September 29, 2012

Twilight: The Civilised Tribe

Twilight, pp. 123-126.

This week, I'm not going to go on about why I hate the characters or how the conversations are nonsensical or the way Meyer stacks the deck in her self-insertion main character's favour. No, this time it's strictly Carl Eusebius going on about bad writing. Specifically, how not to handle exposition.

Last time, I gave Bella's side of the conversation with Jacob that was the entire reason she came on this trip to La Push beach with her so-called friends. This time, let's take a look at the unwieldy wad of exposition poor Jacob is forced to spout once Bella's flirting has got him to open up about "the treaty" that he was specifically forbidden to talk about, with Bella's narration and responses (consisting entirely of "[word], what's that?") omitted. Remember, these are supposedly the words of a boy who "just turned fifteen".

"Well, there are lots of legends, some of them claiming to date back to the Flood--supposedly, the ancient Quileutes tied their canoes to the tops of the tallest trees on the mountain to survive like Noah and the ark. Another legend claims that we descended from wolves--and that the wolves are our brothers still. It's against tribal law to kill them. Then there are the stories about the cold ones. There are stories of the cold ones as old as the wolf legends, some much more recent. According to legend, my own great-grandfather knew some of them. He was the one who made the treaty that kept them off our land. He was a tribal elder, like my father. You see, the cold ones are the natural enemies of the wolf--well, not the wolf, really, but the wolves that turn into men, like our ancestors. You would call them werewolves. So you see, the cold ones are traditionally our enemies. But this pack that came to our territory during my great-grandfather's time was different. They didn't hunt the way others of their kind did--they weren't supposed to be dangerous to the tribe. So my great-grandfather made a truce with them. If they would promise to stay off our lands, we wouldn't expose them to the pale-faces. There's always a risk for humans to be around the cold ones, even if they're civilised like this clan was."

This, my little droogies, is what we in the bad movie world call an info-dump. That's a scene in which the screenwriter has a whole bunch of information the audience needs to know and can't be bothered to work it organically into the story. The solution is simple: Have one or more (but usually one) character dump the information on the audience through a lengthy explanation to another character.

Exposition (a fancy critic's term for "explaining stuff") is tricky to write, especially when it's information the characters all already know. You've seen this handled badly in films before. You may not have consciously noticed the problem, but your brain did, and something probably felt "off" about the scene. Jaws: The Revenge provides an example. Ellen Brody is on the phone with her granddaughter, and her son Sean says, "Ask the big doctor about his job. Tough life, you Bahamian beach bum, playing in the water all day." Now, I think Ellen already knows what her own son does for a living, and she might even know where he lives. Sean also knew these things. These two lines are only in the film to tell the audience what Michael's job is and where he lives.

It's easier when one character actually doesn't know the information, because then another character can explain it for both her benefit and the audience's. You've seen this done well in other movies, though exposition done well usually isn't noticed. An example from the original Star Wars film is Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker about his father, the Empire, and the Jedi. Short, sweet, and Kenobi gives us our first glimpse of the lightsabre, so we have something to interest us besides just him talking.*

But sometimes you have a situation in which you need to deliver a lot of exposition. The world the characters inhabit is so different from anything the audience is familiar with that they can't make sense of events without this information. Still, even if one character doesn't know the information, having another character launch into an uninterrupted lecture is an info-dump that puts the audience to sleep. So a talented writer finds a way to break this exposition up. The Matrix is an example. Once Neo wakes up, he needs the Matrix explained to him. This is done mostly with Morpheus's dialogue, but it's not one long scene of him lecturing. A few hints are dropped when Neo is being medically treated, and then Morpheus meets him in the resistance's Matrix-like program and brings him up to speed partly through dialogue, partly through images, and partly through training. Perhaps the finest example of exposition done well is the original Terminator (1984). Reese has to explain to Sarah Connor that he is from the future, that he has travelled through time, there was a nuclear war, humans were enslaved by machines, humans built a resistance, that resistance is about to defeat the machines, the machines desperately sent a terminator back in time, a terminator is a nigh-indestructible robot that looks human, and that terminator is programmed to kill Sarah because it is her future son that will lead the successful resistance. He delivers all of this information, but while he's doing so:

1) The terminator engages in a car chase with them.
2) Reese and Sarah escape briefly as they change cars.
3) Reese and Sarah crouch inside the car because at any moment the terminator might spot them.
4) Sarah, hearing part of this exposition, understandably concludes Reese is a nutjob and attempts to flee.
5) The terminator reacquires the pair, and they engage in another car chase.

The final bit of exposition is delivered when the cops attempt to convince Sarah--who's taking him more seriously now that she's seen how unstoppable the terminator is--that Reese really is crazy by letting her see him ranting about time travel and laser guns.* Reese does come off as loony, and Sarah begins to doubt her earlier trust in him. This sets up the terminator's attack on the police station, when Sarah is hiding and Reese is looking for her. There's a moment where we wonder: Will she trust him? Or will she trust the police, who are utterly unprepared for what awaits them? An exposition scene ends up setting up a suspenseful payoff later in the film. Thus, the necessary information reaches the audience, and it does so in a way that emerges organically from the events of the film.

Now imagine Reese and Sarah standing in a room and Reese proceeding to explain the entire backstory of The Terminator, the only interruption being Sarah saying, "Cyborg? Like, a robot?"

That's an info-dump. That's what this scene here is. That's Meyer's atrocious writing.

I don't want to shock you or anything, but the Twilight film shortens this scene quite a bit. Plus, as I noted last week, the movie only has Jacob drop hints about werewolves and vampires, never using either of those words. In fact, I think--it's hard to tell from the acting--that movie Jacob doesn't know the Cullens are vampires. He just knows, like his nameless pal, that "the Cullens don't come here".

Book Jacob dispels any mystery there might have been. Yep, we're werewolves, and the Cullens are Good Vampires.

"What do you mean, 'civilised'?

"They claimed they didn't hunt humans. They were supposedly somehow able to prey on animals instead."

I tried to keep my voice casual. "So how does it fit in with the Cullens? Are they like the cold ones your great-grandfather met?"

"No." He paused dramatically. "They are the same ones."

They call the Cullens civilised because they're easy to sneak up on.

* Though since Kenobi is played by Sir Alec Guinness, a scene consisting entirely of him talking would've worked just as well.
** The film also deftly avoids the pitfall of trying to explain how time travel works without getting itself all tied up in knots. Reese is a grunt, not a technician or scientist ("I don't know tech stuff"), and so there's no reason he ought to know the intricacies of how time travel works.


  1. Oh so that's what its called, dumping. I thought it was their signal for nap time to prevent closing the book or walking out of the theater. Everyone also knows of vampires yet now we are given a new one, "cold ones". I think vampire is more romantic. But teens must like the thought of a cold one. Maybe they thought they were beers.

  2. Haha okay now I won't be able to think about the Twilight "vampires" without imagining a cooler full of beers.