Gerald Hanks Filmography

Monday, May 22, 2017

Kill Basil Exposition

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the Comicpalooza Sci-Fi and Pop Culture Convention in Houston. I met a number of wonderfully talented writers, including C. Robert Cargill, the screenwriter for Marvel's Doctor Strange and the Sinister horror film series.

One of the things I encountered is that many writers, especially genre writers, attempt to sell their works based on their “high concept”. While the high concept makes for a great tool for pitching a script, it isn't the best place to start telling a story.

The biggest problem with a high concept is that it requires some explanation as to how the world works. In genre fiction, such as sci-fi and fantasy, the audience needs to understand how the technology works or the “rules of magic” in this setting. These scenes can require long stretches of exposition that can slow down your story and make the reader skim through these intricate details.

When you present these details in a novel, the reader will gloss over the pages until they get to the action. When you try in in a screenplay, the reader will toss the script and move on to the next package in the slush pile.


One of my favorite shows of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation, was infamous for its conference room scenes filled with “techno-babble”. These scenes involved attempts to explain how the crew would apply 24th-Century technology to escape that week's threat to the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The Austin Powers movies even hung a lampshade on this tired trope with the character “Basil Exposition” (Michael York). Basil would explain the latest mission to Austin Powers,

With only a hundred pages (give or take a few) to tell your story in a feature-length script, you don't have time for techno-babble or Basil Exposition to explain your script's world. So how do you explain the rules of your world...without explaining the rules?

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

One way to show how the rules work is to show what happens to your characters when they follow the rules.

  • What rewards do they receive for using your future-world's advanced technology according to the approved methods? 
  • What does it cost them to comply with the laws of magic in your fantasy setting? 

When you show the benefits and costs of following the rules, you get the reader to invest in both the characters and the rules of their world.

You can also use the flip side of that coin and show what happens when they break the rules. The most effective way to show the consequences is to place your characters in situations where they stand to lose something vital to them in either case.

For example, if your character follows the rules, a loved one dies. If they break the rules, the loved one lives, but the character faces a life-threatening punishment. When you make the stakes for breaking the rules high enough, the reader will sit on the edge of their seat waiting to find out which way they go.

Attitude Problem

Another way to draw the audience into the rules of your world is to show your character's attitudes toward those rules, especially if that character has a cynical or dismissive attitude toward those rules. While voice-over narration can be a sign of lazy writing in most cases, a few instances in classic modern films use it to great effect.

  • The classic “Rules” speech in Fight Club not only let Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) establish the rules of his underground club, it also reveals his attitudes toward the rules of the mundane world. 
  • The weary tone of Rick Deckard's (Harrison Ford) narration in Blade Runner gives the audience a backstory on the replicants, while also revealing his cynicism toward his job.

Rules Are Made To Be Broken

Readers, agents, producers, and actors all relate to characters before they relate to rules. You can get your audience to understand the rules by showing how they tie to the character's VOTE:

  • How do the rules help or prevent the character from achieving their Victory?
  • How do the rules create Obstacles that stand in the character's way?
  • How does the character break or manipulate the rules as part of their Tactics?
  • What Energy drives the character into conflict with the rules?

These tools can help you maintain the reader's interest, reveal aspects of your characters, and keep the story moving forward.

Let Story Into Screenplay Help You With Your Story

If you need help in explaining the rules of your story world in ways that will grab a reader's attention, let Story Into Screenplay help you. We offer coverage reports, script notes, and one-on-one consulting services. We also offer seminars for writers' groups, both online and in person.

For more information, contact Story Into Screenplay at storyintoscreenplayblog[at]gmail[dot]com. You can also keep up with Story Into Screenplay through our Facebook page.

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