Friday, March 27, 2015

Three Techniques for Building Great Set Pieces

(Spoilers: Whiplash, There’s Something About Mary, Gravity, The Devil Wears Prada, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Meet the Parents)

The big, spectacular scenes in movies are called “set pieces.” Set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. We often say good movies are like good roller coasters – they have peaks and valleys, periods of anticipation and moments of adrenaline rush release. Set pieces are the loops and big drops of the roller coaster.

Typically, the term refers to action scenes or broadly comedic scenes, but I like to take a broader definition:

Set Piece: The big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.

That means the action scenes in an action movie and the funny scenes in a comedy, of course, but also the romantic scenes in a romance, the emotional scenes in a drama, the scary scenes in a horror movie, and the tense scenes in a thriller.

Here are three techniques for getting the most out of your set pieces:

1. Build anticipation. You can use advertising and scenes of preparation to build up to your set pieces. This is like the slow climb of the rollercoaster to the big drop. The anticipation is part of the thrill. Certain kinds of set pieces lend themselves particularly well to these techniques: the big game in a sports movie, the big date or a wedding in a romantic comedy, breaking into a heavily guarded location in a caper or spy movie. We’re told repeatedly in advance how important this upcoming scene will be.

For example, recent best picture and best screenplay Oscar nominee Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) contains several critical performances. Before the final concert, sadistic conductor Fletcher informs the players that there will be people in the audience who can make their career – or destroy it. This is not just any concert; it will be the biggest performance of our hero’s life.

Scenes of preparation are an even more emphatic way to build anticipation for an upcoming set piece. In sports movies the team or athlete trains for the big game. In heist movies the burglars scout their location and gather their equipment. In romances the bride tries on her wedding dress.

There are more subtle scenes of preparation. Remember how in There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, screenplay by Decter & Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly) Ted’s unusual preparation for an upcoming date with Mary leads into the greatest set piece in the movie, the infamous “hair gel” scene?

2. Exploit the unique world of your story. The world of your story is a major potential source of fresh set piece ideas. The suspense scenes in Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) were unique because they used elements of their unusual setting. And the writers explored all the possible dangers in that setting, from space suits running out of air to a fire on a space station to space debris moving at the speed of a bullet.

The world is more than just the location. At its core, The Devil Wears Prada (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna) is a story about a woman dealing with a mean boss, but it’s made unique by setting that story in the arena of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages. But one of the best scenes involves Miranda Priestly going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several humorous bits about how demanding Miranda is. Then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a hilariously withering monologue breaking down how Andy ended up with the bargain bin sweater she’s wearing. That scene draws its humor completely from the world of the movie, which is why it’s so memorable.

3. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. This is one of my favorite set piece techniques. The great opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) illustrates this beautifully. Just as Indy escapes one trap, he finds himself in even greater peril. He leaps the pit and rolls under the descending door. Just as he recovers the idol and breathes a sigh of relief, the huge boulder begins rolling toward him. He makes a mad dash and leaps outside just in the nick of time – only to find himself facing the drawn bows of a hundred angry tribesmen.

The frying pan and fire don’t have to be physical danger. In the classic dinner table scene from Meet the Parents (story by Greg Glienna & Mary Ruth Clarke, screenplay by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg), the more Greg tries to fit in with his girlfriend’s family, the worse he makes it for himself. Forced to elaborate on a lie he’s told, he makes up a story about milking a cat. When future father-in-law Jack starts to deconstruct the lie, Greg quickly changes the subject by producing champagne. But when popping the cork he knocks over the urn with Jack’s mother’s ashes, making things hilariously worse. Remember, this technique is most effective when it’s the specific action of the character to escape one problem that lands them in the next one.

The hard reality of this business is that there are probably a thousand well structured but unsold scripts out there for every movie that gets made. If you want to sell your script, you need to make people passionate about it. Creating set pieces that are funny, scary, exciting, or moving is a great way to inspire that kind of passion.

