method

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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Coming to Grips With Rewriting

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For a while, I hated the thought of re-writing. Loathed it, in fact. At this point in time, my reference for re-writes came mainly from the studios bringing in new writers to eviscerate a decent script into a complete pile of shit. (“Nottingham” or “Green Lantern” anyone?)

I was young, I was stupid, I was uneducated.

I thought rewriting your own script meant a complete page-one rewrite where you change the names and genders of all your characters and reset your story in space. Or something. Like I said, I was stupid.

Some perspective is needed. When I first started writing, I thought I could write pretty well, and just needed to learn formatting. This was mainly assumed because of the scripts I was reading were all completed versions typed up nicely after the movies came out. These are a horrible example of scripts to read in one sense: these tend to have camera directions, scene numbers, and the writers may sometimes write extensive paragraphs of description.

On the flipside, these scripts can be a terrific resource when looking for how to write great character descriptions, taught action sequences, and a wide variety of descriptive verbs.

When I say I was uneducated, that is partially true. I had gone through David Trottier’s book for formatting. This became a large problem.

As I’ve stated before, when I discovered Scriptshadow, the doors to an education in Screenwriting were blown wide open. One of the earliest things I remember reading was to never, under any circumstance, have a description paragraph be longer than three lines. This was a game changer, and a bit of a wake up call.

In Trottier’s book, he said it was okay to have (If memory serves) no more than five lines of description. Then, in the next edition, he reduces that number to four lines. Thus, I began to really take issue with this so-called guru. He kept changing the rules every single edition. Add to that, his latest edition of the book still states that the dialogue blocks can be four inches wide.

In the first article I read of Carson’s, he discussed cheating the margins, and how bad it looks on the writer. Since then, I have only glanced at Trottier’s book a couple of times just to compare recent editions.

In the year I’ve frequented the site, I have read current articles as well as the first year’s worth of archives; this leads me to state the following: He is consistent as hell! There are few to no differences in what he has been saying. If he changes his mind, or shows how an exception to a previous theory can work.

And that’s a big deal to me. With Trottier, his message was “Do this this way, because that’s how it’s done!” and with Carson, his message is “Using this movie as an example, here’s an example of how you can make a straight-up exposition scene become way more interesting.” FYI, the example I just used was from his breakdown of “The Big Lebowski.”

Scriptshadow is all about constantly learning a craft and finding ways and examples of how to improve.

This is the type of education I will take over all others. The we’re-all-in-the-same-boat idea. We’re learning together. Nothing turns by brain off like the teacher who acts like a know-it-all with his paint-by-numbers lessons that say there is only one way of doing things.

With a year’s worth of education absorbed, I can look back on previous projects with a clear sense of what I did wrong.

A couple of Scriptshadow articles really made me take notice: 10 Ways I Know I’m Reading an Amateur Script and Thoughts from a Script Reader. Both of these mentioned a couple of issues readers had with a script I submitted, and I never really knew how to address them in the next pass.

The big thing was discussing the fact that there were too many characters, some of whom didn’t seen three-dimensional. That was something I never quite understood. The characters were so clear in my head, why weren’t they coming across as clear on the page?

First things first, I never wrote up biographies for my characters. It seemed like too much of a hassle, and all I wanted to do was get to the writing. What I soon learned was that by digging deep into each character’s past, you will be able to create a character with consistent actions from beginning to end. If a character’s actions are inconsistent, it just shows the reader that the story was made up on the fly, and no real effort seemed to be put in.

Here’s a bit of character perspective: A one-dimensional character is nothing more than a single character trait. You see these on bad TV dramas. The heroin addict who is only seen getting high and doing literally nothing else. (A bit part) A two-dimensional character is a person with a family, some friends, and a couple traits. Maybe they’re successful, maybe they’re funny. We may find out a little about them, but only a bit. (A guest star) A three-dimensional character is someone whose past has been fully explored, and their current traits, habits, and behaviors reflect that exploration. (A series regular)

While all three of these types of characters might (and almost certainly do) appear in an episode of “CSI,” which of the three are we most likely to respond to? The most fleshed out, of course. Save for Sara Sidle, I could imagine being friends with all of the main characters.

With this knowledge in mind, I recently came across Carson’s article on rewriting. This made a ton of sense. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. (This site tends to have a lot of those moments) Basically, you go through the draft in passes, with each new pass focusing on one character. That way, you make sure they have proper motivation, a clear voice, and they’re consistent throughout. And best of all, you’re reading a story from THEIR perspective. That way, hell, you can just look at their previously written actions and say, “There’s NO WAY Tony would ditch his girlfriend to hang out with Jimmy; he already told him he had dinner with her parents that night. This is a major plot-hole!” I’m exaggerating the situation, but you get the gist.

From now on, I see rewriting as each pass being another chance at making the original idea stronger, not rethinking the whole thing. Sure, some things may change, but who knows? It may be for the best.

Since reading the rewrite article, I’ve come up with a few ideas of my own for the types of passes that can be done to enhance the script. I won’t share them until I test them, and be sure that I’m on the right track.

This has been a terrific year of education that I couldn’t be more thankful to have gotten the chance to undertake. I look forward to continuing with this endeavor and seeing how much I’ve improved as a writer after I complete the next script.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

What I’ve Learned This Year

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On the second of September, it will be one year since I’ve had employment. This was planned to be the year that I wrote six to ten screenplays before setting off to work and save up for a move to Los Angeles.

There was a change in plans shortly after my job came to an end. My parents, who I’ve been living with, informed my brother and sister that they had decided to move to North Carolina, and we were all invited to come with.

