Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 29th, 2014

“Something bad has happened…”

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"Victor Chigorin was seated..."

Note: This post is the thirty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 32. You can read the earlier installments here.

Among novelists and screenwriters, there’s a piece of conventional wisdom that says that exposition should be buried in a place where the audience is least likely to notice it. In Save the Cat—which, for better or worse, has become the most influential screenwriting book ever published—the late Blake Snyder calls this principle The Pope in the Pool:

Mike Cheda told me about a script he once read called The Plot to Kill the Pope, by George Englund, which did a very smart thing. It’s basically a thriller. And the scene where we learn the details of the vital backstory goes like this: Representatives visit the Pope at the Vatican. And guess where the meeting takes place? The Vatican pool. There, the Pope, in his bathing suit, swims back and forth while the exposition unfolds. We, the audience, aren’t even listening, I’m guessing. We’re thinking: “I didn’t know the Vatican had a pool?!” And look, the Pope’s not wearing his Pope clothes, he’s…he’s…in his bathing suit!” And before you can say “Where’s my miter?” the scene’s over.

Snyder’s logic isn’t necessarily hard to understand. There are two assumptions here: 1) Exposition is deadly to drama. 2) It’s only there at all so the nitpicking spoilsports in the audience won’t be able to go back and point out obvious holes in the story. Better, then, to stick it someplace where the reader and viewer aren’t even listening, as Snyder puts it so bluntly. While I agree with the first point, the second is more problematic. If the story can be understood and appreciated without the audience registering certain pieces of information, it’s probably best to cut it altogether, rather than trying to camouflage it with a flashy piece of action in the foreground. And if the information is important, then it doesn’t make sense to hide it where it can’t be heard. In L.A. Confidential, which is one of my favorite movies and screenplays of all time, the entire plot is explained in fifteen seconds while Bud and Ed are dangling the district attorney out his office window. It’s a great scene, and it succeeds beautifully in burying the exposition, but it takes several viewings to even pay attention to what poor Ellis Lowe is saying.

"Something bad has happened..."

You could argue, of course, that the details don’t matter, and that it’s more important to get Bud and Ed on their way to their final appointment at the Victory Motel. As with most writing tricks, though, this one is double-edged: it allows us to slip past purely expository elements of the story, but by hiding them away where they can’t even serve their basic functional role, they can seem all the more useless. A better solution is to convey exposition in a form where the information itself is delivered in a vivid fashion. I’ve said before that this explains the popularity of autopsy scenes, which are a reliable, if hoary, way of feeding the audience backstory that would be hard to take in any other setting. (Between CSI and Hannibal, Laurence Fishburne has practically made a second career out of nodding sagely in the morgue.) A rule of thumb I’ve found useful is that if expository dialogue could be transferred to a different location without any change—if, for instance, you could bring the pope out of the pool and stick him in St. Peter’s Church with every line intact—the words themselves should probably be rewritten. And readers these days are savvy enough to recognize when they’re being asked to wait patiently while the story lays pipe, even if they’re being distracted by a gunfight.

Another approach, which I use in Chapter 32 of City of Exiles, is to insert exposition at a point in the story when the reader is naturally curious about the resolution of some other development. At the end of the previous chapter, Wolfe’s car explodes as she’s driving out of Belmarsh, but I wait for one more scene, in which Powell has an important but essentially static conversation with Victor Chigorin, before circling back to clarify her fate. This kind of thing can’t be pushed too far, and I was careful to make the interstitial material as short as possible, but within limits, it works—although it carries certain pitfalls as well. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the central character fears that he has broken the most delicate part of his male anatomy after relieving himself in subzero temperatures. McEwan waits a long time before enlightening us as to the extent of the damage, and while it’s true that the intervening pages fly by, I’d find it hard to tell you anything about what happens there. It ends up being wasted space, which outweighs any gain in momentum or satisfaction from the delayed punchline. It’s fine if you want to give us a pope in a pool, but it’s not fair to ask the reader to swim laps for no reason…

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2014 at 9:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Sidney Morgenbesser

During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in the fifties, [the philosopher J.L.] Austin noted that while a double negative amounts to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the audience, [Morgenbesser] muttered a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah.”

New York Times profile of Sidney Morgenbesser

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

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