This week, some random thoughts on screenwriting and storytelling for the screen that have occurred to me recently, from the scripts I’ve been reading and the shows I’ve been watching.
The thorny issue of how not to have your characters act as functions of exposition is an issue that comes up in so many scripts that I read.
Avoid exposition. IMO it’s better that your audience is momentarily confused than having them recognise the purpose of a scene, an exchange between characters, as primarily expositional. There is little more dramatically deadening to a scene than the sense that two characters are neutrally exchanging information for the benefit of the audience. Characters conveying information is dramatically deadly – unless you can find an unexpected way to dramatise and disguise this – an argument, a joke, a lie, an unexpected context, location, etc.
An important corollary to this – your default should be that any scene is about what is happening in the moment of that scene between the characters, rather than about something that has happened elsewhere, off-screen.
And if you do need to have your characters convey information / exposition, don’t repeat it between different characters and in different contexts – the audience only needs to hear it once.
If you need to hint at or convey exposition, try to make it sub-textual rather than ‘on the nose’.
If in doubt, make dialogue inarticulate rather than articulate.
Having characters accurately and dispassionately articulate their emotional state is another aspect of exposition that, in general, is death to drama and dynamism. You need to recognise that for all of us, our internalised / idealised self-image is often quite far removed from the external, objective reality that other people see! You can use this disconnect dramatically and comically – but this is a reality (isn’t it?!). There is nothing more stultifying to dramatic narrative than the character who can articulate their internal problems clearly.
Don’t tell the audience. Trust them. Let them find their own place in the story. Your story is a gift to the audience. Let it go, let them interpret it as they wish. We crave story but we don’t want to be told how to respond to story, and it isn’t your place as writer to try to control an individual response.
I don’t know about you but I have met very few people who are truly, consistently, repeatedly bad, who thrive on doing destructive things and hurting people. The one person I do know like this was also thoroughly personable, likeable and plausible on a superficial social level. One of the reasons this man is appalling is because he’s also superficially plausible. Those who have been tricked, ripped off and hurt by him have only been so because before he hurt them, they had liked him, had made a wrong judgement about him. So not only do they feel betrayed, they feel stupid. This is true also I think of other ‘real’ antagonists – Lance Armstrong, Jimmy Saville, Boris Johnson – all had / have a side to them that was / is persuasive, charming and personable.
So give everyone – especially your antagonists – convincing, plausible aspects and arguments.
I love a road movie – it’s such an inherently cinematic, narratively rich genre – the latest examples – the wonderful NOMADLAND; and YOUTH IN OREGON on Amazon Prime. It’s great when an internal character journey and their external journey run in parallel lines (and road movies have such rich potential visually and in the characters who our heroes meet along the way).
Watching the excellent I AM SAM recently, my daughter said, ‘It’s a bit of a tricky situation, isn’t it?’
‘Tricky situations’ are the bedrock of dramatic story.
View each scene as a complete story unit in itself. Each scene needs its own narrative arc of change. Each scene should change the status quo of your story in some way. And don’t feel that you need to achieve this in dialogue. Tell your story as dynamically as possible but with as little dialogue as possible.
On a recent BAFTA zoom discussion, I was fascinated to hear the brilliant Lucy Prebble observe that some of her best writing is done when on the move, travelling, eg on a train or plane. This struck a chord with me. In the olden, pre-pandemic days, several of my blogs were written on my phone when travelling on the tube, up the Northern Line. We all need external stimuli to invoke creativity.
I think this mirrors the idea that story itself at its best is often about movement (eg road movies) – every scene needs to move the story forward; dynamic story depends on movement within a scene (and I’m not only talking here about narrative movement / progression but about physical movement too).
‘A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.’ From ‘ANNIE HALL.’
THROW STONES AT YOUR CHARACTERS
Sometimes writers have so much affection for and investment in the characters they have created that they are reluctant to hurt them. But story is about putting pressure on your characters, asking difficult questions of them, poking their weak spots – and seeing how they respond. In order for us to care about characters, we need to see them suffer, which leads onto the question –
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
This question is a script editor’s cliché – but it is so for good reasons. What does your character have to lose by taking certain actions? Characters need to take risks. In fact I would go so far as to say that you need to have your lead characters making bad decisions, making mistakes.
DEUS EX MACHINA
A storytelling trope to be avoided – a random event dropped into your story that changes the status quo of your story but doesn’t feel properly set up or earned. Resist, for instance, the car crash that explodes your character’s life. There is a danger that your carefully constructed character arc and audience investment will be undermined by this random moment of ill-luck. So often ‘deus ex machina’ moments seem to contradict and weaken the story rules and parameters you have set up.
Whiplash – the duel between the two central characters – both deeply flawed and compelling. Andrew’s car crash is an exception to the above – one of those drama car crashes that is completely to do with character – not a random deus ex machina event. This car crash is very much an articulate dramatization of who he is as a character at that particular point of the story.
TIME – Jimmy McGovern
Since writing this, I have binged all three episodes of this new show on BBC iplayer. Jimmy McGovern has been telling consistently brilliant, compelling, politically-committed but above all entertaining TV drama stories for almost 40 years.
There is such conspicuous craft and skill to his storytelling. In fact, everything I’ve written about above is illustrated brilliantly in TIME. You know you’re in the hands of a master when everything that is set up is later paid off (eg the busted rear light on Stephen Graham’s car). There is an economy and circularity to the writing that is so impressive. And one of the things that he does most notably is make his characters suffer. But the more these (good) people suffer, the more bad decisions they make, the more we the audience care about them and about their eventual outcomes.
Despite the darkness of the story, there is a humanity (and therefore believability) to every single character.
Virtually every single scene feels like a set-piece, like a mini-drama in its own right; and at the same time, every single scene advances or changes the story significantly.
Vital exposition is withheld so that our curiosity and thirst to have answers to vital story questions is piqued. Even by the end of the story there are certain quite big story questions that are left unanswered – but what JM doesn’t tell us is judged brilliantly. There are exposition gaps that he trusts the audience to fill in for themselves.
The next newsletter will be on Friday June 25th,
All the best
June 11th 2021