On a technical note today, I’ve been watching more movies lately and have been struck by the discipline of narrative economy of some of the better ones. So much often has to get said in so little time, and when the screenwriter and filmmaker are on their game, you forget how much you’ve been given in the smallest exchanges. I am thinking in particular about exposition in film. How does the filmmaker get the engine of the story moving? If you’re a novelist, pick one or two of your favorite films and pay close attention to the first twenty minutes. Usually, one scene will accomplish more than one objective—that is, establishing the protagonist’s weakness for drink while also introducing the story’s villain.

The novel I’m writing now is loaded with plot, including a fair amount of back-story, so I’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out how to deliver all this information. Information can be a narrative black hole, but somehow your audience has to learn what exactly is going on. Ideally, this information can be piggybacked with actual conflict which itself launches the story forward. In other words, the protagonist gets into an argument with his brother about whether their father is cheating on their mother, which leads them to devise a scheme to spy on their father. In this scene we should learn about both brothers, some history of their family, and see the story properly launched.

Once a story is moving on its own, once all the back-story is delivered and the characters established, scenes narrow their focus, moving the story forward step by step. But in the beginning of a story, we don’t have that luxury. That is why my rule is, if possible, never let a scene in the first quarter of the story do only one thing. Ideally, the first two or three scenes have character development, back-story, and the introduction of the main conflict of the story. Not always easy, but great when it works.

As novelists, we can sometimes get caught up in our language. Nothing wrong with that, as fiction writers, language is our first tool of choice. But it’s useful to step back sometimes and look at your story as a filmmaker might—scene by scene—and ask yourself how you can economize. After all, if you have a story you very much want to tell, best to get to it as quickly as possible.

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