Playwrights who have taken any of my classes in the last two years may have this commandment scribbled somewhere on a notepad:
Any information that no character has fought to get or tried desperately to hide does not belong in your play.
There you go. It’s a pretty simple injunction, but if you follow it you’ll write – and rewrite – stronger plays.
By stronger I mean more playable by actors.
If you have ever tried acting (if not, why not give it a go?) then you know the stuff that is really hard to communicate is the stuff that looks simplest on the page. “It’s 12.32 pm. It’s raining.”
When it becomes more like “It’s 12.32pm, Georgina. Don’t look outside.” that becomes (barely) more interesting, because the speaker is trying to conceal the fact of the rain. The character does something to prevent the other character from knowing something, even if ironically. You get an insight into character by the way they choose to search for the truth or to obscure it before others. In fact, the line would probably work better as “Georgina… Don’t look outside” because the speaker in this small example has nothing to win or to lose from revealing the time.
A great example of how exposition does not work is written all throughout the film, Green Lantern, so only watch the first 20 minutes or so if you really really want to. I watched the film in mild disbelief – especially confounded by the opening sequence that offered a bewilderingly detailed backstory voiceover. Why was I not trusted as a viewer to figure this stuff out? Why could I not watch it play out? And then you’ve got the funny intergallactic bigheaded characters who advise the Green Lantern Corps giving out more and more information without there ever being a resistance to doing so.
The point is, we do not watch theatre or film for information. We will figure elements out for ourselves, for sure, but only if this information is part of the playing between characters. If getting information is important to a character, then an audience takes interest in that information and does its own puzzle-solving and making meaning out of that.
If you want to try an exercise with a scene that you’ve already written, try this. Go through and circle or highlight all the information about place, character, society, etc., that is freely offered by any character in the scene. Then create another file of your scene where you have all of that information deleted. In rewriting the scene, go to the point where the first bit of ‘free’ information was offered and ask yourself, what happens if the character who offered it tries to keep it a secret from the other? What happens if the other tries to pursue that information (and you don’t need to know why yet)? Keep going with the tussle and see what happens. Introduce the other ‘free’ facts as you think you need them, but apply the same idea: somebody searches for it and the other hides or obscures it.
When you’re done, compare the two versions. I can already guess which one will be more exciting and entertaining.
PS I will soon be offering private playwriting tutoring online in Skype, Messenger, WhatsApp or Hangouts – whichever works most conveniently for us both. If you’d like to discuss arranging a session from wherever you are in the world, send me an email at email@example.com.