but he resists. Probably not for morals, either. More likely than not, he doesn’t want to risk being thrown out a window too.

Why It Works:
The exposition dump is preempted by a promise of violence. I talked about this not long ago. Tarantino loves promising his viewers some crazy ass violence, and then milking the scene dry with tension because the audience knows what’s coming. By having your characters arming themselves and going up to see some people, you can be fairly certain that some shit is gonna go down.

When you’re drawing a scene out and instilling tension in the mix, you can do pretty much anything to make the time before the promised violence stretch out. However, it helps if what you’re using to stretch out the time has some substance to the story.

The information here is relevant. Plus it’s delivered in such a casual manner that you wouldn’t think it’d come into play later. But when it does, you remember that it was indeed brought up earlier. So now you really have to pay attention to this kind of storytelling.

 

2. The Narrative Method (Get Shorty):
In one scene of the film, Chili Palmer is pitching film producer Harry Zimm an idea for a movie. That idea, however, are the events that have led up to this moment, albeit off screen. Harry then tells the story to the awakened Karen. (This way Chili isn’t talking a lot, something he doesn’t like doing)

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Harry tells her about this guy that faked his death and scammed an airline out of a lot of money. This guy is the one Chili followed out to Los Angeles for an outstanding debt.

Why It Works:
Mainly because we hadn’t heard this information yet. All we heard was that this guy, Leo, was dead. Chili goes to see his widow, and she reveals that he isn’t really dead. Smash cut to Las Vegas, where he gets a lead on where Leo went, plus he gets a side job, which in turn leads him to Harry Zimm. We have no idea how this guy faked his death.

By having it told as a storytelling device (a story, a movie pitch, etc), you can exposit as much as you want, no matter how incredible. All you have to do is have them be presented as fiction. Then, a little later, reveal that the story is fact.

This method also worked very well in “Seven Psychopaths” for a scene related to Christopher Walken’s character. It also worked extremely well in the opening of “Magnolia.”

 

3. The Odd Location Method (The Big Lebowski):
This is done all over the place here, and it’s wonderful! I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually discuss kidnappings or ransoms where I’m the bag-man in the middle of an occupied bowling alley. I would more likely than not discuss it in a private room where absolutely no-one can hear it.

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Why It Works:
Think about it: would you expect to see kidnapping being discussed in a bowling alley? Probably not. Therefore, it’s unexpected, and different. All you really have to do is change the location in the slugline.

While we’re on the subject of locations, let’s discuss what has become a cliché: the diner scene. You know it, you’ve seen it, they’re everywhere. It’s two or more people sitting in a diner. Talking. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen this on-screen. But here’s the thing: you can tell the good ones from the bad fairly easily.

Paul Thomas Anderson said in the commentary track for “Hard Eight” that if you’re stuck, put two characters in a coffee shop, and you’ll figure it out. I half agree with him there. You can do that, but only in the first, preliminary draft, not the one you’ll show people. Here’s why: this method is used to figure out what each person wants. But because you’re discovering what they want along with them, your scene isn’t going to be nearly as great as it could be.

Once you discover what your characters want, you can finish out the scene as you normally would. Then, you write yourself a quick note about what each character wants. You could even print out that scene. Then, delete it. That’s right. Delete it. Kill Your Darlings. There’s a reason to this, I promise.

Once you know what you have to get over in your scene, you can re-plot each beat of the scene. Since you know where you have to go with it, your scene can be written shorter. Shorter scenes are always better. They are more focused, and they use up fewer pages that you can put towards a bigger scene.

Let’s look at a couple diner scenes and figure out why they do or don’t work. First off, the opener for “Pulp Fiction”: I’ve already talked about this one, and how it adheres to a small three-act structure; but why else does it work? Because after they talk about robbing a place like where they’re at, they actually rob the place they’re at. It pays off.

What about another Tarantino flick, “Reservoir Dogs”: a bunch of guys talking about nothing of particular importance at a diner. Yes, you learn a lot about them, but let’s focus on how the scene pays off: we see them acting like a bunch of tough-guys towards each other, but we don’t think much of it. That is until we see that they’re armed. Now you realize how easy it is for some crazy shit to go down with these guys, and you realize that they’re most likely criminals. Now you’re intrigued.

Going back to the “Pulp Fiction” opener, a scene kind of like that that doesn’t work occurs in Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation.” In that scene, a couple fast food cooks are talking about how cool it would be to rob their place of business. But then, they don’t do it. What a letdown. That’s my problem with a lot of Linklater’s movies: it’s people talking, but without much purpose, or a payoff for the audience.

