Last week, the website Cinefilles (Real Girls. Reel Reviews) published an essay I wrote for their Galloween series, celebrating women in horror. I hope you enjoy it!
It’s the fifth week of the Summer 2015 Online Writing Group!
We’re half-way through our eight week writing group. Don’t lose steam, and don’t forget to give yourself time every week (hopefully every day) to write. Remember: it doesn’t have to be a lot of time; and it doesn’t have to be on a computer. You might jot down notes in a notebook about your current project or a new idea. You might take fifteen minutes to work on one paragraph of your story or blog post. That’s enough! Just give yourself permission to spend that time and energy on your project, and don’t make excuses.
This week’s post is about exposition, and I’m attributing this idea to Trevor, who had to listen to me complain, kind of a lot, about the heavy handed exposition in the first episode of the new season of True Detective.
The Merriam-Webster defines exposition as “the act of explaining something,” and this is essential for a writer working on either fiction or non-fiction, academic or creative work. But the writer’s act of explanation must come after we answer the question, what needs to be explained? What information is essential to the reader’s understanding of the immediate context of the scene, the story? It is only that essential information that should be explained right then and there. Everything else should wait until it is essential to the forwarding of the conflict, the development of characters, or the resolution.
So, why do I bring up True Detective? Because the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, for his first season gave us a beautifully crafted eight-episode story that meted out exposition only when it was developing characters realistically or was contributing to the main action.
But if you’ve been watching the much anticipated second season of TD, like me and others, you might have been disappointed with the first episode, which aired June 21 on HBO. You might have found it dragging and dull, and that’s likely because of the way the new cast of characters are introduced. Unlike the first season’s opening episode — where we are thrown into the lives of two police detectives in Louisiana at the same time we are thrown into the case of a gruesome murder — the second season opens with fifty minutes of “get to know your new cast” bologna in the form of super clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue. The actual crime (of course, a murder) isn’t even discovered until the last five minutes of the show.
In that first fifty minutes (a lot of it in the first ten), we learn that Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) has a failed marriage and a contentious relationship with her new age spiritualist father; that her sister has a history of mental health issues, arrests, and drug abuse, and is now working for a web cam sex subscription collective; that her mother, an unsuccessful actress, committed suicide by drowning herself in a river. It’s the Bezzerides family history in about ten lines! And all of those lines are forced and unnatural because they’re spoken between family members who don’t need to say these things. And they contribute nothing to the main action.
And don’t think that we don’t also learn about the other characters, because we do. In the first few minutes, we learn that Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) has an adolescent son who is the product of a man raping his wife; Velcoro likely killed that man after making a deal with a shady real estate mogul (Vince Vaughn); Velcoro and his now ex-wife are going through a custody dispute. Seriously, that’s like, five minutes in.
Does any of this have to do with the crime? Nope. It’s all just back story. It’s all just Pizzolatto telling us that our detectives are…troubled, out of control, complicated.
You know how he showed us that Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) was complicated in the first episode of season one? He gave Cohle one nugget to slowly reveal — that he had a daughter and that his daughter was dead. And almost as soon as he’s revealed this to his partner’s wife, Cohle changes the subject. Because Cohle’s not giving up that history tells us a lot about him as a man. And because his back story is not immediately relevant to the “big” story — the story of the crime — we don’t need it right away.
Sometimes, though, the audience does need information. So how do we get it across and still make it feel natural and useful to the action? Let’s take a tip from Pizzolatto’s earlier work: again, the first episode of TD‘s first season. We, the viewers, need to know that a man named Edwin Tuttle is the governor of Louisiana. Here’s how we get it: one Reverend Tuttle visits the police station and name drops “Eddie” when chatting with the detectives. Cohle doesn’t understand the name drop (he says, after the reverend is gone, “And who the fuck‘s ‘Eddie’?”) and the other detectives in the room are in disbelief at his missing this huge reference. To cover Cohle’s ignorance, Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) explains it away by telling the other detectives that Cohle doesn’t have a t.v. and is from Texas, and then he tells Cohle that “Eddie” is the governor and the reverend’s first cousin.
Sure, Cohle needs to know that, but that bit of exposition is really for us, the audience. We need to know how the reverend and the governor are related, but we also need to know that Rust Cohle is the kind of guy who doesn’t have a television set. Because he doesn’t care about t.v., about politics, about anything other than his job and his own internal demons. Bingo! Character development by way of realistically delivered exposition!
So, writers, here’s your lesson for the week: start with the action. If you’re two pages, three pages, four pages into your story and nothing has happened, then rip those pages out and start with the action.
Remember our week two lesson from Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story? Cron writes that one of the first three questions the reader should be able to answer right away is “what’s happening here?” So cut out all of the unnecessary exposition — the character back story, the family drama — and get down to business. Homer called it in medias res, “in the midst of things”, and since Homer was, well, Homer, let’s follow his lead.
(and everyone watch True Detective because the second episode [which should have been the first] is much better. and then we can talk about it.)