Friday, March 20, 2015

My Writing Day

During Q&A’s, writers are often asked about their writing habits – How long do they write each day? Morning or Night? In a coffee shop or in an office or by the pool? I have found that the answers vary tremendously. If you ask a lot of successful writers this question, you will probably discover that there is no common element in their answers. This is either depressing – “There’s no secret to lead me to success!” – or encouraging – “The way I’m doing it is okay.”

Despite this, over the years I’ve discovered a few tips that I find are helpful to writers struggling to be productive. One of the best is: write every day. It doesn’t have to be every day – maybe you take Sundays and holidays off. But the most important factor in writing success is the application of butt to chair, and making this a daily habit makes it easier.

It also helps keep the ideas flowing. If you write every day, your screenplay will never be far from your mind. When you sit down, you will be able to get back into the writing groove quickly. Take a week off and it will take time to get back into the flow of your story, to remember what you were doing and thinking in the last writing session.

When I first graduated from college, I had to get a day job – just like most film school grads who are not independently wealthy. This meant finding daily writing time was difficult. (But this was an especially important time for me to establish the daily writing habit as I no longer had class deadlines to keep me on schedule.)

One piece of advice served me well at this point: set a specific amount of writing time and shut out everything else. I did an hour a day, first thing when I got home from work. An hour may not seem like much, but it keeps you mentally in your screenplay and you’d be surprised at how productive you can be – how those individual hours add up over a month. I wrote three spec screenplays in that first year. Some writers set page goals, but that can be intimidating. As long as I put in my hour I didn’t criticize how much I produced. That took the pressure off and I believe it actually allowed me to produce more.

When I sold the Sweet Home Alabama spec script, I was able to quit my day job. That meant, in theory, I had all day to write. I have tried writing eight hours a day. I find that I’m only really productive in the first few hours, and that after a few days I burn out creatively. I think I trained myself to write in short, intense bursts in my hour-a-day period.

So I got in the habit of writing a couple of hours in the morning and a couple more hours in the late afternoon. There was plenty of other things to do anyway – reading the trades, research, meetings with producers, phone calls with my agent, reading scripts of successful films, etc.

Occasionally I would have to put in more time writing, usually when I was on an assignment with a tight deadline. And I can do that for short periods of time.

What inspired me to address this topic today is that I am revamping my daily writing process. I’ve realized that lately I haven’t been giving my writing work the priority level I want it to be. I’ll save it until after other tasks are done – grading student work for the classes I teach at Art Center, writing this blog, etc. I once heard a theory that people tend to prioritize by urgency when they really should prioritize by importance. I’ve definitely been guilty of that lately.

So I’m trying a new technique (it’s not original with me, though I’m not sure who came up with it). I wake up about 7 am every day. I’m going to devote 7-10 am to writing. No answering emails, the phone turned off, no surfing of the internet – though I will make coffee and have a bite to eat.

I think this will work well for me as I find that I write best when I’m most rested. I’ll have three hours with no mental distractions just to write. It will also allow me to turn to other tasks after 10 am without that weight of “I need to get my writing in” hanging over my head. I expect I’ll usually also do an afternoon writing session as well, but I know from experience that I can accomplish a lot in three focused hours a day.

I’m not suggesting this approach would work for you. As I said at the outset, I think the right process depends on the writer. Whatever process you find makes you productive is the one for you. However, if you are having trouble being productive, I would suggest at least trying the one-hour-a-day approach.

And don’t expect to reach me from 7-10am!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Increase Tension in Your Screenplay with a Ticking Clock

(Spoilers: High Noon, Silence of the Lambs, Gravity, Alien, Aliens, Almost Famous, Speed, Inception, The Abyss)

“Ticking Clock” is a screenwriting term that refers to some kind of time limit on a story arc. It can be used for a scene, a sequence or the whole movie. The most obvious (and fairly cliché) example is a bomb with a countdown timer on it. The hero has to defuse the bomb before that timer gets to zero!

