Exposition and the Oblique SceneLecture by Stephen J. Cannell
Continued from What is Three Act Struture?.
EXPOSITION: Every story has to have expository scenes and they're hard as hell to write, especially in the screenplay. It's one character telling another character facts that the audience needs to know. It is often dull and always hard to make interesting.
In the Rockford pilot, I was doing a very complicated murder mystery and, at a certain point toward the end of Act One, I needed Rockford to get a bunch of info about some characters to move the story along. It was in this scene that I created the character of Angel Martin. His sole job in the play was to give Jim information on the murder. (You can download the teleplay and look at the scene which starts on page 22.) What I did was make the expository scene about something else. On the surface, it was a scene about whether Jim was guilty of the crime he'd been in prison for. Angel, a fellow ex-con on parole, was working at his brother-in-law's newspaper, and was looking in the morgue section of old newspapers, getting the info that Jim needed (exposition).
In-between the exposition, they were arguing about whether Jim had actually pulled the crime. It's a good example of mixing attitude and exposition to make the mixture go down smoothly. When you have heavy exposition, look for something else to write about. Create equal amounts of attitude with exposition when you're laying out story track.
THE OBLIQUE SCENE: This is a scene that doesn't "go down the center of the page" (a writing term for a predictable scene that doesn't surprise). An oblique scene starts in a different place than we expect it to, but ends up telling the same story point.
EXAMPLE: Let's say I'm writing a scene where a father's sixteen-year-old sophomore daughter has just told him that she's going out with the high school quarterback, a senior. The father checks around with some teachers and finds out that this guy has already impregnated two girls. He tells his wife; no way is this going to happen. Here's the down-the-center-of-the-page scene:
(Excuse this dialogue - it is intentionally flat-footed to make the point)
INT. FAMILY ENTRY - NIGHT
The doorbell rings and the father, CARL GOODGUY, opens the door and finds the handsome eighteen-year-old quarterback, BUDDY GIRLFEELER.
Hi, I'm Buddy. I'm here to pick up your daughter.
I've heard all about you, Buddy. I know about the two girls you got pregnant and there's no way you're going out with my daughter.
Sir, come on... I don't know what you've heard, but I'm innocent.
Oh yeah? Well I checked with the headmaster, who told me about the two abortions.
The what? Oh yeah, those. Well I...
Get the hell out of my house. And if I ever see you again, you're dust.
Good conflict. Conflict always works, but it's exactly the scene we'd expect. Now let's try the oblique scene: (same dialogue excuse)
INT. FAMILY ENTRY - NIGHT
The doorbell rings and CARL opens the door and finds BUDDY GIRLFEELER.
You must be Buddy. Man, I can't tell you how much I've heard about you.
Feet weren't exactly involved, but balls were definitely mentioned.
Hey, you got one a'those new Jimmy vans. You like it?
Yes sir... I guess...
Lemme see. I've been thinking of getting one a'those.
Carl moves to the car as Buddy chases after him, trying to keep Carl from opening the door... but he's too late. Carl is staring inside.
Hey, Buddy, there's a buncha mirrors in here, got one on the ceiling, too. What the hell's that all about?
And a waterbed...
These better be balloons for your birthday or you're a dead man.
This second scene doesn't start where we expect, but like scene one, it ends in the same place, "You're not taking my daughter out." The trick to an oblique scene is to play against the facts the audience already knows. In this case, it's that Buddy is not your wholesome All-American date.
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: Every scene in a book or script should do two things. FIRST: It should progress the story. The test is, if the scene is removed does it leave a hole in the plot. SECOND: The scene should simultaneously advance the character relationships. Try to accomplish both of these goals in each scene.
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