Screen Test: Exposition in The Mallorca Files
The Screen Test series is a collection of articles analysing scripts from film, TV, and theatre to discuss technique, structure, and scriptwriting skills.
My first feelings about the BBC’s sunny new crime drama The Mallorca Files are ones of jealousy. Why can’t I live on a sun-drenched island solving crimes? Another first impression was that there was also a hell of a lot of expositional dialogue in the first episode. It’s a scriptwriting felony that every writer is guilty of (I certainly am), but exposition does have a special place in crime dramas.
So, while I'm dreaming of being in warmer, sunnier places, let's get into the case file and see how exposition can both help and hinder a crime drama script. Vamos!
Who did it? Wait until the end.
Of course, crime drama scripts are rife with exposition. The famous dénouement, where all of the characters, guilty and innocent, are gathered in front of the detective who explains the crime step by genius step, is a scene packed full of exposition by its very nature. Before that, episodes are full of scenes where suspects explain their whereabouts in interviews, and police explain the significance of clues to their partners. Generally, this helps viewers keep on top of a complicated and twisting plot and informs them about police procedures they wouldn't generally be aware of.
But in the first episode of The Mallorca Files, jarring exposition seems to be contained in character building scenes rather than scenes that concentrate on explaining the crime, threat, situation, or police procedure.
When introducing Miranda, some of the seeds had already been sown about her workaholic nature, as seen below, and we are shown more than we're told. It makes for a much more natural character introduction than that given to Max, her new crime-fighting partner.
When escorting arrested criminal Paul Taylor through an airport, Miranda and Paul have the following exchange:
Later, after the /inciting incident/ Miranda is on the phone to her superior in London, to whom she says:
This neatly demonstrates Miranda’s main character trait: that she is a serious workaholic. A few scenes later, after asking her superior for holiday time, we are shown Miranda working a case she is meant to be leaving alone well into the night.
What does this show us? She's obsessive, stubborn, and has an interesting relationship with rules and orders: she follows police procedure by the book, but if she doesn't agree with what someone has told her to do, she will go her own way.
Less subtle character introductions are seen with Max, Miranda’s happy go lucky German partner. After being put together on the case, Max brings Miranda up to speed in a bout of exposition that would maybe have been better in the screen directions rather than the dialogue. As they walk to Max's car, he says:
So how could this be shown and not told? Perhaps, as they get into Max’s car, Miranda could ask about a picture he keeps on his dashboard that tells you about his time in his old squad. Maybe he’s playing bad German music on the radio (something that does happen later in the series) and it strikes up a conversation about his work in Germany and what brought him to Spain.
Write like you see
There are always ways to get around expositional dialogue, but it isn’t easy to do. What helps is thinking and /writing like a camera/. How can you do this? Imagine characters can’t talk in a scene. The only way of relaying information about them is through what is shown shot by shot. This will help visual writing to flow and expositional dialogue to decrease as all your storytelling will be purely visual.
For more tips on visual writing, why not read /Writing Like a Camera/ and /Screenplay Formatting: line by line/?
The Mallorca Files, Ep 1, BBC iPlayer. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000bqr2/the-mallorca-files-series-1-1-honour-amongst-thieves