We can see plenty of similar examples in a wide variety of movies:

In High Noon (screenplay by Carl Foreman) the ticking clock is in the title. The bad guys are coming to town at noon. As the sheriff tries to gather allies to help him face down the villains, we constantly cut to shots of the clock getting closer and closer to noon.

In The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) we know that the serial killer keeps his victims alive for several days – thus when a new victim is kidnapped, Clarice suddenly has a time limit to solve the case.

In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) there is the ticking clock of the debris, which comes back around every 90 minutes. Ryan sets her watch to track its approach. There’s also the diminishing oxygen in her suit that provides the tension in the first half of Act Two.

Throughout the third act in both Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) and Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) we hear a computerized voice reading a countdown to imminent destruction – in the first movie the self-destruct sequence of the ship, and in the second movie that nuclear detonation of the facility’s failing power plant.

Ticking clocks can provide momentum in stories that are in danger of becoming episodic. Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) is a coming of age story about young William going on tour with a rock band to write an article for Rolling Stone. But as the deadline for delivering the article approaches and William repeatedly fails to convince the lead guitarist to give him a crucial interview, the tension ratchets up. William can’t just go along enjoying the adventure – he has to get his article done!

A ticking clock needn’t be a literal clock, of course. The deadline doesn’t even have to be at a specific time. We just need to know that at some point the opportunity for the hero to succeed will come to an end, and we need some way to measure how close we are to that point. For example in Speed (written by Graham Yost) the ticking clock is the gas gauge on the bus running down toward empty. There’s a scene in The Abyss written by James Cameron, where our heroes, Bud and Lindsey, are trapped in a disabled submarine with a leak. The rising water provides a ticking clock, a way to measure how long they have to survive.

You can use intercutting to show approaching danger to illustrate a ticking clock, like the old silent movies with the girl tied to the train track. They cut from the girl, to the hero on horseback, to the train, back to the girl, etc.… will the hero arrive before the train (the ticking clock)?

Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) creates an overall ticking clock for the primary mission with the “kick” that wakes them all simultaneously. The team gets spread out across three dream levels and have to complete their various tasks before the kick pulls them out. The tension is increased when the time gets truncated – Yusuf can’t wait as long as he should to activate the kick, and Saito has been shot, providing another ticking clock: they must finish the mission before he dies.

The team uses a song as a countdown to the kick, allowing them (and us) to track its approach. Any time limit serves as a ticking clock, but you have to find a way to show the audience how much time is left. In the case of Saito, we track his deteriorating health.

Once you’ve established the ticking clock, you can ratchet up tension by throwing increasing obstacles in the characters path. For example, in Inception Yusuf is being pursued by gunmen. The team needs to improvise in the second dream level with the Mr. Charles gambit. And after the others head to the third dream level, Arthur has to keep some security guys from getting to a hotel room. And the biggest obstacle comes when Mal shows up at the medical complex and Cobb can’t bring himself to shoot her.

Does your story suffer from a lack of urgency? Try adding a ticking clock. Got a scene that lacks intensity? Ticking clock. It’s a powerful screenwriting tool.

Friday, March 6, 2015

How to Use Subplots

(Spoilers: Little Miss Sunshine, Almost Famous, Whiplash, Guardians of the Galaxy)

When we discuss story structure, most of our attention naturally focuses on the main plot line. And this is good – it’s the main plot line that forms the skeleton of the story. But often writers don’t put much thought into their subplots and the way those subplots can support the themes of the story.

Supporting the theme of the movie is one of the primary uses of a subplot. Often subplots will illustrate alternate paths or approaches to the central theme. One way of doing this is to create characters with a different point of view on the key thematic issue of the movie.

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) provides a great example of this. Thematically, the story is about what it means to be a “winner.” The main character, Richard, establishes his point of view in one of his very first lines when he says: “There are two kinds of people in the world, winners and losers.” Before he’s willing to pack the family off to California, he tells Olive there’s no point in entering a contest unless she thinks she can win. And Richard firmly believes anyone can be a winner if they have the right mindset and commitment – in fact he’s planning a business based on telling people how to become winners.

