Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Exposition

It's the silent killer!
Better begin with what exposition is:

The introductory material which gives the setting, creates the tone, presents the characters, and presents other facts necessary to understanding the story.

Or, in other words, it's when we describe something or provide some information.

Permit me to conjure a metaphor:
Take a few moments to picture your favourite meal.
(Or use this one I prepared earlier :o)


Okay, you've got that in your head? You're not overly concerned about the plate are you?
Exposition is a plate.
Without it, the food slops onto the floor. But nobody cares much for that plate - they care for the food!
The weak writer will devote much time to decorating that plate. He'll embellish it with flourishes and gold leaf, and possibly stud the rim with little pearly beads.

So why is this such a problem to so many writers? Why is it so hard to understand this point and to put it into practise?
I can suggest a few reasons.

First, it's easy to mistake exposition for food. So let's take a look at what constitutes food:

* That man bursting into the burning building to rescue his daughter is a nice piece of tender lamb.
* That magical, long-anticipated kiss between Bob and Brenda is a beautiful fillet of fish.
* That daring, pulse-racing escape through the sewers is a delicious chicken madras.
* When Roger betrays his best friend, well that's a super, sizzling stir-fry.

However, that tie Roger wears is a flourish on a plate, and so is that weird-looking tree and that fluffy cloud shaped like a pair of maracas.

A second thing that encourages exposition is fear.
It's a difficult and emotional business writing Molly's death and John's cowardice and Sandra's affair. It's so much harder than describing that mossy rooftop.
When the stakes are low, there's little to be lost.
But when the stakes are high, it can be disturbing, distressing, difficult and dangerous. So the writer might noodle in his comfort zone, beating around the bush, forever holding the good but painful stuff at arm's length, afraid of untainted honesty and the truths it reveals.

Filling that plate with food is a challenge in itself.
It requires an inexhaustible imagination and a keen eye for composition.
It requires an understanding of the reader's heart - and of your own.
And hiding that exposition requires skill. Rather than stopping to dump a pile of info onto the reader's lap (telling), a strong writer is able to impart information through shows that blend imperceptibly into the forward momentum. You gotta be a smart cookie to pull it off; you gotta be looking at that scene, studying it, searching for places to subtly secrete that information or that detail.

Minimizing the need for exposition is a cool trick.
Here, we can see how the reuse of existing assets helps:
Set up Hogwarts once and you're sorted for seven novels.
And, if it's impossible to describe the movement of that beetle's legs efficiently and cheaply, then replace the beetle with a moth that flutters by. Go on - make your life easier!

Then we have another skill - that of succinct and effective writing! Minimize those adjectives and adverbs and maximize those strong nouns and perfect verbs! Squeeze the life out of all that necessary exposition and drizzle the concentrate upon your narrative.

Okay, I'm off to watch Cops With Cameras. Laters.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Random

I love those random characters who just happen to appear early on in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and whose appearance has significant ramifications later on. You just know that, when Larry is apologizing to a black man for making an inappropriate joke, and just as his apology is accepted, a black woman whom Larry had earlier gotten into an argument with will make a reappearance. Or, when Larry has damaged his manager's beloved new car, he randomly bumps into one of the few guys in the world who can get hold of the spare parts and fix the vehicle, before, of course, offending the guy moments before the car is fixed.
Coincidence is a much derided device in literature, but it clearly has a valid place in comedy.

Today's random observations (added to my notebook):

Having discovered a crust of bread on my doorstep, I got to wondering if some cheapskate Blair Witch was hunting me down.
Yesterday I decided to go for a jog. It was cold, and I wore jeans, jumper and a coat (and I probably gave the appearance that I was late for a bus, taking a shortcut across the park). I did jog for thirty minutes and today my calf muscles are most displeased. I saw lots of joggers this morning on my way to the newsagents. I admire their dedication, and it made me think about us writerly folks who shun the television in favour of creative agony. It also reminded me of the time I auditioned for a Butlin's redcoat position, unaware that I had to do a dance routine. Not only did I look foolish in my shirt and trousers as everyone else stripped down to their dance gear, but my ineptitude and humiliation was also shown on the local news.
I watched a few minutes of Deuce Bigalow last night. It was truly awful. But why? Some of the comedic devices were highly imaginative and they should have worked. I figured that there was no humanity underpinning the comedy. Whilst the great comedic artists use humour to depict the absurdity of life, the pain and suffering and tragedy, and the love and friendship and struggles of life and the imminence and inevitability of death, Deuce Bigalow had none of this. It was, in a word, shallow.

Woman with a male member on her face

Have you ever pressed that 'next blog' button at the top? I spent a few minutes doing so this morning. I encountered a brilliant twenty-year old artist, an embarrassingly bad older artist/photographer, a chap who has adventures in snowy mountains, some Chinese kids in some group or another, some digital art that was inspired by science (the idea of which excites me, having always loved the concept of non-sentient art, but the solutions of which were a little disappointing), and some beautiful close-up photographs of plants.

That Blair Witch photo reminds me of when a friend and I threw a log into Loch Ness and took hoax monster photos of it. The results were actually very unconvincing.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Off


It's a tranquil and snowy Easter Saturday, and I have worries. And not just worries for my high-chocolate diet and self-unbuttoning jeans. (Damn those puny buttons.)
Nor are these continuing worries on the self-unbuttoning state of spelling in this country. (I'd love to go round every Facebook profile and online dating profile and correct the 'your's and 'you're's [I'd ignore the 'ur's for the time being] and 'there's and 'their's and 'there're's, and even the 'thier's, but I have a suspicion that I'd score low in the online popularity stakes.)

