In my current WIP, I’m writing a scene where my protagonist, an antiques dealer, is shown a number of items found together in an old leatherbound trunk. The items are clues, and the reader needs to know exactly what they are so they can understand what comes next.
In fiction writing, this is called exposition, and it’s a tricky thing to get right because it can pull your readers out of the scene. Like saying, “Thank you for your attention, now back to the book.”
I’d written and rewritten the scene several times, shortening the exposition, trying to make the details more interesting. It still wasn’t right. Then, in the middle of the night, an idea came to me, as they often do. There’s something about the liminal space between wakefulness and sleep that stimulates the creative side of my brain. Sometimes, with the light of dawn, I find that brilliant idea has flown away. Sometimes I realize that brilliant idea wasn’t brilliant. Every once in a while, though, I remember what popped into my brain, and it’s exactly the right thing. That’s what happened with my problem scene.
The idea that came to me was a screenwriting tool called “The Pope in the Pool.” I read about it several years ago in Save the Cat!, a book on screenwriting by Blake Snyder. The idea came from Mike Cheda, who wrote the script for George Englund’s thriller The Plot to Kill the Pope. Here’s the way Snyder describes the scene in the movie:
“Representatives visit the Pope at the Vatican. And guess where the meeting takes place? The Vatican pool. There, the pope, in his bathing suit, swims laps back and forth while the exposition unfolds. We, the audience,…[are] thinking ‘I didn’t know the Vatican has a pool?! And look, the Pope’s not wearing his Pope clothes, he’s…he’s…in his bathing suit!’ And before you can say ‘Where’s my miter?’ the scene’s over.”
The idea behind “The Pope in the Pool” is to give the audience something interesting and entertaining to focus on while we tell them what they need to know. There are dozens of examples in film. Why not use the same tool in writing fiction?
Now all I need to do is come up with that interesting and entertaining bit of action. Maybe it will come to me in the wee hours tonight.
Authors, how do you handle necessary exposition and backstory?
Readers, can you think of similar movie scenes?