The other characters in the story provide alternate perspectives. Olive mimics the poses of beauty pageant winners in her introduction, indicating her desire to be a beauty queen. However, at the end we discover she’s actually more interested in the joy of the competition than victory.

Dwayne is committed to his goal of being a pilot with single-minded purpose. However his dream is destroyed by something completely out of his control, exposing the flaw in Richard’s belief that the key to winning comes from attitude.

Uncle Frank represents a loser, someone who has given up on life. Grandpa’s point of view is that you should enjoy life and not worry about winning and losing. And Sheryl is the counterpoint, the practical one trying to hold the family together day by day. She isn’t concerned with being a winner, she’s just trying to get by.

Each of these characters provides a subplot that illuminates the thematic elements of the film.

Oscar nominated Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) explores the commitment and sacrifice required to be great, and the fine line between abuse and mentorship. The main plot line involves Andrew and his teacher, Fletcher, a cruel mentor who believes abuse is necessary to craft great musicians.

One of the main subplots involves Andrew’s family, particularly his father, who represents another perspective. Andrew’s father is loving and supportive, and is horrified at Fletcher’s treatment of Andrew. We definitely like the father better than Fletcher. However, the father is also a failed writer. And there’s a telling family dinner scene where another young man is being lauded for football accomplishments that Andrew calls out as mediocre. So the family subplot serves as a warning of what can happen if one lauds mediocrity. Because it provides a glimpse of a warm and supportive world, but also a trap that could undermine Andrew’s goals, it creates complexity in the theme.

There’s another subplot involving Andrew’s girlfriend. Ultimately Andrew breaks up with her because he feels she will become a distraction. This narrative thread shows us a potential alternative to Andrew’s choices. He could be in a happy relationship if he chose. The girlfriend subplot also illustrates an aspect of Andrew’s character – how much he’s willing to sacrifice for his goal. This is another use of subplots. They can add dimension to the character.

In Guardians of the Galaxy (screenplay by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) Quill’s character has a subplot about his mother’s death and a cassette tape she left him. This gives us character insight that humanizes the character and adds vulnerability. Though Quill is a charming, wisecracking thief we enjoy spending time with, it’s the subplot about his mother that really engages our emotion. (In fact, all of the characters that comprise our team of heroes have similar back-stories that create vulnerability and sympathy.)

One other common use of subplots is as a catalyst for the character arc. For example, the main plot of Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) is about William wanting to be a rock journalist. His problem is that he’s too worshipful of the rock stars to be objective. He isn’t heeding his mentor’s advice to be “truthful and merciless.”

There’s a romantic subplot in the movie between William and Penny Lane. Penny Lane’s character serves many purposes – to explain the world of rock and roll to William, to add vulnerability and heart – but it’s the treatment of Penny by the rock stars that finally disillusions William enough to be truthful and merciless. Penny is the catalyst for William’s growth.

Subplots will have their own three-act structure, though it won’t usually run at the same pace as the main storyline. Some subplots won’t start until after Act One. Many will wrap up before the end of Act Two so that Act Three can focus on the main storyline.

Once you’ve outlined the main structure of the movie, it can be useful to examine your subplots and figure out what purpose they can serve. Perhaps you’ll need to adjust a subplot to more fully explore your thematic ground. Perhaps a minor character with no purpose can be given a purpose.

And then you should outline the subplots, making sure you have a clear beginning, middle and end, and identifying where those fall in the script. If you use the common index card technique to outline your stories, you might find it helpful to use cards of different colors for the subplots. That will allow you to see how the subplot scenes integrate with the main plot.

Your subplots can do a lot for your story. Don’t waste them!

Friday, February 27, 2015

How to Know if Your Idea is Marketable

My friend and fellow screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers) has a Venn diagram he uses to determine whether a spec script idea is worth his time. There are three circles on the diagram – the ideas he loves, the ideas he thinks he can do well, and the ideas he thinks he can sell. He only wants to put in time and energy on the ideas that fall in the intersection of these three circles. (I might add a fourth circle – whether the idea will advance my brand/reputation.)

