I have a nasty habit of trying to flesh out my characters by offering too little exposition and flamboyant dialogue, or vice versa. There is a fine line between what should be explained via action and what can be glossed over with a paragraph or two.
Ultimately, it is up to the author what pieces they want to show and which they want to tell. But first, you must learn how to properly do so.
This is where you will be inundated with advice to overdose on well-written books in order to get a grasp on the matter. But I also believe that movies and television shows are terrific mediums for understanding how to write characters.
For example, in the second scene of the first episode of the first season (still with me?) of Breaking Bad, we learn several pieces of character about the protagonist, or anti-hero, Walter White; all of it through dialogue.
- He has high cholesterol
- He has a job that he does not like and that overworks him
- Money seems to be an issue within the family
- His son has a speech or mental issue
- He has some sort of sickness
These five points are pivotal to the story arc of Breaking Bad and are introduced in the first ten minutes of the show; we are now privy to the tone of the show and the shortcomings that drive Walter White to choose the paths that he does.
Again, all of these points are explained using dialogue, not visuals, which is essentially exposition.
Now let’s take a look at the movie version of The Last Airbender, and what it relays about the characters and backstory in the beginning scenes.
- An info-dump prologue spews history that should have been worked in throughout the film (For more on prologues and why you should rarely, if ever, use them: check here and here)
- A voiceover tosses out information about two characters whose names we don’t even know
- After discovering a tattooed boy inside a frozen orb, the two characters, who are still not introduced, act as if there is little amiss about this occurrence
- The villain, who must be the villain because he wears black and sinister music plays, is the first person to be introduced with a name; he then promptly kidnaps both the elders of a village and the ice orb boy
That is all within the first ten minutes of The Last Airbender.
The exposition is confusing and bloated. The dialogue may as well be in a foreign tongue because it reveals nothing. And we don’t even know the main characters’ names – the screenwriters must have forgotten that the audience is not privy to the script and therefore cannot see the names of those speaking.
It’s easy to understand what a novelization of the movie may look like: paragraphs, paragraphs, and more paragraphs of exposition and explanation, yet illuminating nothing about the characters, backstory, or plot. If the opening of your story has any similar elements, invest in a bevy of matches and flammable liquid.
Reading a plethora of literature remains the best tactic for learning how to properly write, but movies and television shows also offer tidbits of do’s and don’ts that are the crux of storytelling; such as telling the audience your character’s name within the first ten pages.
Which movies or television shows have you learned from? Which deserve to be buried in a paupers grave for their failures?