 

4. The Moving Method (The Dark Knight):
This is the one that really inspired this article. I love the opening heist sequence. Why? Because it MOVES! Oh man, does it move! And guess what?  They dump a ton of exposition in the process, and we barely notice it!

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Why It Works:
Simple: it moves! We start off with a window of a high-rise building getting blown out and we see a couple guys in clown masks zip-lining out the window. If that’s not an attention-grabber, I don’t know what is. What’s going on? Why are they zip-lining out a window? Why are they wearing those masks?

Then, we meet a guy being picked up in a car filled with more guys in clown masks. They quickly exposit that they’re about to commit a robbery. Also, how many guys are in on the job. “Three of a kind makes for five shares.” “Six shares. Don’t forget about the guy who planned this.” “The Joker, thinks he can get a piece of this while we do all the work?” Cut to the guys who zip-lined from the building on a rooftop: “So why do they call him The Joker?”

We have two sets of guys that we can assume are doing different parts of the same job. And they’re all giving the viewers details. Because these are two separate events that we can deduce will be coming together for a big climax, we hardly notice. Also, each of these little exchanges are short. A couple of lines, generally. That’s another aspect that helps a story move: brevity.

In one of my projects, I have a lot of information to convey to the audience about how a con man operates. In the first draft I wrote a few years back, the people discussing it were all sitting/standing around a hotel room, while some footage would actually show what they were discussing. It doesn’t work well. I was showing and telling. Not good.

What I decided to do in the later drafts was to have the exposition discussed while these characters were actually DOING SOMETHING. And that something was going to be plot-related. For example, it could happen while a couple of the feds installing a wire tap ON the con man. Thereby, information that is necessary to know was being explained, but something they were doing on-screen would also be propelling the story forward.

If I wanted to heighten this scene, I might have it where the con man actually happens to walk past them, and they now have to keep their voices low, and try to exchange this information.

Something like this could also be done if you were to have people trying to have a private conversation at a loud environment, like a laundromat, and have to shout, yet keep the conversation between them.

So these are just a few examples of how you can enhance your exposition dumps, hopefully without taking the audience out of the story. I hope you found these useful to your projects.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

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“Soldiers of Fortune” – Final Logline

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Greetings, Movie Buffs!

The other day I mentioned how a formula from a contact helped me put a logline into working order. With that out of the way, I can move forward with the project. This is the logline that I will be referring to throughout the writing process of the second draft. So without further ado…

“Soldiers of Fortune” | Action/Adventure
When a politician goes missing overseas, a bounty hunter has three days to retrieve him, or risk starting a war.

How does that sound to you?

The formula REALLY helped. Before, I was just trying to throw in all the crazy elements into the logline to try and grab people. It didn’t really work. Gone are the mentions of unnatural phenomenons, senators, pirates, smugglers/treasure hunters, and ships falling from the sky. Sounds crazy out of context doesn’t it?

Probably my favorite part of the logline (besides the positive reception) is that it’s only 20 words long. I’ve heard that a logline should be between 25-30 words, or no more than two sentences. I love thinking about them as the TV Guide description. As brief a summation as possible.

In a few words, the setting is described (overseas — globetrotting), the main character is named, as is the goal and the stakes. The stakes were the biggest change from the first draft. It was concocted to fix the problem with the logline, and it can still work 100% for the original story. Not just that, but now there’s a bit of dramatic irony at play: an ex-soldier has to prevent a war!

Anyway, below I’ve listed some of the previous incarnations of the logline so you can get a feel for how it evolved over time. These start with the most recent, going backwards.

  • When a politician goes missing overseas, a bounty hunter has three days to retrieve him, or risk ruining his reputation.
  • When a politician goes missing overseas, a bounty hunter has three days to retrieve him, or risk everything.
  • When a politician goes missing overseas, a bounty hunter must retrieve him in three days, or be disgraced.
  • A bounty hunter has three days to find a politician who went missing overseas, while investigating an unnatural phenomenon.
  • After his protege fails, a high-level Bounty Hunter has just three days to recover a missing Senator, last seen near a pirate ship that fell from the sky.
  • The government’s go-to Bounty Hunter has three days to find the missing Senator who’s been taken captive by smugglers.

You can read even more of the older loglines here.

As you can see, there’s been a large amount of rewriting JUST THE LOGLINE to get this project into a workable shape. Now is when the REAL work happens. It’s time to start on the character biographies.

I hope you guys found some of this information useful. If you did gain something from this or any of my other posts, please remember to LIKE my Facebook page if you haven’t already.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

Character Building – The Tier Method

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Greetings, Movie Buffs!