It takes a lot of time and energy to write a spec script. Why would you want to invest that time on an idea you don’t love? And why would you want to invest that time on an idea that you can’t sell?

It’s pretty easy to figure out whether you love an idea, and only a little harder to figure out if it’s something you can do well. However it can be quite tricky to figure out if an idea is something you can sell.

Here’s an exercise that can help: Think of five movies that are similar to yours in terms of genre, tone and scope that have been released in the last three years. Go ahead, do it now.

If you have difficulty coming up with five movies, it may be an indication that there isn’t really a market for that type of movie. (It could also be an indication that you haven’t really developed your idea enough.) Perhaps you should move on to a new idea.

If you were able to come up with five movies, you’re not done yet.

Do you love all the movies on your list? If not, it could be an indication that you aren’t working in the right genre. You should really love the type of movie you're trying to write. Try coming up with replacements for any movies on your list that you didn’t like.

Now, dig a little deeper into your analysis by asking these questions:

Were the movies successful? Don’t rely on your impression or memory, check And don’t just look at gross, compare gross to budget (also available on boxofficemojo). Generally, a movie has to gross at least 2.5 times its budget worldwide to be profitable. Not all five of your movies have to be hits, but if none of them were, it might be a bad sign for your idea.

Now it gets a little trickier. You will have to do some subjective analysis, and you will be tempted to reach conclusions that support the idea you want to write. Try to be as clear eyed as possible as you ask:

What do the five movies have in common? Are they all star vehicles? Are they all within a certain budget range? Do they all have the same rating? Are they all set in a contemporary time period? If your concept does not share the things the five movies have in common, it could be a warning sign. You might want to adjust your idea (for example, if you were envisioning an R rated movie but all five comparison movies were PG-13, consider toning yours down). Or, maybe the movies weren't as similar to your idea as you first thought. You might need to find five different movies to justify sticking with your approach.

(Edited to add: Additionally, if all of the movies you picked are based on underlying material, it might be a warning that your idea will be a tough sell if it's an original story.)

The Same but Different

Now, ask yourself how your idea is different from the five. There is good different and bad different. Bad is when you are ignoring a factor that was relevant to the other movies’ success (e.g. they all had movie star leads while you envision an ensemble). Good is when your idea has something fresh and original about it that is compelling.

Hollywood is not famous for originality and risk taking, but it isn’t looking for carbon copy movies either. If your idea is marketable, there will likely be hundreds of similar scripts floating around at the same time. How is yours fresh? What are you adding to the genre? Again, it can’t be so different than you lose what is marketable about the type of movie, but it has to be different enough that it will interest fans of that type of movie.

This type of analysis is helpful to prevent you from wasting time on an idea that has no potential for selling, or to allow you to adjust your idea in a more marketable direction before you start writing. However, remember that marketability is only one circle on Paul’s Venn diagram. You also need to love the idea and feel you can write it well. If the idea doesn’t fit the sweet spot, it is probably worth spending time looking for a new idea.

And before you get too enamored with the fact that you found the perfect idea, read this post on the value of ideas.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The One Miracle Rule

Let's Schmooze is on vacation this week. This post originally ran in 2012

(SPOILERS: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider-Man 3)

One of the common rules of thumb we have in filmmaking is “The One Miracle Rule.” What this means is that the audience will suspend their disbelief for one improbable or even impossible thing, but not more than that. So, for example, we’ll believe aliens exist. Or we’ll believe ghosts exist. But we won’t believe both aliens and ghosts exist.

Accepting a miracle is the agreement we make when we buy a ticket for a particular story premise. So when we buy a ticket for Singing in the Rain (screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden), we agree to believe people break into song on the street, at least for the duration of the film. When we buy a ticket for Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), we agree to believe that people can enter other people’s dreams.

