In the last post, we began to think about the writer's nemesis that he can't live without: Exposition. And I promised 10 tips on how to convey exposition without resorting to dreadful, creaky, crunchy lines where characters just say things that a necessary rather than natural. And actors sometimes spot them and ask, on set, 'I don't understand this. Why is my character saying this? It doesn't feel like something they would say.' If you're answer is 'We need to explain to the viewer x, y and z' then you have failed as a writer on this occasion. Anyway, for the first four tips, go here. Otherwise, read on.
5. Have A Blazing Row
Your character is explaining a plan. The other characters listen. Boring. Annoying. Not funny. Could someone have an alternative plan? And explain their plan, or keep interrupting the original plan – and the two characters have an argument about it. Going back to Blackadder, Baldrick’s cunning plans are always really funny, and gives our hero the chance to explain a decent plan, with jokes. Although sometimes, the plan isn’t even explained. It’s obvious. When Blackadder asks for two pencils and a pair of underpants, we’re intrigued – and then we go straight into seeing them in action (funny), and then the explanation. Which leads to asking:
6. Do you Need to Tell them this?
Backstory and exposition often seems very important when you’re planning a sitcom, or outlining an episode, but when it comes to writing it, you quite often realise you don’t need to explain yourself as much as you might think. This is especially the case with backstory. Newer writers tend to get quite hung up on where the characters have been, and what they did before – but the audience are more interested in where they are going. As I’ve written before on this blog, The Vicar of Dibley just turns up. She just arrives. No back story. No past. She’s the new vicar. (NB. As a church goer, this would never happen without consultation with the church, etc, but that doesn’t really matter. Again, no explanation needed.) If you like, you can reveal backstory and hidden depths later. In The West Wing, they do at that in Series 2, once we love the characters and want to know a bit more about their past.
7. Is Every Line Pulling Its Weight?
If you’re already got a script and are feeling it’s confusing and needs more exposition, don’t just think about adding lines. Apart from anything else, sitcom is brutal in terms of length. On BBC you’ve 28 minutes. On ITV/SKY, you’re got nearer 23 minutes. In USA, you’ve 21 mins. You don’t have the luzury or more time or more lines. Why are you needing to give the audience signposts? Is every story/routine. Make sure every scene, sequence, line – and every action - is working hard not just comically, but expositionally.
In a sitcom, everything happens for a reason. It’s there because you’ve decided to put it there. So use all these tools to tell your story. Let’s consider the work of some real comedy legends, Esmonde and Larbey and their blissfully odd sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles. (More on the title later)
Every time, Martin Brice walks in and fiddles with the phone in the hallway. He untangles the wire, or turns the phone round. He does this a lot – pretty much every episode. This tells you at least three or four things. He’s essentially obsessively compulsive. His wife, Anne, isn’t, for it is obviously her who puts the phone down the wrong way round. She is clearly happy to do something that she knows her husband will correct. And Martin is prepared to do it week after week and force a smile afterwards.
Anne comments on the phone thing in the first episode – which is well worth looking at. Watch the first bit of the first episode. It’s genius. All you need to know about the show is in the first three minutes. By then, you know all about Martin and Paul, which is ultimately the key relationship in the show. Every line and action builds and builds. He’s shouting cheerfully after the boys who’ve just been thrashed at football. He wipes his feet for ages. He does the phone thing. He talks to Paul in an overly knowledgeable way. He thinks he’s winning at life. There’s an interesting moment at 2.58 when Paul reacts to something Martin says – and looks to Anne who doesn’t see anything unusual in this comment. This is the world we are in. It’s masterful. Please. Take the time. Watch it.
8. Use your Opening Title Sequence
The opening titles of Ever Decreasing Circles (because you watched it, right?) is bold. It’s all metaphor, obviously. You’ve got an opening title sequence. That’s about 20-30 seconds that you can use to explain the premise of your show, conveying a couple of essential pieces of information or highlighting a key relationship. My Name is Earl had a brilliant, lyrical, brief opening about a winning lottery ticket and karma, which includes a car crash. (Have a look here if you like) It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch all of it. What really stand out is the end bit when he says, ‘I’m just trying to be a better person.’ That’s all you need to know. He has some money and he’s trying to be good.
9. Use the Title of your Show
Miranda Hart’s show is called Miranda because it’s telling you the show is about her. She’s in every scene and the show is entirely from her point of view. So the audience subconsciously knows that every character in the show is defined by their relationship to Miranda. Him and Her – is about him and her, and their relationship. Ever Decreasing Circles is telling you this is about a man who’s going round and round and slowly going insane. Your show has a name. It’s another tool in the armoury. Use it.
If you’ve still got a whole ton of exposition to crunch through, you might just have to cheat. Cheating’s fine. Two of my favourite shows do it. Modern Family and Parks and Rec have a very murky, ill-defined documentary style that is wildly inconsistent with odd looks to camera at very points. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t. I think they’re able to get away with this because of the language and grammar of television has been heavily influenced by ‘Fly on the wall’ documentaries and reality TV in the last fifteen years, and then The Office.
You can cheat by having a narrator. This is how Arrested Development crunches through an amazing amount of story in such a short time. Ron Howard’s voiceover is never really explained (It is? Does it need to be?) but again, it doesn’t seem to matter. More cunning and less cheaty is the voiceover in Desperate Housewives who is a character speaking from beyond the grave. Nice move.
You can have a character talk directly to camera. Miranda does that, and it’s incredibly useful from a story point of view, as she can relate previous incidents in her life, announce the story of the week and give us a heads-up on foreseeable problems, which will hopefully lead to unforeseen ones. Miranda’s pieces to camera also give her an extremely deep connection with her audience.
Finally, you can cheat in the most brazen way possible by having a character called Basil Exposition. It was only on the third time of what that movie that I got that joke.
So, there are ten tips on dealing with exposition. If you have others, I'd love to hear them.