1.23.2015

Thank you, Mr. Exposition

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Sam and I are junkies for mysteries and appreciators of the jerk-cum-genius character as showcased popularly in House. So we decided to give Backstrom a watch.

For those who aren't as glued to their screens as we are, Backstrom is a new TV detective show on Fox starring Rainn Wilson. The titular character is presumably fabulous at closing cases but is otherwise a nearly unbearable boor. I found the pilot we viewed problematic for several reasons, one of which I'll talk about here.

Despite that, I'm curious now to try out the original source novels by Swedish author Leif G.W. Persson and have the first on hold at the library. I'm wondering how different the show is from the books. For instance, are the women as vapidly pretty? (/sarcasm)1 Here's an affiliate link to the first in the series on Amazon (the English translation), where you can see the dubious tactic of putting Rainn Wilson's face and full-body silhouette on the cover, a choice that might backfire if the series is canceled.

Anyway, what I'm going to address today is the writing sin of telling readers the background facts in a plodding fashion. There's a scene in which Backstrom goes to his house and says something to the man there along these literal lines: "You're my roommate who's a gay man and who also fences stolen items, which I tolerate because you are my criminal informant. We are not romantically involved."

It's not quite that awkward, but close.

I think sometimes screenwriters, working in their closed-off little rooms (I imagine), forget that television is a visual medium. There can be far less telling and far more showing in general. "Show; don't tell" is a precept in written fiction as well, but it's even more egregious to forget when your medium is so visually centered.

For instance, an older woman sweeping into a room in a flowing fur cape, large sunglasses on, and a pug dog under her arm, addressing underlings as "dahling," doesn't have to say, "I'm an aging actress" (and/or stereotype). We can just see it.

Through costuming, dialogue, and accent, we can see and hear that Backstrom's roommate is gay. (He makes it obvious in a way that could be offensive if the rest of the show wasn't so much more offensive.) We can see Backstrom's house is stuffed to the gills with oddly fancy items when he's a decidedly unfancy guy.

The same scene could have played out much more organically if the information had been woven into the action. First, though, let me give another obvious option: Not all the exposition has to come out at once. Sometimes there's backstory we don't get to for many episodes or pages into a story, and that's all right. There can be some mystery, a little suspense to keep the audience wondering. ("Are Backstrom and his roommate involved? Why does Backstrom have so many expensive items in his house?")

But when you do need to present information, see if you can tie it to action. To me, the no-duh way to handle it in Backstrom is to have Backstrom need his roommate's services. That way, he's not just talking about them in that stilted way, "As you know, you sometimes provide helpful criminal services for me! But not at this moment!"

Imagine what could have been:
Backstrom: "Roomie, I need your help with this case."
Roomie: "Meh. I don't feel like working today. I have a hot date tonight with Dale."
Backstrom: "Who's Dale?"
Roomie: "My Latin dance instructor. You remember how…"
Backstrom: "I don't care. Back to my needs."
Roomie: "I caaaaan't tonight. I have to go out."
Backstrom: "And did you want to move out as well? Because I can tolerate all of this [gestures around room] only if your criminal enterprises actually help me, you know."

Et voilà. We establish that Roomie is gay (no, I don't remember his name. I never remember names. I remember Backstrom because it's the title of the show. I don't know his first name), that Backstrom is not involved with him and probably never was (no jealousy in the talk of Dale), that Backstrom is uninterested in other people's lives and therefore not a very good friend (and possibly not a friend to Roomie at all), that Roomie is involved in something illicit concerning the items in Backstrom's house, that he lives with Backstrom, and that Backstrom makes use of Roomie's criminal ways.

There, wasn't that easy?

I don't make a blanket statement like, There should be no chunks of exposition in a book or script, ever. Because sometimes you have a lot to impart, and you just need to get it over with. You can try to do something creative with it still, by having some of it come through an interesting medium (letter delivered by a pigeon, etc.), but a lot of the time, you can reevaluate: Do I really need all this exposition here and now? Can some of it wait to come out organically, over the course of the story? If so, what actions can I tie the information to so that it comes out naturally?

Try it and let me know how it goes! And let me know when you see Mr. Exposition pop up in your favorite TV shows. (Hint: Castle has a lot of sightings.)





1 Seriously, though, WHY does every U.S. cop show make every female officer tiny and hot? I can't imagine that's the actual demographics of women who go into law enforcement or the usual career choice for women who are petite and smokin'. I'm guessing most of those go into acting…

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