Tuesday, March 5, 2013
How to Write a Play or How to Enjoy Repeatedly Banging Your Head Against a Wall, Lesson 4: Exposition (Blame it on the Maid)
Hello everyone and welcome to Theater is a Sport. My name is Bobby Keniston, and today is Tuesday, March 5, in the Year of Our Lord 2013. Since the Mayan calendar proved false, today, like every Tuesday, is playwriting tutorial day!
I am going to assume that you have all read lessons 1-3, read some plays, thought about the structure of your favorite TV shows and movies, written a monologue, pondered the importance of conflict, and written a two-person scene demonstrating your knowledge of the aforementioned conflict, and are now ready to start looking at some of the big nuts and bolts of the craft of being a playwright.
(Note: For those of you curious, a person who writes plays is called a playwright, not because people misspelled the word "write", but because a "wright" of any kind was a craftsperson back in the old days. "Playwright" is literally someone who crafts plays. Neat, huh?)
One very important nut (or if you prefer, bolt) is exposition. Every playwright struggles with how exposition is handled, so, be prepared: this is where the banging your head against the wall might start looking like more than mere hyperbole on my part.
Exposition is backstory. It is all the stuff that has happened before the play starts, but that is important to the play. For instance, in Hamlet, we know the fact that Hamlet's father died and his uncle married his mother is all exposition, information outside the present action of the play, but, clearly very vital information for the play to work.
If you have ever read a review of a play or a movie, you might have heard a critic refer to a certain piece as having "clunky exposition". For some reason, "clunky" is the negative adjective I see paired with exposition the most often. I suppose it makes sense: exposition can be very clunky. I have written clunky exposition (particularly in first drafts), and if you decide to write a play, so will you. It gets easier with time. It takes practice.
Once upon a time, murder mysteries used to be written using a certain tool to get most of the exposition out of the way in one big swoop--- the maid. Yes, there are several old murder mysteries that seem to begin with a maid answering the phone and saying way more than what seems necessary in what the audience hears as one side of a conversation. Tom Stoppard parodies this technique to great effect in The Real Inspector Hound. Just for fun, I will create an example for you here and now. Please feel free to bask in this clunkerific passage:
SETTING: The parlor of well-to-do PROFFESOR WAINSCOTT. The furniture is plush and expensive, with gorgeous carpeting and exquisite art adorning the wall. There is a makeshift bar stage right. Stage left is an ornate stand sporting a telephone.
AT RISE: MISS SPANKME, a young maid, is dusting the parlor when the phone rings. She answers the phone.
MISS SPANKME: Good evening, Professor Wainscott's residence. No, I'm afraid Professor Wainscott cannot come to the phone right now. He is finishing up his notes on the psychology of escaped convicts murdering everyone in their path. And what a time to be writing such a piece, with a real-life escaped convict on the loose today! Everyone knows he has it in for the good Professor, who put him behind bars 3 years ago! This brute swore at the time he would have his revenge on the Professor, no matter how long it took! (slight pause) Oh, no, the Professor is not one to live in fear! A brave man he is, far braver than a young lass like me could ever hope to be, me not having any real education to speak of. The Professor still plans to hold his dinner party tonight, which will be attended by the famous Doctor, Peter Plankow and his new wife, who everyone says is too young for him, Mayor Breckenwith, who's trying to gain support for his re-election campaign, and, just for fun, Madam Batty, who claims to be a psychic. I sure hope the bridge holds out in this hurricane weather. I wouldn't want anyone to be trapped here until morning with a crazy escaped convict on the loose, and I pray we won't lose power. (Pause. BUTLER enters and listens in) Oh, no, I'm sure we'll all be right as rain. The only door in the house that remains unlocked is the back door way 'round. So sweet.... the good Professor keeps that door unlocked so that his estranged wife, who disappeared without a word five years ago this very night, may always have a way to come back into the house and into his arms. (pause) Yes, I'll tell the good Professor you called. (she hangs up)
BUTLER: Miss Spankme! Just who were you talking to?