The miracles need not be that miraculous. They can be coincidences. They can be an unusual but plausible situation, such as a man is wrongly accused of a crime. Spectacular skills the main character has would also count. I might believe a character is the greatest marksman in the world, but I won’t believe that he’s the greatest marksman and the world’s leading physicist… unless one thing explains the other. Similarly, if the world’s greatest marksman is wrongly accused of a crime, it better be because he’s a marksman, not just random coincidence.

I had this problem in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (screenplay by Steven Zaillian). I could believe in the unusual situation that Lisbeth would be recruited to help uncover a brilliant, sadistic, serial killer. But at the end of the movie when they ask me to believe that Lisbeth also was able to pilfer millions and millions of dollars from our hero’s corrupt enemy, an enemy completely unrelated to the killer, I had a hard time accepting that additional unlikely situation.

Obviously Lisbeth’s computer skills were formidable – that wasn’t the problem. It was the implausibility that such a character would get both the opportunity to solve an incredibly spectacular murder and the opportunity to pilfer such a huge sum of money. It was one miracle too many.

Some people have that problem with the Marvel superhero movies. They have a hard time accepting that Tony Stark could invent the Iron Man armor and that Bruce Banner could become the Hulk in the same world. Personally, this doesn’t bother me – I feel like the miracle I’m being asked to accept is that “superheroes exist.” But that is the advantage of the X-men: all the heroes in that world have the same source of power – mutation. It’s a single miracle.

The Harry Potter movies work similarly. There would seem to be a lot of miracles in those – everything from wizards to dragons to time travel to ghosts. But all of it stems from the concept that “magic exists secretly in our world.” That’s the miracle that we’re asked to accept, and everything else extends from it. That allows for a lot of latitude, but an alien invasion in the Harry Potter books would probably break the reality.

That doesn’t mean these kinds of “broad miracle” movies can’t fail the rule in other ways. Double coincidence also counts as two miracles. Spider-Man 3 (screen story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi, screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent) fails on this count. I can accept that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him superpowers. But then an asteroid crashes near him and he’s infected by Venom.

I can believe Venom exists in this superhero world – I accepted Doc Oc and the Green Goblin – but it’s too coincidental that both the radioactive spider miracle and the asteroid miracle happen to the same person completely independently. Sadly, the solution is glaringly obvious. If Peter Parker encountered Venom because he was investigating an asteroid crash in his guise as Spider-Man, then I’d buy it. The first miracle explains the second.

By now you may be thinking of movies like Star Wars (written by George Lucas) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). There are a lot of miracles in those. In Star Wars, you have the force, faster than light travel, lightsabers, aliens, etc. How do they get away with it?

These kinds of movies take us to another world. That other world can have many things that are different from our world. But they can’t do just anything. They have to have an internal consistency. You have to set up the rules of the new world – then anything that violates those rules counts as a miracle. So elves and magic swords don’t bother us in Lord of the Rings, but a car would… even though we know in reality cars exist and elves and magic swords don’t!

Most of Star Wars can be excused with the idea that it’s set in a technologically very advanced world. The few elements that are not a given – the aliens and especially the force – are established as part of the world early. We’re told up front this is the world and we either accept it or we walk out of the movie. But once the rules of the world are laid down, they can’t be violated. The world is the first miracle. No more are allowed.

If you find yourself in a situation where two miracles have to be present for your story to work, try to figure out a way for one miracle to lead to the other, a la my fix for Spider-Man 3. Otherwise, the audience may find the whole thing too implausible.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Four Secrets for Better Exposition

(SPOILERS: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, The Matrix, Inception, Little Miss Sunshine)

One of the most difficult things to handle well in a screenplay is exposition. Exposition is the stuff the audience needs to know to understand the story but isn’t particularly interested in. Because the audience doesn’t inherently care about exposition it is, by definition, boring. Your job as writer is to find ways to make it palatable. Here are four ways to help exposition go down easier:

1. Timing

When you deliver your exposition is as important as how you deliver it. Never, ever start your script with exposition. Readers will toss it aside before they even get to the meat of the story. Instead, place the information somewhere the audience will appreciate it. Often it’s best to dribble the exposition out, slipping it into scenes that have other purposes. But sometimes, especially in stories with complex or fantastic settings or mythology, it can be better to have a scene that is solely for exposition.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) has a very expository scene in Act One. Two FBI agents tell Indiana Jones and his boss at the university about the clues they’ve uncovered regarding the Nazi’s search for the Ark, and then Indy explains the Ark’s history and a bit about the Staff of Ra. It lays out almost everything the audience needs to know to understand the rest of the movie.