But why offend random online people with my anality when I can offend everyone with episode one of my sitcom? As my commitment to its future continues to waver, I find myself in need of some form of closure before I can move on; and so I treated myself to a six-and-a-half hour Larry David extravanganza: ten half-hour episodes from season one of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a one-hour pilot, and a thirty-or-so minute interview.
As the interviewer observed, Larry doesn't pull punches, making gags about incest survivors, the size of a boy's penis, porn stars, the disabled, racial differences ...
I was only a few episodes in when I became acutely aware of a tight knot in my stomach. It was tension.

Larry likens gags to diving: you should score highly for accomplishing a difficult dive.
I felt very much that what he was doing was creating high levels of tension, thereby setting up a high level of release. Tension and release - the key components of humour!
Of course, therein lies the risk (and risk is another word that Larry uses often): one is more likely to fail on a difficult dive; if one fails to release that high tension, one is highly screwed.

Check out this clip, in which Larry joins forces with a Tourette's sufferer, and soon everyone in the restaurant finds release through profanity. It's easy to see how very wrong this scene could have gone, and how brave Larry was to run with it. Note the comedic music that Larry chose as a safety net to make everything right again at the end of each episode. Be warned: you might find the language in this clip offensive!


We know the score: no writer ever made a living writing about some dull man who did some mundane things and wasn't really happy and wasn't really sad and didn't feel much for the universe. Plenty of writers, however, have made a living writing about love and anger and revenge and friendship - writing about the extremes of humanity, both good and bad, but never indifferent.

I felt this way after writing my Summer of Love short story: I had nothing to measure the degree of risk with. I felt that the child abuse theme might be contentious, and I tried to pitch it at the right level. Ironically, more people were offended by my mention of God. Go figure.

And now I have offended several people (six I think) with my apparently uncompromising approach, and here's the rub ... every one of those offendees found a different theme offensive! We're not discussing death threats here - more, friendly advice along the lines of 'You'll find yourself getting into difficulties with x.' Furthermore, I'm not likening myself to Larry David: I have no delusions about my lowly status and mediocre ability. And if I was offered a gig on the condition that I remove the adolescent boobs/smoking/fisting/Kashmiri killer/Scientologists/old woman tumbling over cliff/disabled man/cross-dressing/anal sex/bestiality, etc. gags, then I wouldn't hesitate.
Jack Bickham sympathizes with that very typical writer who fears making a fool of himself (something that Larry David confesses to). No-one wants to send out weak work; we want to shine. But Jack is adamant: Keep sending that work out.

Technically, I have as many bases covered as I am capable of: I have the character mix, the premise-driven gags, the character arcs and relationships, the invisible shown-not-told exposition, the clear and emotionally-driven motivations/goals, the inexorable forward momentum, the swaps in polarity, a coherent style and consistent type of humour, a shunning of clich├ęs and avoidance of first-level consciousness ...

But I find it impossible to guage the likely success or failure of the humour on any objective level and, with utterly inconsistent feedback, the usually semi-reliable feedback route hasn't much alleviated my dilemma.

As I structure a new potential project, I find myself worrying about my religious protagonist, and hear Maria's words in my head: You can only go a little way with the God angle, and you have to tread very carefully. So I have prepared a foil - a non-religious love interest - thereby balancing the tone. And this overruling of my convictions in favour of a perceived response unsettles me. Is it wisdom, prudence, or cowardice?

All this said and done, there is only one certainty: the writer whose fear prevents him from sending out work will not make a living from the writing. Oh, and a second certainty: if you're a writer, you're not the first to experience these worries!

NB. If you have an online dating profile, please observe that my use of the word 'you're' is a contraction of the words 'you' and 'are', with the apostrophe replacing the discarded 'a' in 'are'. And please don't send me photos of yourself on all fours with a ball-gag in your mouth. Those photos should be sent to: es@gypsylover.co.uk

Friday, 7 March 2008

Bonfire of Legs

Some days it doesn't come so easy. At the weekend, I spent almost an hour coming up with the exact and perfect three lines of dialogue I needed to plug the last hole in episode one.
Not that they really are exact and perfect. But they feel good and I worked hard to win them.
To loosen up the imagination muscles, I'm taking a little time out to automatic write.
So here's today's poem, composed on bus#2, drawn from subconscious impressions stirred by the external stimulae around me! Dedicated to all Maggot Farmers. Mwah.


The girl in the lift with an arm around her shoulders cannot see the worms that jitter on her eyes.
In the mirror I can watch her from a dislocated distance as the children pilot cloud-yachts in the skies.
Summer cyclops, hammer lights upon those golden doors that close upon me;
Separate her braids from me, from children plunging pins in newts;
From them, their armour wrought of my affections, sanded, blast to glass which hides and still reveals.
And scalded; lies like toxic fruits.
Should the beacons light her perfume, rosy rising, lifting higher?
Should the cycles skip in fire, paraded on a stony square?
Should the glitter on her fingers kill her instantly?
Should I row them to an island raised on matchstick stilts and corn?
In the musty lake of needles, drowning breathless under sails,
All my answers shed their veils as you ignite my lips with thorns.