One of the more common challenges faced by a screenwriter is how to explain a difficult concept that’s important to your plot. For instance, in Jurassic Park, we need to understand how the dinosaurs came to be living on that island, so that when they start running amok, we’ll feel like we’re grounded in some sense of reality.
I haven’t read Michael Crichton’s novel for Jurassic Park, but if it’s anything like his others, I suspect he spent five or more pages detailing the cloning process in exhaustive detail. You can get away with that in a book. If a reader becomes bored, she can skim ahead a few paragraphs until the story begins again. But the movie viewer is hostage,1 forced to endure whatever information is presented, whether interesting or not.
Since the boring bits of a movie are generally the first things to get trimmed out in an edit, these crucial explanatory moments are likely to get dropped unless they’re written extremely carefully, in the (often misguided) theory that no information is better than boring information. So let’s look at some Best Practices when explaining something in a script.
Keep it short. No, even shorter than that.
As the writer, you may know exactly how the Thessalactan Grid enables transdimensional travel, and why there’s a 34-second delay before the Quantifier engages. I’m sure it’s fascinating and well-reasoned. But the audience doesn’t care. Or, more precisely, the audience doesn’t need to care, because all that really matters to them is how the hero is going to get off the space station before it blows up.
How does it work?
It creates a well in time-space that bends…
WHICH BUTTON DO I PUSH?!
Give them a guide…
While the cliché of a wise old man (think Obi-Wan or Gandalf) is rightly avoided,2 there are smart ways to use a supporting character as explainer-of-things.
For starters, make sure the character has a function beyond exposition. The Day After Tomorrow was frustrating on many levels, but I liked that Dennis Quaid was both hero and explainer. (You could say the same about Jeff Goldblum in just about every movie.) A villain is another classic choice: since he knows what he’s trying to do, he’ll likely have a concise way of explaining it. Just avoid mustache-twirling, and “before I kill you, let me just explain…”
When possible, let the hero pursue the Answer Man, rather than vice-versa. Nothing screams exposition more than a character showing up simply to explain something. If getting an answer is an explicit goal for your hero, we at least have a sense of forward progress.
…or just let the characters figure it out for themselves
No one teaches Spider-Man how to use his powers. A large chunk of the first movie is spent watching Peter Parker explore his strength and web-shooting prowess. Similarly — but less successfully — the hero of Jumper finds he’s able to teleport, and receives no training or guidance until quite late in the movie.3
If characters need to learn something for themselves, try to build situations that are both organic and progressive: you want to build upon simple, relatable discoveries. A great recent example is the videogame Portal (from the Orange Box), in which the player has to learn how to control a physics-defying device. While there’s a disembodied voice who seems to be offering guidance, she’s actually just a comedic menace. The real learning comes from carefully-designed levels, each with a specific (but unstated) teaching objective.4
In screenplay terms, this means letting the characters experiment. The first Narnia movie would have played very differently if the children had landed in the snowy woods without any sense of how to get back; the quest to return home would have felt obligatory. By letting them cross back and forth, the movie silently sets up its rule system, and lets the story chart a different path.
Take away the questions
Often, the best way to answer questions is to remove them from consideration. For instance, the make-believe science of precognition in Minority Report raised a huge number of causality issues, which you could easily spend the whole movie trying to address.
But it was meant to be a thriller, not a head-scratcher, so I added a scene in which a skeptic (Witwer) catches a glass ball just as it rolls off a table.
Why did you catch that?
Because it was going to fall.
But it didn’t fall. You caught it.
Witwer smiles a little, starting to catch on.
The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen.
It’s the same with the murders.
The precogs are showing us what’s going to happen unless we stop it.
Like time travel, foreknowledge of the future is always going to involve paradoxes and gotchas. But by showing it as something visual and physical, we’ve preempted endless questions about the physics and ethics of their legal system. While we’ll learn more about how it works (by meeting the precogs), the ontological overhead has been reduced to a ball rolling across a table.
Such similes and metaphors can be a screenwriter’s best friends. How do you explain a margin call? “It’s like you’ve been buying stock with a credit card, and suddenly you have to pay the bill.” How are you going to catch the subatomic weapon? “Picture a net, but made of magnetic waves.” Does a clone have a soul? “Absolutely. It’s an identical twin, just born later.” Or, “No. It’s like a bad photocopy.”
Speaking of clones, in David Koepp’s script for Jurassic Park, he packaged all the how-we-did-it information in an animated film strip. In Dodgeball, the rules of the game are established in a black-and-white educational film about the history of the sport. And in Lost, the Dharma Initiative’s training films provide both crucial information (“keep entering the code”) and intriguing clues about what’s really going on.
Obviously, it’s not always possible or appropriate for your characters to stop what they’re doing to watch a film. But if it makes sense in context, it’s worth considering. Just keep it entertaining, and brief.
“Entertaining and brief” is good advice no matter which method you choose for presenting difficult information. Done artfully, the reader should never sense that he’s being told anything. It was just story. To that end, avoid scenes which could be summarized, “Hero learns…” That’s a tip-off that your character is listening rather seeking, observing rather than participating. “Discovering” is an action. So are “confronting,” “exploring,” and “testing.” Put your characters to work, and the audience will never realize they’re getting an explanation.
- More specifically, someone watching a movie in a theater is hostage. On video, there’s nothing to stop a viewer from zipping ahead during dull explanations. ↩
- One of the appeals of the Captain Marvel mythology is that the first thing Billy Batson’s wizardly mentor does is die. ↩
- The lack of any instructor or context-setting becomes a real problem once the villains are introduced. Poor Samuel L. Jackson is forced to announce his motivations, but they’re so nonsensical that we’re forced to conclude he’s either (a) lying or (b) bat-shit crazy. ↩
- The game is worth it just for the developer commentary. And the cake. ↩