So one thing has finally happened for me: A few months back, I sent out a small mass email to a few contacts to get feedback on a project I’m working on. I’m talking about “Soldiers of Fortune” here. I had sent out the logline at the time with a couple questions about how intriguing it was, and how interested they’d be as John/Joan Q. Moviegoer to see it. And the response was underwhelming to say the least.

I really didn’t know what to do. I had spent weeks, even months toiling away at it, trying to make it sound the best it could.. What wound up happening was that I was too close to it. I knew the story, and I kept wanting to insert all the really cool elements from it and put them into the logline to hopefully gain attention. Unfortunately, they raised more questions that were hard as hell to explain.

So then the task at hand became to write a logline that concisely summed up the plot, while trying not to make it sound too generic. I tried. I really did. And I failed. Several times. It was a disaster.

Then, one day, as luck would have it, I stumbled across an old document on the subject of loglines; hopeful for any help, I opened it. It turned out to have been some copied content from the Write 2 Reel forums. This from the always on-point Lobo Tommy, who shared this observation about loglines:

This is the collected wisdom I’ve gathered on loglines:

With the caveat that formulaic is usually bad, the most elegant formula for creating a great logline that I’ve seen is:

‘When [INCITING INCIDENT], a [SPECIFIC PROTAGONIST] must [OBJECTIVE], or else [STAKES].’

Insert your script’s particulars with “extreme brevity” at the brackets.”

After re-reading this, I realized that I was out of options, so I decided to try out that formula. And by gum, it worked! Well, sort of. See, it helped put the story in a much clearer light. Once completed, I sent it to a most generous contact who’d been putting up with my persistent self for longer than most would, and I thank him for his patience every time. He liked it, except for the stakes. The stakes were not big enough.

Slightly dejected, I spent the next couple days figuring out how to heighten the stakes. And in not a whole lot of time, I figured out how to do it. I sent my contact the new logline, and I received his best response about it. I had a solid logline.

Now, it’s time to rewrite the damn thing! I know the story pretty well, considering it’s been over a year and a half since writing the first draft. There will be some slight shifts in the plot, characters, and events, but the story will be fairly close to the original one. It’ll just be told 1000x better. A ton of the knowledge of how to accomplish this comes from the Scriptshadow site. Again, if you’ve never checked it out, do so immediately.

Anyway, one of the things that was really hammered home to me on the site was that I should Know My Fucking Characters. Inside and out. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that I should write up biographies for my characters. There was a whole section of it in Syd Fields’ “Screenplay.” I’d always thought that I knew my characters well enough, that it was unnecessary. But awhile back, I’d decided to actually put screenwriting teachers’ advice to the test.

I like the idea of actually delving into their complete history to see what all helped form them into the people they are at the start of the script. So the question I asked myself was “How much do I write? Several pages for ALL my characters? There are at least a dozen speaking parts. I work really long hours, I don’t have time for all that; I want to write my damn screenplay.

So tonight, I decided I’d force myself to think up a solution. And I think I’ve come up with one. I’m calling it the Tier Method.

In the current incarnation of the Tier Method, there are three tiers: Tier 1 is the lead characters. The ones that appear the most in your script. They’ll be the ones doing the most in your story. They’ll also have the most lines. Because these are your main characters, I would think anywhere from a 1-5 page write-up would do the job. This is a great article on building characters. It also contains a link to a fantastic character questionnaire. I’ve come up with a few of my own questions about the characters that, for me, really help get a glimpse of a character’s past.

Tier 2 is comprised of supporting characters. People that are present for a great many scenes. A couple of them might even have significance on the plot. You might consider thinking up a bit more for these characters than usual, as they are the ones that typically appear in sequels. For these people, I would say around ½ to a full page is sufficient enough for each of them.

Tier 3 is comprised of additional characters. People that show up for a scene or three. These may most likely be prime for cameos if your film gets made. For these types of characters, you may not necessarily need to figure out what state they were born in. It can be just a description of what they were doing directly before the events of your story. Side Note: These characters can easily get lost in the mix. To help them stand out, it helps if each of these characters are working towards something in their own right. By that I mean, what are they trying to achieve in their lives which are coinciding with this particular story? Generally for these characters, a couple sentences to a couple paragraphs are sufficient.

Another note: When I say write-up, I don’t mean just quickly jotting down the first five things you decide about them and call it done. Really use the aforementioned resources to get to know your characters. Get a history together for them, then decide which points are the most important ones that you’ll be showing (not telling) in your story.

For instance, if an additional character was bitten by a dog when he was a child, it wouldn’t make sense for him to just blurt it out when he’s driving down the road with some other characters. If he raises a gun at a barking dog of a friend, and the friend goes mental on him (as he should), that’s when it would be a relevant place in your story to reveal that bit of background information.

I hope this information has been helpful. As always, until next time, Movie Buffs!