Telling a great story has always been
the key to writing a saleable screenplay or a play that everyone
wants to produce-and it's always been the hardest thing to get
right. No matter how many car chases or dramatic screaming matches
your script may have, if the story stalls, you're going to lose your
audience. Want to know the single biggest story staller there is?
What is exposition? It's information. Who are
these characters? What do they want? Where and when is the story
taking place? What's going on in the world you've created?
Obviously, these are all things we need to know, but how much we
need to know and how and when we find it out makes all the
difference. Want to prevent story stall in your script? The five
simple suggestions below are designed to help you do it.
Show, Don't Tell
This may be the oldest axiom in
the dramatic writing world, but it's amazing how many writers still
don't follow it-even in screenwriting, where the visual is supposed
to be king. As much as we all love dialogue, it should never
substitute for something that can be shown, even on stage. For
example, maybe a character is afraid of the dark. Sure, you can have
him say, "I'm afraid of the dark." But a much better solution is to
show him turning on a nightlight or having a whole array of
nightlights around his bedroom or repeatedly turning on a light
after another character repeatedly turns it off - Any
of these visual choices is stronger than the dialogue for two
reasons: one, it forces the audience to engage in the story, because
the information isn't handed to them on a silver platter (e.g. "I'm
afraid of the dark"), and two, it gives us a strong, distinctive
visual to watch. A picture really is worth a thousand words.
Keep Your High Context High
Take a look at this
short exchange between a father and his 12-year-old son:
Dad, those kids at
school are beating me up and taking my lunch money again.
I'm going to call your
principal, Dr. Ehrlich.
You already went in
once. He didn't do anything except talk to them, and they said they
didn't do it.
We know exactly what they're talking about.
But the problem is that they're telling us too much. Characters who
know each other well have what we call a high-context relationship:
it requires high-context dialogue. In other words, because the
context of their conversations is understood, they don't need to
spell everything out. If they do, it stalls your story. Try this
They did it again.
I'll call Dr. Ehrlich.
No-it'll be just like
Is the situation spelled out for us? No. Do we
know exactly what they're talking about? Probably not. So as the
writer, how do you keep your audience from being lost? Try visual
clues (for example, the son has a bloody nose or a torn shirt or
turns his pockets out to show that they're empty), or continue to
give us high-context dialogue hints until we can figure out the
situation. For example, Dad might say, "That's it-you're going to
karate, whether you like it or not." Since we know that martial arts
are often studied by people who want or need to protect themselves,
we're one step closer to figuring out the puzzle. And trying to
complete the puzzle keeps an audience active and engaged in your
Avoid the Exposition Enabler
Ever see an
exchange that goes something like this?
I can't believe the
Bagel Bandit was standing right next to me.
Where were you again?
I was at the park. We
were both standing by the railing of the petting zoo.
And how do you know
that was the guy?
He was tearing a
bagel into pieces and feeding it to the goats. And he was wearing a
shirt with those wide stripes-just like they said on the news.
The exchange could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.
Phil serves no purpose other than to allow Bill to give us
exposition, making the scene static and dull. He's what I call an
"exposition enabler." No matter how interesting the information Bill
gives us might be, it can't replace dramatic action and characters
that are actively negotiating with each other.
and End Early
Often, scenes begin with characters entering a
setting and end with them leaving it. While these are obvious
examples of moments we usually don't need (if we see the same
character somewhere else in the next scene, it's obvious that she
exited without us having to show it), a general rule of thumb to
avoid story stall is to start as late as possible in any given scene
(and in the overall story), and to end as early as possible.
Ask yourself the following questions as you go forward:
- What is the essential action of each scene?
- What is the
minimum we need to know in that scene for the action to make sense
and be credible?
- What do we need to know about the characters
and their lives before the start of the story we're seeing on stage
or on screen? (At talkbacks after script readings, people are
notorious for wanting to know more about, for example, Character A.
While it may be interesting information, most of what they want to
know is about Character A's life before the story begins, and not
something we need to know.)
- What would happen if you begin the
scene later? What is the latest moment at which it could begin? What
do you lose if you do that? What do you gain?
- Similarly, what
would happen if the scene ends earlier? What is the earliest moment
at which it could end? What would you lose?
Remember that by
not filling in all the blanks for the audience and giving them less,
it may ultimately engage the audience more.
is Only New Once
Sounds simple enough. For example, let's
say that our old friends Bill and Phil are doing yet another scene.
Bill has a bombshell: Jill is pregnant. He tells Phil, and not only
is it a bombshell for Phil, but it's also one for us, the audience.
So far so good. But here's where it gets tricky: Chuck comes in, and
it's important to the story that he learn Jill is pregnant. Bill
tells him. The pregnancy is news to Chuck, but it's not news to us,
because we just heard Bill give that same information to Phil. No
matter how much something may be a revelation to a character, if
it's something the audience has already heard, you risk stalling the
What's the solution? There's an improvisational game
sometimes called "yes, and..." in which every offer must be
accepted, and a new offer (in this particular case, the offers are
pieces of information) must accompany it. Accept and build. For
example, I tell you, "I fell in the lake this summer." And you
reply, "Yes, and we had to fish you out." And I return, "Yes, and
you nearly drowned." And so on. The idea is that yes, we're hearing
some information again, but each time we're getting it, we're
getting a little more: there's always something to keep the audience
engaged and the story moving forward.
No matter what your
particular story stall issue, what helps in every case is to
remember that exposition is not meant to stand alone. Instead,
incorporate it into the tactics of your characters, so that they use
information as a tool to get what they want. A script is a long
road, but as long as you keep your engine, the story, clean from
debris and keep an eye out for those exposition warning signs, you
should barrel ahead on all cylinders.
Reprinted with permission from The Writers Store