Last episode, we talked about the theme and structure and engine of Ozark. So, in today’s episode, we’re going to look at Ozark in a different way, to talk about the challenges of exposition in screenwriting and TV writing, and how to handle exposition in your own writing.
If you watch Episodes 1 through 7 Ozark, Season 1, you will see some of the finest TV writing anywhere.
You will see, as I talked about last week, tremendous primary structure, tremendous secondary structure, a unifying theme, a character on a fabulous journey. You will see so much great stuff and every single episode is so darn exciting.
And then we get to Episode 8 of Ozark, Season 1, and something strange happens. We watch an episode that… well, just doesn’t feel like Ozark.
Up until Episode 8, Ozark has been running like a ticking clock. Though we bounce around a little bit in time at the very beginning of the first episode, in general, we’re watching Marty and his family’s story unfold in real time, under constant pressure. In fact, it’s a part of the engine of Ozark to create the feeling of a frantic pace, for both the audience and the characters– that we’re always running behind the deadline– that time is always running out. And the stakes of running out of time are life and death.
But in Episode 8, rather than unfolding in real time, and under the pressure of time, we flashback to a time when that ticking clock did not exist. We flashback in time to when Marty and Wendy first made the decision to become money launderers, when they first met Del.
We drop out of everything that’s been unfolding in Season 1, for what should be a perfectly entertaining episode to tell us what we’ve all been wondering for 7 episodes. How the heck did these nice people end up in this big mess. How the heck did a mild mannered, conservative, careful accountant like Marty Byrde end up a money launderer for a murderous drug cartel?
And guess what? It doesn’t work.
In Ozark, this flashback episode doesn’t work because it creates an episode that not only lacks the stakes that make us care so much in the previous episodes, but also because it creates an episode that doesn’t feel like the rest of the season.
As we discussed in my last podcast, Season 1 of Ozark is all built around this problem of getting rid of the money, this problem of doing the laundry… cleaning the money, cleaning the money, cleaning the money, and all the obstacles around it. The feeling of Ozark grows out of this problem, this ticking clock, and the ironic choices Marty Byrde, a man who’s saved everything for the future, has to make when his future is taken away from him, and when the secrets that he and his family have been hiding from each other start to come to the surface.
Like in all good TV series, a blueprint for this engine in each episode is generated in the pilot. Marty Byrde has to find $8 million in 48 hours. He has to do all kinds of crazy stuff, he is super active, the threat to life and death, and it is terrifying and exciting to watch.
And at the end of the pilot he gets charged to do the same darn thing, except this time it is going to be the engine for the whole season:
He’s now been charged with laundering $8 million, in a place he has never been to before, with a very strict deadline and a bunch of stuff he doesn’t know about. And the stakes are, again, life and death.
And we are tuning in to watch that adrenaline pumping feeling of impending doom as Marty Byrde tries to launder this money in a very dangerous and unwelcoming environment. And we tuning in to watch Marty and Wendy oddly find their way back to each other, and to their children, as they start to get real and stop keeping secrets.
But what happens in Episode 8 grows out of a completely different engine, one built around exposition rather than threat. One built around the theme of choices rather than secrets. One that looks to the past rather than building to the future.
Rather than replicating the fantastic engine that they’ve built, the writers go back to give you more information.
There is a great David Mamet quote (language and CAPS are his not mine)
ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER”, AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE *ABOUT* HIM”.
WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE *WILL* BE OUT OF A JOB.
No matter how many times people (producers, agents, managers, coverage readers, friends) tell you they’d like to know more about your character’s backstory, putting your focus on that expository information is almost always a mistake.
That’s because the audience doesn’t come to a movie or a TV show for information or backstory. They don’t come for exposition. They don’t come for the why they come for the what! They come for the same reason you’re coming– they come for drama.
“But wait,” you might think, “sure Episode 8 may be full of exposition in the context of the previous episodes. But as a stand alone unit– isn’t it full of drama? Doesn’t it follow a character on an A to Z change, from mild-mannered accountant to cartel money launderer? Isn’t it full of high stakes and madness, and one of the best “you’re hired” scenes ever (I promise not to ruin it for you) that not only surprises the crap out of the audience in this episode, but also sets us up for the end of Season 3. Why doesn’t this episode work?”