If we opened with this scene it would be a snooze-fest in the theater. Instead, it comes soon after a long sequence of rip-roaring action. At that point the audience could use a little break. So one way to handle exposition is to place it after a tense, exciting scene when the audience is happy to take a few moments to catch their breath.

The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) demonstrates another way to time exposition for maximum effect. We don’t get the explanation of what the Matrix is and the history of how the machines have taken over the world, until Act Two. Prior to this we’ve seen all kinds of weird things – people with super powers, Neo’s mouth vanishing, and a pill that draws Neo into a strange world. By Act Two we’re desperate for somebody to explain what’s going on and we happily sit through Morpheus’s lecture. If you make the audience want to know the expository information it won’t seem boring.

2. The Character Who Doesn’t Know

It can be particularly painful to see one character tell another character something they already know. It’s obvious the dialogue is just there for the audience’s benefit. Putting someone into the scene who doesn’t know the information can solve the problem. This is why the FBI agents in the Raiders scene don’t know anything about the Ark or its religious history. That gives Indiana Jones a reason to explain it.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the character of uncle Frank serves this purpose. He is newly arrived to the family, so he doesn’t know things like why the brother doesn’t speak or why Grandpa got kicked out of the retirement home. He can logically ask these questions. And when the reason is explained to Frank, the audience is let in on it as well.

This is why in movies featuring a team of some kind there is usually one new member. Ariadne serves this purpose in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan). She’s new to the team and new to the process of inception, so the veterans have to explain how everything works to her.

3. Reveal in conflict

If you have to have a character deliver information known to another character, try adding conflict. If characters are arguing, they will bring up things everyone knows to support their point. When Joe and Jerry are introduced in Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) they’re debating what to do with their impending paychecks. This allows Joe to point out that they owe money to a whole bunch of people – something he would never bring up otherwise because Jerry’s well aware of it.

Similarly, when we need to learn the reasons the whole family must go in the van to California in Little Miss Sunshine, they are delivered in an argument between Richard and Sheryl. The exposition about money problems, Sheryl’s inability to drive a stick shift, etc., are necessary for the story, but well known to both characters. But the dialogue doesn't sound false in this scene because the characters are mentioning these issues to support their point of view.

4. Wallpapering

Another trick to make exposition go down easier is known as wallpapering. This is when you set the scene in an interesting locale, or have something visually interesting in the background so the audience doesn’t notice how boring the scene actually is.

Inception does this. Many of the scenes where Cobb explains things to Ariadne are set in dream worlds. We see the environment shift – in one case the city folds up on itself. The cool visual effect hides the lack of drama and conflict in these scenes. Similarly, The Matrix delivers much of its exposition in a mock up matrix on Morpheus's ship that provides interesting visuals.

The Terminator (written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd) has an expository scene very similar to the ones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix. Reese explains the time travel premise and what the terminators are and the history of the future to Sarah Connor. This happens in a car fleeing an attack on Sarah Connor by the terminator. Throughout the scene, we’ll get a little bit of exposition, then a police car will catch up to them and we’ll get a little bit of car chase. Then Reese will lose the pursuer and it’s back to exposition. The car chase isn't particularly relevant to the story, it's wallpapering.

(It’s also worth noting that this Terminator scene comes about forty minutes into the movie when the audience is desperate for an explanation for what they’ve seen, and includes a character who needs to know the information. It's pulling out all the techniques to keep the exposition from being boring.)

Every script requires exposition. The key is to use these techniques to make it more palatable to the audience.