MISS SPANKME: (wheels around, surprised) My Lord! You gave me quite a fright, Mr. Pruneface!
BUTLER: (not playing around) Who were you talking to?
MISS SPANKME: Just the New York Times, sir. They wanted to see if Professor Wainscott wanted to renew his subscription.
Pretty ridiculous, right? But that's not the only way exposition can be clunky. Here's another example I'll make up for you:
JENNIFER: Hello, dead beet ex-husband. What are doing here?
PHIL: You know why I'm here, ex-wife, who I divorced a year ago because we couldn't make things work. If it wasn't for our two children, Mark, age 8 and Kara, age 6, I would have nothing to do with you!
JENNIFER: You're just mad because the judge awarded me the house, car, and seventy percent of all our possessions. You should be grateful you still have your job on the police force, where you've been working for 10 years, and that you haven't seemed to inherit your father's heart disease, which he died from at the young age of 38. Hey... you're turning 38 this weekend, aren't you?
The trick with exposition is to add it slowly and subtlety into conversation, and do your best to make it feel like a part of real conversation, and not an excuse to give the audience information. It is also a good idea to place your exposition throughout new information if at all possible, but that's not always necessary. Again, this takes practice. An audience needs exposition to know what's going on, but if you hammer them with too much exposition at a time, it not only feels phony, but it can take an audience out of the present circumstances if it goes unchecked. And you don't want to take the audience out of the present too much--- in fact, the goal is to want the audience to be eagerly wanting to know what happens next, not what happened three years ago or ten years ago, except as to how those things might effect the here and now.
Here's a little exchange from my play The Girl I'm Gonna Marry, available from Heuer Publishing. In this scene, MIRANDA has been stood up at her wedding, and is talking to her best friend SIMON. Unbeknownst to Miranda, Simon has always been in love with Miranda. Oh, yeah--- and Miranda's a little drunk.
MIRANDA: You're the only man that I trust. And I love you, and always have. We should get married. How 'bout it? It would be fun.
SIMON: Well, we were engaged once. Do you remember?
MIRANDA: Whaaa? (Pause- realizing) Oh my God! That's right.
SIMON: When we were in college. Philip and I were roommates....
MIRANDA: You poor boy.
SIMON: Admit it: he's grown on you.
MIRANDA: Like a fungus you get used to, but go on.
SIMON: Thank you. It was that night we went grocery shopping because we were sick of dining hall food, and so we were at the grocery store and it had one of those little quarter vending machines...
MIRANDA: With the plastic rings! You know, they're like fifty cents now.
SIMON: Yup. And there in the store...
MIRANDA: In the dairy aisle. I remember, 'cause it was cold and smelled like yogurt...
SIMON: I got down on one knee, and I proposed to you. I asked you to spend the rest of your life with me.
MIRANDA: And I said yes!
SIMON: That's right. But we never set a date. (beat) We should have set a date the second you said yes.
MIRANDA: I always thought you seemed a little too serious that night.
Now, I'm not going to argue this is a perfect scene, but within in it, we have Simon and Miranda remembering a key event in their lives and telling the story together. Meanwhile, we see that they are beginning to look at each other in a different way, while also learning about how they interact with one another--- comfortable, familiar, homey. Again, it may not be perfect, but it's not as clunkeriffic as Maid Exposition, that much I'm certain of.
So, try things out. Keep your exposition in small doses, letting the info out when needs to be out, and try to avoid putting it into the mouths of people (like a maid or butler) who are only there for the sole purpose of being Mr. or Miss Exposition. Characters should have more of a purpose for existing than to catch the audience up on what has happened in the the last five years leading up to the event of the play.
I hope you have found this lesson on exposition enjoyable. Once again, I'm Bobby Keniston. If you want to know more about me or Theater is a Sport, feel free to check out the following links:
To go directly to PLAYWRITING LESSON NUMBER 5, simply click HERE
I'll see you tomorrow for some more theater talk. Until then, please remember: theater is a sport, and don't blame your exposition on the maid.