It doesn’t work because as cool as the story might be, it doesn’t compare to the stuff that we’ve already seen in Ozark.
It doesn’t work because it grows out of the wrong impulse–not the impulse to drive the story forward for the characters, but rather the impulse to explain how they got here in the first place.
And most of all, it doesn’t work because, in a TV show, the kind of drama that they are coming for is the kind of drama that you’ve promised them in your engine.
And Episode 8 simply provides a different kind of drama.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t do variations on your engine.
If you look at Breaking Bad, there are several seasons where Skyler has no idea what her husband is doing. In fact, that is a big part of the engine that Walter just will never tell his wife what’s really going on. And after several seasons, it becomes really boring; we’re just tired of watching him not tell his wife.
And so the engine changes, he tells his wife. But remember, if he tells his wife and that leads to marital bliss, you’ve killed the engine. So what happens instead? She has to start to break bad, there has to become a new tension between the two of them. They have to be pulled back apart, because that’s the engine.
So in the same way, what happens here in Ozark, Episode 8 is that we lose the formula that has been so successful.
It’s like if you showed up at a Burger King and suddenly they are just selling fabulous filet mignon, or if you showed up at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House and suddenly they are serving processed hamburgers. It’s not that these things are wrong; it’s that they don’t feel right. It’s that they are not what you came for.
So let’s talk about why this is so important.
Ozark, fortunately, waited until Episode 8 to make the mistake of confusing structure with exposition. So we’re still coming back for Episode 9, despite this bump in the road. Because we know how good this series can be.
Unfortunately, many new writers will make this mistake at a much more dangerous time. They’ll make this mistake in their pilot.
If you use your pilot to “set up” the future, “establish” the backstory, or “explain” how your characters got here, there’s one thing you can know for certain: Nobody’s ever going to watch Episode 2.
So remember, the audience isn’t coming to find out why, the audience is coming to experience what. The audience isn’t coming to understand, the audience is coming to wonder.
And the job of the pilot is to hurtle your characters, and your audience, into your very best material, not to establish how we’re going to get there.
And your job as a writer is very simple.
Don’t save the best for last. Save the best for first.
Let me explain how this works.
Let’s say you have the idea to write a series called Ozark. You might think, “Okay, I’ve got an engine that’s about a dude who is the most straight and narrow guy in the world, who becomes a money launderer for the cartel. So, of course my pilot is going to be about how he became a money launderer.”
But guess what– that’s exactly how every other writer who’s got an idea like this is going to start their pilot. It’s the obvious choice, but it’s not the most fun choice. We’ve already seen Breaking Bad. So while there’s nothing wrong with having a show in the same genre, it can’t unfold the same way. It’s got to start in a way that outdoes our existing expectations.
And often that just means taking the cool stuff you’ve been saving up for later, and instead, making it happen right now, in your pilot.
And this is exactly what the pilot of Ozark does.
Rather than starting with the “why” or the backstory, the Ozark pilot starts in a much more interesting place, right in the middle of the action that most writers might save for a later episode.
It starts with a bunch of secrets up the writers’ sleeves that we don’t even know about, and a huge problem that is going to take Marty a whole season to solve.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in series pilots is that the writers start too slow. They start with the backstory, they start with the exposition, as opposed to starting with the story.
And this happens to a lot of writers who write character bios as well. Character bios almost always don’t actually lead to characters. Character bios usually just lead to exposition.
I am so cautious about character bios, because the more time you invest in them, the more likely you are to make the mistake of thinking that your character bio is the story. And usually your character bio makes a lot of sense, but people don’t make sense, right? People are complicated.
The most conservative guy in the world also happens to be laundering money and he is holding both parts to himself at the same time.
So when you think about your characters or when you think about your pilot or when you think about the first act of your movie or your play, you want to think, “What is the hottest thing I could come in with?”