This news came as quite a shock, and naturally, I was pissed. This changed everything. How would I live? Where would I work? Why the fuck bother? I hated the notion, and hoped to move straight to the west coast. Following some examination of living costs out there, I recanted. My brother asking aloud, “Did you come to your senses, then?” He’s kind of a shit at times, but he’s family, so what can you do?

Following a couple months of wallowing in self pity, and being quite direction-less, I finally managed to get my act together and get some ideas down.

First was the month-long research period for “Soldiers of Fortune.” I spent days on the internet trying to learn all I could about the weight and size and classes of 16th century ships. Around Thanksgiving, my library facilitated me with a book on Columbus’ ships that proved most helpful.

One of the critical parts of planning this story was figuring out the time frame of it all. As it was an Action/Adventure film, there was naturally globetrotting. What I had trouble with was finding out the travel times between destinations, the time difference and how long each of the events in each location would last. It was necessary to create an actual time line for the project, and it came in quite handy.

Before I wrote, I outlined, with a simple rubric I plan to touch on at a later date. Any problems with a scene about to be written were further outlined on my trusty 4×6 notecards. When completed, there were at least 100 cards related to this particular project. Each of them handwritten.

The writing was rather fast, two weeks, I believe. I had it at 100 pages. And I saw that it was good.

A month later, I wrote my second script. “While This Offer Lasts.” A rewrite of a script I had done the year before. This project is what I refer to as the “Manic Draft.” Named that for when I told my doctor at a checkup and he said, “Good God, are you manic?” He was taken aback by the particulars of the project: 113 pages written in eight days.

The project itself took all of ten days total. The first day was the beat sheet. The second was outlining. On the third, I started. I used notecards in the same capacity as the previous project. And like it, I used over 100 cards.

Shortly after finishing the second script, I sent in the first to Scriptshadow’s Amateur Offerings. Around that time, I started really delving into the articles on the site. It was there that I found the article discussing cheating the margins. Putting the script into Final Draft, I realized I had been doing things wrong.

Once I took care of the formatting, I read more of the articles. It soon became apparent to me that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. On one hand, it was terrible. There went the last two months of work I’ve done, all the while thinking it was good. On the other, it was exciting. There, on the web was an example of something similar to what I’d written, what was wrong with it, WHY it was wrong, and a suggestion or two about how to correct it.

In the past year, I have bookmarked hundreds of articles on one site alone. (A great thing about the bookmarking feature in my browser is that I can re-name each bookmark, and say why I bookmarked it, instead of going to the page and having to re-read it.

Another helpful aspect was the reading of two books: “Scriptshadow Secrets,” which, as I’ve stated, is the best screenwriting book I’d read to date. That remains true. The second one I haven’t finished yet. It’s called “Crafty Screenwriting” by Alex Epstein. This book, I would venture to say, would be tied for the title of the best screenwriting book you can buy. I’m dead serious. This book was written by a former studio suit who knows what the hell he’s talking about. For instance, in the first chapter, he says that you have to hook the reader by the third sentence in a query letter. I’ve NEVER heard that. Not in all of the books that Writer’s Digest peddles, or anywhere else.

I’ve also joined a screenwriting forum. It was probably the best decision I’d made all year. On there, I think I’ve really found a place I belong. And if this site is any indication of what networking with other screenwriters is like, I can’t wait! I’ve met a ton of really great people on there who I just love chatting and exchanging ideas with.

An example of this is how for a long time, I was having trouble with loglines. Through this site, as well as a book or two (see above), I’ve managed to help a couple writers better fine-tune their stories. It was all from the realization that if the information in your logline does not directly have an effect on the story, lose it. IE, if your story takes place in the early 19th century, but it’s about a construction worker being blackmailed, the time really doesn’t play into the pitch, since it’s all about the construction worker.

But by far the two biggest things that I’ve pounded into my head are building a concise character description, and understanding the economy of the page. A side note for the latter being more diverse with descriptive verbage. These two subjects became the biggest focuses over the later part of the year.

I will admit, however, I feel a little guilty, not having written a single page since January. This was really when I discovered I was doing it wrong. The good news is that I’m still technically writing everyday. I always have my phone, a notebook, or notecards handy to jot down an idea when I get it.

Another reason for my sloth-like behavior was the fact that my family is moving to North Carolina, and we sold our house back in April. It was fast. I mean, REALLY fast. We put it on the market on a Wednesday, and we closed the sale the following Wednesday. Yes, ONE WEEK.

So it was really hard to do much writing with all of my noted being packed in moving boxes. Then, we moved to an apartment in Madison until we were set to move South in the fall. Currently, we have a month left here, so my notes are going BACK into storage for the next move. Where, I’m told, we’re going to be at another apartment for an initial three months before possibly looking for a new place to rent. It’s kind of harrowing.

Once I get settled in, I plan on seeking full time employment. After I get into the swing of things, that’s when I’ll get into writing again.

In the meantime, I plan on creating a sort of handbook for screenwriting that breaks down the aspects of screenwriting. (Excerpts from articles all having to do with writing a concise character description would all appear under the same category, for example.) This may take some time to put together, but I feel it will be well worth it in the long run.

I’m also really hoping that the public library system down there holds a candle to mine here in Wisconsin. The resources have just been phenomenal.

All in all, this has been a pretty well-utilized year. I’m still far from where I’d wanted to be a year ago, but with all that I’ve learned, I’m okay with that. I’d rather try writing one great script after a year of learning how to improve, rather than having six projects that I would have to agonize over rewriting. I’m just as sure now more than ever, that this is the only career path that I want, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!