by wjw on March 1, 2007

Expository Lumps, Part VII: Just say it.

So how often have you seen this scene in bad movies: the villain has captured the hero, and (before dismembering him with a laser or chucking him into the piranha tank) proudly boasts of his accomplishments and plans. And then of course the hero escapes, and uses his knowledge of the enemy to thwart him.

What kind of awful hack would write a scene like this today?

Well . . . I would. In fact I’ve written this kind of scene twice, in Voice of the Whirlwind and in Aristoi.

I would like to be able to say that the difference between this scene as depicted in bad movies and the scene as I write is that I’m the one who’s writing it. Yes, damn it, I’m that good!

Here’s the dilemma. At some point somebody’s gotta tell the reader what’s been going on and who’s been doing it and why. The ideal person to make this speech is the antagonist. But who’s he going to talk to? His own henchmen already know the score.

Here’s the trick.

You’ve got to give the antagonist a reason for making the speech other than the fact that the plot needs him to. The weakest reason I’ve come up with was in Voice of the Whirlwind, where the villain had just been shot and was high on painkillers, blabbing away. In Aristoi, the baddie was trying to convert Gabriel to his cause.

I can’t tell you why, in my current work, why the current antagonist is so thoroughly briefing the protagonist, except that it’s a damned good reason. To say anything more would be to give away too much of the action.

But here’s another thing I did. I put his speech in the form of a soliloquy.

I had started it as a dialogue. But one of the parties in the dialogue didn’t have that much to say except “Uh-huh” and “Go on” and “Tell me more,” and I began to fall victim to the “bobblehead syndrome,” where the characters are constantly nodding and narrowing their eyes and opening their eyes wide and and shuffling their feet and playing with cigarettes and otherwise reacting to what the other person is saying, and it was getting repetetive.

So I thought: Look, only one person has a story to tell here. So let him tell it.

Stand on your mark.

Face the camera.

Say your lines.

If the lines are good enough, they’ll carry the thing.

If the lines aren’t good enough, I’m sure someone will tell me.

Coherent March 1, 2007 at 11:51 pm

It’s not unreasonable. The bad guy needs his catharsis, the good guy (and the audience) needs the 411 on the details.

To be honest, telling your secrets on the eve of the moment of your greatest victory, when there are none to oppose you, must be a powerful urge. You feel yourself carried by events towards the inevitable moment of your own design, where all your dreams will thunder to fruition. And just before the point of no return, just before you go over the edge and down the rapids… who could resist a jaunty and hearty “Hi hooooo!” to the main person who has been trying to stop you? The bad guy can’t, that’s for sure. So it’s actually a very realistic motivation.

SpeakerToManagers March 2, 2007 at 7:01 am

I’ve never met any megalomaniacs, but I’ve known a lot of actors, and I doubt the level of ego is much different. Of course the antagonist is going to give a soliloquy! He’s certainly in love with his own voice, and the plan he’s put together just thrills him. And if it makes the protagonist feel small and incompetent, why, all the better.

David W. Goldman March 2, 2007 at 10:09 am

But, but…

What’s your motivation for standing here bragging at me about what you’re going to do to me when I read your next book?

It’s the painkillers, isn’t it?

dubjay March 2, 2007 at 11:01 pm

No, David, it’s not the painkillers.



Mathew March 5, 2007 at 6:36 am

I actually thought that both of the aforementioned expository scenes played quite nicely. I re-read Voice Of The Whirlwind recently, as well as Aristoi, and I thought neither “meglo-expo” scene came off as either wooden or un-natural. I personaly really like those particular scenes just because the hero has that ‘great’ moment, of just going “WTF?”

HaloJonesFan March 9, 2007 at 7:59 am

I’d say that what really does the trick for “Whirlwind” is having Steward be, effectively, an amnesiac. The chief complaint with exposition is that it delivers information that both parties should know. When one party doesn’t know, there’s no problem…

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