Thursday, May 9, 2013

How much can I assume my audience knows about the clasics?

The Comic Scholar asks:

I'm writing a screenplay about a theater director, and a fair amount of the story centers on her talking about Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V with a friend. How much do I need to explain about the two plays? Can I just have the characters mention the parts that are important, or do I need to have them describe the entire plot of the two plays? 

I guess my question is, when a classic work of fiction has an impact on your story in-universe, how much can you assume the audience knows and how much do they need to know? 

Never assume the audience knows anything. If there's something in that play that is essential to know for the sake of your story, you MUST set it up within the context of the play.  It's no different than any other set-up and payoff.

That said, if there are elements of the play that are completely irrelevant to your story, obviously you don't need to set those up.

I recall an episode of Deep Space Nine entitled "For the Uniform," where Captain Sisko is pursuing a former Starfleet officer who betrayed his allegiance to the Federation.  This officer - Eddington - sees himself as the hero of the story and Captain Sisko as a man driven by an unhealthy obsession and devotion to law over true justice.  To underscore the point, Eddington sends Sisko a copy of Les Miserables, noting that the Captain might recognize himself in the character Javert, the police inspector who spends 20 years pursuing Valjean for the mere crime of stealing a loaf of bread.

I had neither seen nor read Les Miserables at the time I first saw this episode, but that characterization is crucial to understanding how Eddington sees himself.  Ultimately it proves to be the key to bringing him in.  Fortunately, the writer of the episode explained enough about the characters of Valjean and Javier that it was an effective analogy even to those ignorant of the story.

As you may be aware, there's far more to the story than just that conflict - but since it's not relevant to the story's role in that DS9 ep, it went unrecapped.

Hope this helps!


  1. Pfft, the kids in my film school haven't seen most popular movies of the 80's or the 90's, let alone read, or seen "Les Mis" prior to Wolverine's version.

    I think it is totally safe to assume that if the audience is 30 years old, or under, they probably won't get any references to anything. The primary reason is information overload, and secondly movies are no longer experienced, but watched, and then literally evaporate. Think of most of the Oscar winners in the past ten years. Does anyone really want to watch most/any of those movies again?

    I've got a friends roughly half my age, who are in their early-mid twenties that have never seen any Star Trek episodes ever. EVER. Why is this? Because the last series (Voyager) went off the air before 9/11, when they were kids. This same "Generation Text" missed most of the classic Simpsons era (Up to Season 8), and really has missed mostly everything funny prior to movies like "Anchorman" and "Stepbrothers."

    But it is ironic this generation's aversion to New Star Wars. This can probably be attributed to that their parents are primarily Gen Xers who probably did the Romulan "There are four lights" test on their kids to make sure they understood how/why the prequels sucked.

    It's almost scary as I get older how the newer generations know so little about -any- history, let alone the classics, whether they be novels, t.v., or movie. This is why the new Star Trek movie was a success. Aside from Gen X (and older), there really wasn't any fanbase anymore. About less than ten years ago it used to be "Oh, you've never seen "Three's Company, or Taxi, or M.A.S.H.?" Now it's, "Oh, you've never seen Star Trek, or anything prior to Jurassic Park"

    This is only going to get worse. The current foundation of film is f'ing terrible. Movies today are made solely on attachments, product placement, baroque statistics, and whether or not the marketing department gives the green light. Movies today aren't being made to be re-watched, or experienced. They are being made only as product.

    1. I couldn't agree with you more about most of these points, although I do believe there are still plenty of good films being made. Perhaps that is in spite of the foundation you referred to?

      A curious and encouraging observation I've noticed is that when you can actually get younger people to sit down and watch a "classic" movie" (Capra, Wilder,etc...) they usually enjoy it. Sure, the characters don't translate into action figures but I believe that if this generation is given opportunities to see more story-driven films, they will respond to them and make them profitable. And maybe it will be an experience once again.

    2. Plenty of food for thought there and I totally agree that both the diet and eating habits of the viewers have changed.

      In my twenties I was watching movies three sometimes four times at the theatre, but then it was a 12 month wait for a vhs release.

      Society today is way to disposable, digital downloads and usb sticks being passed around in schools makes movies less special, much less of an experience. When we were young you got what you were given and thrived on it, for every Casablance or African Queen I was also soaking up Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, Ealing Comedies and even Harold Lloyd.

      On a positive note I just came home from Star Trek and immediately wanted to re-watch it, at the theatre, something I have not felt in a long time. Possibly since the first time I got chills watching Jurassic Park in 93.

    3. I may be the exception that proves the rule, but I'm under eighteen and I've been watching/reading classic movies, tv, and books for years. I've seen the entirety of Star Trek TNG and DS9, my favorite movie is Billy Wilder's The Apartment, and I just finished listening to E.M. Forster's 'A Room with a View' on Audible.
      I think that what you're saying is partly true, but becoming less so as DVDs and services like Netflix give younger audiences easy access to classic films that they missed.
      For example, even though it went of the air over a decade before I was born, I've recently become a fan of M*A*S*H via Netflix.
      I think there have always been people who will read/watch the classics, and people who won't. It's not a generation-specific phenomena.

      BTW, thanks BSR for answering my question! I'll start adding exposition to my screenplay ASAP.

  2. It's a delicate balance deciding how much information is enough. While the audience needs to know enough to grasp characters' motivations, you don't want to info-dump on them. As Rod Serling said, "Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are."

    As true is this is, they still need to be informed. One can be intelligent yet still ignorant.