Responding to a 2005 David Mamet memo.
A reader question via email from Lee Gabel:
I have a question about exposition in regards to the David Mamet note.
“ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.”
Does that mean use of exposition in any way is a “crock of shit”? I agree it goes against the “show, don’t tell” rule.
Lee is referring to the 2005 David Mamet letter that went around town recently again — I posted on it here.
Four things. First, we have to grant a certain amount of hyperbole on Mamet’s part as he’s trying to drive home a point to a group of writers on a TV series. From the rest of his letter, it’s apparent that the “penguins” (Mamet’s assignation for TV network execs) complained about wanting more exposition and the thrust of Mamet’s entire letter is somehow work around those complaints — don’t let the bureaucrats squash good drama.
Second, I think it’s probably safe to say that it is impossible to tell a story without using exposition. In fact, exposition is critically important. However, poor handling of exposition can be lethal to creating drama and sustaining a story’s pace.
Third, exposition can also make for riveting drama. I need no further evidence than this scene in perhaps my favorite movie The Shawshank Redemption, the last moments between Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) before Andy’s escape:
EXT — PRISON YARD — DAY (1966)
Red finds Andy sitting in the shadow of the high stone wall,
poking listlessly through the dust for small pebbles. Red
waits for some acknowledgment. Andy doesn’t even look up.
Red hunkers down and joins him. Nothing is said for the
longest time. And then, softly:
My wife used to say I’m a hard man
to know. Like a closed book.
Complained about it all the time.
She was beautiful. I loved her. But
I guess I couldn’t show it enough.
I killed her, Red.
Andy finally glances to Red, seeking a reaction. Silence.
I didn’t pull the trigger. But I
drove her away. That’s why she
died. Because of me, the way I am.
That don’t make you a murderer. Bad
Andy smiles faintly in spite of himself. Red gives his
shoulder a squeeze.
Feel bad about it if you want. But
you didn’t pull the trigger.
No. I didn’t. Someone else did, and
I wound up here. Bad luck, I guess.
Bad luck? Jesus.
It floats around. Has to land on
somebody. Say a storm comes
through. Some folks sit in their
living rooms and enjoy the rain.
The house next door gets torn out
of the ground and smashed flat. It
was my turn, that’s all. I was in
the path of the tornado.
I just had no idea the storm would
go on as long as it has.
(glances to him)
Think you’ll ever get out of here?
Sure. When I got a long white beard
and about three marbles left
rolling around upstairs.
Tell you where I’d go. Zihuatanejo.
Mexico. Little place right on the
Pacific. You know what the Mexicans
say about the Pacific? They say it
has no memory. That’s where I’d
like to finish out my life, Red. A
warm place with no memory. Open a
little hotel right on the beach.
Buy some worthless old boat and fix
it up like new. Take my guests out
You know, a place like that, I’d
need a man who can get things.
Red stares at Andy, laughs.
Jesus, Andy. I couldn’t hack it on
the outside. Been in here too long.
I’m an institutional man now. Like
old Brooks Hatlen was.
You underestimate yourself.
Bullshit. In here I’m the guy who
can get it for you. Out there, all
you need are Yellow Pages. I
wouldn’t know where to begin.
Pacific Ocean? Hell. Like to scare
me to death, somethin’ that big.
Not me. I didn’t shoot my wife and
I didn’t shoot her lover, and
whatever mistakes I made I’ve paid
for and then some. That hotel and
that boat…I don’t think it’s too
much to want. To look at the stars
just after sunset. Touch the sand.
Wade in the water. Feel free.
Goddamn it, Andy, stop! Don’t do
that to yourself! Talking shitty
pipedreams! Mexico’s down there,
and you’re in here, and that’s the
way it is!
You’re right. It’s down there, and
I’m in here. I guess it comes down
to a simple choice, really. Get
busy living or get busy dying.
Red snaps a look. What the hell does that mean? Andy rises and
walks away. Red lunges to his feet.
Red, if you ever get out of here,
do me a favor. There’s this big
hayfield up near Buxton. You know
where Buxton is?
Lots of hayfields there.
One in particular. Got a long rock
wall with a big oak at the north
end. Like something out of a Robert
Frost poem. It’s where I asked my
wife to marry me. We’d gone for a
picnic. We made love under that
tree. I asked and she said yes.
Promise me, Red. If you ever get
out, find that spot. In the base of
that wall you’ll find a rock that
has no earthly business in a Maine
hayfield. A piece of black volcanic
glass. You’ll find something buried
under it I want you to have.
What? What’s buried there?
You’ll just have to pry up that
rock and see.
Andy turns and walks away.
One of the cardinal rules of screenwriting I learned early on was get your exposition out of the way in Act One and avoid it like hell in Act Three. Yet screenwriter-director Frank Darabont literally stops the movie — right at the beginning of Act Three — for a 4+ minute scene, filled with exposition:
- Andy describes his wife
- He confesses to ‘killing’ her
- He tells Red where he’d go if he ever gets out of prison (“Zihuatanjo”)
- He talks about what the Mexicans say about the Pacific
- He tells Red how he’d buy a hotel on the beach there
- He tells Red how he get an old boat, fix it up, and do charter fishing
- He tells Red about a hayfield near Buxton
- He tells Red how he proposed to his wife after making love to her in that field
- He tells Red to go there — if he ever gets out of prison — and look for a piece of volcanic glass
- He tells Red there is something buried there he wants Red to have.
All of that is exposition. Facts, data, information. And yet it’s one of the most riveting scenes in the movie because (A) we don’t know what the hell Andy is talking about and (B) we think recent events might have sent him over the edge to insanity. So while most of the time, writing good exposition scenes is a struggle, the fact is it can be done — and done well.
Fourth, to be precise, Mamet isn’t talking about exposition per se. His focus is narrower:
“ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER ‘AS YOU KNOW’, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.”
“Telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know.” That isn’t so much about exposition, but rather what I call writer’s convenience. It’s when a writer has a character say or do something simply because it’s the easiest way for the writer to advance the plot. That’s not just sloppy, it demeans the character. It’s you — the writer — speaking through the character rather than the character acting of their own free will. It’s the character meeting your needs — as a writer — rather than the character meeting their needs.
And yes, more often than not, I would imagine that scene would end up being a crock of shit.
So does writing exposition necessarily result in a “crock of shit?” No. Exposition scenes may be hard to write / make dramatic, but as indicated with Shawshank, exposition can also make for a great scene.
However at all costs you must avoid writer’s convenience. If you’ve written a scene where you have a character doing or saying something strictly because of your need to get through the scene and move the plot forward, then rewrite that scene. As screenwriters, we can all strive do better than that.