Monday, December 08, 2008

The Writing Week part 49 – Writing Exposition

One of the big discussions we wound up having at our writers meeting last Tuesday was about delivering large (or at least largely necessary) amounts of exposition at the top of a film. DOA submitted the first act of a new draft of something that she’s been working on recently, and it opens with an expositional voice over, which introduces us to the world and some of the key characters. From there, we got to talking about successful and unsuccessful ways of planting the reader (and, hopefully, audience) right in the middle of the world, without bogging them down with too much unnecessary or overly-detailed exposition.

Think of some of the great examples of this. Star Wars has to be one of the first films that come to mind. I don’t think anyone who has seen them will forget those letters scrolling from overhead, informing all audiences of the battle going on somewhere “far, far away.” You get everything you need to know at the start of the film in the span of a few short paragraphs, and from there, you’re dropped right into a space battle. Information, then (relevant) action. Could there be a better way?

Gladiator, to a lesser degree, does the same thing. We find out the state of the Roman Empire and the battle history, and then find ourselves watching an epically awesome battle unfold before us. It’s immediately relevant to the information that we needed. (OK, I’ll admit, Gladiator is not necessarily the best follow-up to Star Wars in the example field, but I think it gets the job done.) There are dozens, hundreds of other films that follow this same procedure – the informative exposition (sometimes verging on off-screen inciting incident) followed by immediate, pertinent action that thrusts us deep into the story – be it through newsreels, TV montages, voice over, text, or any number of other approaches. The key, as we at the League decided at our meeting, is to have whatever happens next be relevant and put the audience right in the middle of the action.

This week, inspired in part by the meeting, I took a stab at opening a film that way. I started a new spec script, the basic premise of which revolves around new government legislation. Rather than attempt to craftily allude to the new policies through act one, I decided to try a cold opening with a press hearing, detailing what has happened. The approach, which I’m not sure will survive future drafts, allows me to get the necessary information out of the way immediately, so that I can quickly move into the heart of the story. We’ll see how it goes. I enjoy how it turned out so far, but it’s only the first page and I have A LOT of planning to do before I can really progress with this spec.

Have you tried writing heavily expositional openings before? What’d you think of it?


Onyx said...

I'd be more impressed with Star Wars if they explained the current events of the story within the action of the film. Maybe I'm just a hater.

Can't remember all the details, but 28 Days Later and Children of Men stand out to me as having good opening moments that got a lot of info across in effective ways.

I used the opening narration text in a WWII script. It made my life easier, but maybe that means I was lazy.

Leetal said...

Sorry, I'm bored at work and I keep refreshing blogger.
Government Legislation spec? Sounds like Battle Royale.

Joe said...

In a non-action-sequence example, the opening voice over in "American Beauty" does a great job at establish the world and the characters, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the next scene is something simple like Lester being told he has to prepare a performance evaluation. I might be giving it that opening sequence too much credit though - the jerking off in the shower line is easily the most memorable part.

Joe said...

wow...there were, like, a millionty errors in that comment. proofreading, ftl

petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Have definitely used voiceover with action taking place at the same time to connect a premise without "explaining" it all!
Good luck with your new script!

DOA said...

It's interesting that you bring up opening narration. I remember the first class we took in screenwriting, the professor specifically asked that we don't do narration or opening cards in our first script because people rely on it too much. I often wonder (and fear) that I do that. But other times, it just seems to be the most economic way to get certain messages across so the film can start.

Cake Man said...

Petra, thanks for your comment. Like Joe pointed out with the "American Beauty" example, voice over can work well. I'm glad to hear you've used it before. Despite DOA being told not to (for a laziness avoidance reason I agree with for first time writers), I do think that it can be quite useful tool and can be used really wisely.

By the way, I liked "Pocket Full of Miracles" a lot. Thanks for stopping by.

Cake Man said...

Leetal, yeah, government legislation is about as close as this script comes to Battle Royale, but you're right about the connection. There've been a few legislation specs like that, most of which take place at least a decade or so in the future (like mine probably will).