Thursday, March 16, 2006

David Mamet & Exposition

David Mamet was on Fresh Air last night talking about his new series The Unit and the topic of exposition: "The trick with exposition is to do always it dramatically. In the 19th century, we had the maid—Oh, Mr. Anders isn't in. He's with his friend Mr. Davies who used to be a handsome tennis pro 15 years ago but after a tragic accident he now walks with a limp which irritates him so badly that he has become very curt and intemperate which has pushed away everyone close to him, except for Mr. Anders who saved his life in the WW1. Now we have the computer—we read exposition on the screen."

Being a script that—for budget reasons—essentially occurs in one location with one actor, Ghoti (pronounced "fish") is running into precisely this problem: the supporting characters are establishing how smart Ghoti is by talking about it and then we're also see other data (an email!) which says the same. There was a time, perhaps, when audiences were tolerant enough to sit and watch people chatter, but now we're snapping our fingers going, "come on, let's go. Show me a cock fight or something juicy I can rip into."

When I was only 12, I saw some guy yelling at a bus driver. It wasn't just anger, but fury. I stopped everything I was doing and stood there, riveted. Why was he yelling? How would the driver react? How were the passengers reacting? Would he pull out a gun? Most importantly, how would this conflict resolve? Skillfully burying exposition in a setting inherent with conflict is the prize. I have to keep reminding myself of this...

Any scene where people are talking in a car or over the phone—and only talking in a car or over the phone—is a lazy stab at drama. I spoke about this with Josh regarding my feature script 62 Blocks To Battery Park which, admittedly, I wrote for myself to get back into the habit of writing again (and not to write something too commercial). As such, it's a walk & talk story, so I wouldn't hold it up as a shining example of my own dramatic savoir faire. Still, it sparked an email from me to Josh about exposition:

The "table" scene you mentioned (about how people just talking at a table bug you) reminded me of the Mission: Impossible "spaghetti" scene from the TV series—they usually got together at the beginning to talk about their adversary. As audiences grew more mature, these scenes have been interlaced by voiceovers and action montages. In fact, De Palma's first film version didn't have a "spaghetti" scene at all and someone said, "Where's the spaghetti scene? You need something to set up the damn story."

Here's that academic book about story modes I was telling you about... it's not really worth buying, but it is fascinating to browse for about a half hour: The Narrative Modes: Techniques of the Short Story by Helmut Bonheim. However, there are still some salient points worth mentioning. Let me quote/paraphrase:

The physical world has two dimensions, those of space and of time; the metaphysical world has one dimension—that of reflection upon the dimensions of the physical world. Fiction is a representation of matters in space and time, as well as the reflection on matters of space and time. We call the representation

—of things in space: description
—of things moving in time: action
—and the reflection on these: comment

Since action is either verbal or non-verbal, it is represented in fiction in speech (the character tells us what action is happening) or in report (the author tells us what action is happening).

This model achieves a kind of symmetry because each mode is distinguished by a different combination of the presence (+) or absence (-) of time and space:


This last chart has been useful for me, since a large portion of 62 Blocks is the characters talking about things, that is, only commenting. Since commenting has neither time nor space as an attribute, it's no wonder my script is considered "dull" by many who read it—nothing much happens. However, if I shrewdly swapped out their metaphysical commentary with amusing anecdotes illustrating their ideas, then I'd be trading comment for a kind of report, which feels faster to read because it's a representation of things moving in time, not simply a reflection.

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