Cinephilia and Beyond published a brilliant piece on David Mamet, where he rails against exposition. The article opens with James Foley’s director’s commentary on Glengarry Glen Ross, and it includes the full screenplay. I remember interviewing Foley at the time of the film’s first release. It struck me how Mamet was very much the elephant in the room during the entire conversation.
In my favorite part of the C&B article, Mamet deals with exposition. Once and for all…
Never write exposition
“The trick is—never write exposition. That’s absolutely the trick. Never write it. The audience needs to understand what the story is, and if the hero understands what he or she is after, then the audience will follow it. The ancient joke about exposition used to be in radio writing when they’d say, ‘Come and sit down in that blue chair.’ So, that to me is the paradigm of why it’s an error to write exposition.”
Interestingly, the ‘blue chair’ exposition example could be easily resolved – if it were a real case. You can make a scene like this dramatic, by having the person choose the wrong chair, and then have a spiel about why they can’t sit in the red chair.
The real trick here is to write that dramatic exposition from the character. Not just because you need it as a screenwriter.
The audience doesn’t care
“Then exposition came out of television, ‘I’m good, Jim, I’m good. There’s no wonder why they call me the best orthopedic surgeon in town.’ Right? And now the exposition has migrated or metastasized into the fucking stage direction. ‘He comes into the room and you can just see he’s the kind of guy who fought in the Vietnam War.’ So the error of writing exposition exists absent even the most miniscule understanding of the dramatic process. You gotta take out the exposition. The audience doesn’t care. How do we know they don’t care? Anybody ever come into the living room and see a television drama that was halfway through? Did you have any difficulty understanding what was going on? No.”
I don’t entirely agree with the ‘stage direction’ criticism, as this approach to setting up an important character helps the reader to get it quickly.
Once we see the character on the screen, a whole range of subtle and very specific details would reveal the same information, while it is virtually impossible to include this in the script without sounding overly descriptive. Most writers take the liberty of including some sort of ‘invisible’ to quickly set up the character – and most readers will forgive them for this.
Leave out the obligatory scene.
“The trick is to leave the exposition out and to always leave out the ‘obligatory scene.’ The obligatory scene is always the audition scene, so when you see the movie, not only is it the worst scene in the movie—it’s also the worst acted scene in the movie. Because the star has to do their worst, most expository acting to get the job.
Now we’ve entered truly dangerous territory. Leave out the ‘obligatory scene’? If I’m not mistaken, Robert McKee defines this as the climactic scene; the scene that necessarily must be seen as a result of the Inciting Incident.
“Leave out the exposition; we want to know what’s happening next. All our little friends… will say to you at one point, ‘You know, we want to know more about her.’ And that’s when you say, ‘Well, that’s what you paid me for—so that you would want to know more about her.’”
I wholeheartedly agree that it is better to leave a little mystery about a character than go in full-blown exposition download.
How not to write exposition
The following has nothing to do with David Mamet, but it is a good example of how NOT to introduce information in your story. This is the type of bad screenwriting Mamet is railing against. The clip is from Exodus (1960), and within the first 10mins after the credits, we have about 4:30mins of plain dialogue (go to 6:45mins):
There, you are warned.
Now go and write (or not).