For TV writers, here’s what I recommend: after you write your pilot, write episode 2. And about half the time, what you will learn is that episode 2 is actually the pilot and the pilot is actually the boring backstory.
For feature film writers, I usually recommend after you write the first 10 pages, think about what would happen if you just threw those first 10 pages out and just started at what you’re considering your inciting incident. What would happen if you started right in the middle of everything?
And for writers who are asking yourselves, “But what about establishing this or that?” “But don’t we need to know this?” “But don’t we need to explain that?” “Don’t I have to set up this?: “Don’t I have to lay that in?” “Don’t I have to explain that?” “Aren’t people going to want to know more about that?”… well let me set you at ease
If you’re worried about exposition, if you’re getting buried in exposition, then I want you to watch Episodes 1 through 7 of Ozark, and then I want you to watch Episode 8. And I want you to notice how little of that exposition we actually needed.
In fact, you could cut Episode 8 out of Ozark entirely, go directly from Episode 7 to Episode 9, and have a season that worked perfectly.
I want you to notice that, in fact, you intuited, you imagined, as you put together the pieces of your own mind, in Episodes 1-7, you likely told ourselves a more interesting story than the one that the writers told you in Episode 8.
And if you’re concerned about the stuff the audience really needs to know in order for future episodes to work… then watch all of Ozark seasons 1-3, and then re-watch episode 8, and you’ll realize, in fact, that there is only one expository element of Episode 8 that actually matters!
There is only one moment in Episode 8 that actually plays a vital role in the series because it sets up the end of Season 3.
And here’s that moment– so if you haven’t yet watched all of Ozark, you might want to turn down your volume for the next 30 seconds, so I don’t spoil it for you.
There is that one moment in Episode 8… when Marty Byrde shows up for a meeting with the Cartel, and Del gruesomely murders the person currently laundering money for the cartel right in front of Marty before offering him the job.
And at the moment, we may think, “so much for job security.” And more seriously, we, and Marty, both realize exactly what the stakes are of his new position.
But what we don’t realize is that the writers are holding yet another secret from us– that they’re actually setting up there awesome surprise ending that’s going to shock the hell out of us at the end of Season 3.
And that, I’m not going to spoil for you. You’re going to have to watch it for yourselves.
But the lesson is important. Rather than thinking about all the many things it would be nice for the audience to know, instead ask yourself, is there any one thing they really need to know.
And then, rather than wasting a pilot, or in Ozark’s case, an episode, on backstory and exposition, you can get creative about how to sneak that one idea in, that one moment in, right in the middle of the drama.
And so I want you to watch Ozark, Episode 8 because I want you to see what happens when you start too slow. I want you to see what happens when you start to think that backstory is the story. I want you to see what happens when you make the mistake of thinking, “I’d like to know more about this?” or “I’d like to know why that?” are helpful notes.
I want you to remember that exposition is not the story. It’s something that happens along the way in your story.
And I want you to save the best for first.
– Transcript edited for length and clarity
If you want to learn more about how to build with theme in television, I am very excited to be offering a brand new class that I have never taught before, it is called Write Your TV Series.
Over four weeks, we are going to look at all different kinds of series in all different kinds of genres. We are going to look at traditional sitcoms, we are going to look at crazy stuff like BoJack Horseman and Arrested Development, we are going to look at Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and Succession and everything in between.
We are going to look at all different kinds of TV shows and break them down, to look at the structure, to look at the engine and to ultimately figure how to put that all together into a pilot and a bible for your own series.
If you’ve been struggling to get your writing going again during this crisis, I would like to make you aware of a couple of things we have going on for our students.
The first is, we have a free quarantinis happy hour of writing lessons and exercises and community; it is every Thursday night 7 PM EST, 4 PM Pacific and it is hosted by me. It is a fabulous community and you can come for free. If you can afford to make a donation, we will match your donations and apply them to our scholarship fund.
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If you are able to afford a class you can know that your money is going not only to help you pursue your passions but also to help other people pursue theirs. You can find more information about both of these on my website.