Timing is everything. Bryan Young highlights the importance of withholding information until just the right time, using examples from the classic film, Casablanca.
One of the hallmarks of a good screenplay—or any story, really—is having the right amount of information doled out at exactly the right time. Too much exposition and the audience gets bored and angry. Not enough context and the audience gets confused. And also angry.
So how does one know what the right amount of information is? Skating that line can be difficult, but it’s fortunate that the history of film has given us some of the best examples to draw from.
To take a look at the art of withholding information from an audience, I don’t think there’s a better example than Casablanca. Written by Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, and based on the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, Casablanca withholds information by creating a structure that isn’t strictly linear. We’ll tease it apart to find out why it works so well. And, hopefully, it will help you think about your screenplay in a different way.
For those that need a refresher course on Casablanca, it tells the tale of the unoccupied city of Casablanca in French Morocco during World War II. Casablanca is one of the great embarkation points for those trying to escape the Nazis, as each refugee works to make their way to America. Before the movie begins, two German couriers carrying travel documents that could not be rescinded, or even questioned, are killed and the exit visas are stolen. With that stage set, we learn a lot about Rick (Humphrey Bogart) before finally meeting him, an emotionally distant saloon owner who sticks his neck out for nobody. His life turns upside down when a prominent anti-Nazi activist and his wife show up looking for a way out before the Nazis can catch them.
As the movie begins, it’s actually front-loaded with quite a lot of information. A narrator tells us about Casablanca and its geography on the trail of escaping refugees. Then, as we drill deeper into the world, we’re slowly introduced to Rick and his cafe. We don’t meet Rick in the flesh, not at first. First, the screenplay builds up his mystique and the rules he’s set for himself. This is incredibly important for things to work, as it builds a driving mystery that engages the audience. Why doesn’t Rick drink with customers? What makes Rick so unimpressed by everything? What caused his emotional detachment and neutrality? What happened to him in the past?
Each different character in the film adds clues to who Rick is as a person, but each clue adds more mystery.
Then, when we finally meet Rick, we see that all of these rules are true. He’s unimpressed by everything and doesn’t even seem to have a heart. Any serious conversation he engages in, whether it’s with Senor Ugarte (Peter Lorre), his employees, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), or even Nazis, is met with the dry sarcasm of a person who simply doesn’t care.
When Captain Renault tries to get to the bottom of why Rick is in Casablanca, Rick says, “For my health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.”
“Waters?” Renault replies, “What waters? We’re in the desert.”
And then, as wryly as anything, Rick replied, “I was misinformed.”
The line tells the audience that this man is so carefully guarded with his secrets that he will likely never let that guard down.
He even allows Senor Ugarte get arrested in his bar after literally begging for help. “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
And then, when Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) enters the bar, everything changes.
When Rick comes to the piano after hearing the opening notes of “As Time Goes By,” he’s incensed. There’s a hurt in his voice we’ve never experienced and his emotions seem unlocked. “I thought I told you never to play that song,” he says angrily.
And then he sees her.
And they’re connected.
The piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson), leaves immediately, knowing something is about to explode.
As an audience, we have no understanding of why this meeting has produced such a thunderclap. But this is the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen Rick.
When Rick sits down with Ilsa, her husband (Victor Laszlo played by Paul Henreid), and Captain Renault, he starts breaking every rule that had been established for his character. He drinks with them. He takes the bill and pays for their drinks. And he is oddly engaged with the conversation, speaking with passion that we thought was impossible for his character.
And we, the audience, are left to wonder why Ilsa has revealed this about him.
What was the connection between these two characters? How did things change so drastically between them? We’ve been introduced to Rick over the course of the story in a very methodical way, and now we’ve torn a gap between his current actions and what we knew about him. This forces us to reevaluate and ask questions.
For the next section of the movie, this becomes the driving mystery of the film. As an audience, we’re drawn through the following minutes, hoping for clues that will give us answers.
It’s not until we absolutely need the answer that the film gives it to us.
Rick’s is closed for the night.
The lights are dark.
And Rick is drinking.
Sam is behind him, and Rick begs him to play the song she’d requested. “If she can stand it, I can…”
And then we’re shown what happened via a flashback. The movie sends us back in space and time to Paris in the days before the occupation. And they were lovers. And this sequence of the film builds to its climax as the Nazis march closer and closer to Paris.
Rick and Ilsa opt to leave together. They agree to meet at the train station in the rain and take the last train out of Paris.
But instead, all she sends is a note.
She’s left him.
They’ll never see each other again when just that morning they were so desperately in love. There would be no explanation, either.
The rain stains the letter and runs the ink as if they were Rick’s own tears.
And then we’re brought back to the present.
And all of the heartbreak makes sense. And the situation involving the MacGuffin is now that much more complicated. Rick has the exit visas and they’re intended to whisk the women he loves and her husband to safety from the Nazis.
Now, how would this work in the script if the movie were told chronologically?
What would happen with the underlying world building and rules about Rick if we knew everything about Paris and Ilsa from the beginning?
Would her entrance to the bar and their first meeting in the present have the same punch?
Would our attention be held if this exposition had been spoon fed to us from the start?
I argue the audience wouldn’t be invested if they learned all of the pertinent information about Paris even a second before it’s given to us.
How do you do this in your own writing? Make sure that the information you’re giving is absolutely vital to understand everything at that current moment in your script. As you establish exposition, make sure that it doesn’t give away too much and maybe even raises more questions than it answers. Raising questions for an audience is one of the best ways to keep them engaged through the first third (or even two-thirds) of a film. How is your exposition doing this? How does the withholding of information bolster that?
If you have a prologue, reevaluate it. Could you cut it entirely? Could you move it to a spot later in the film and see if it is more impactful there?
Another example to think about is from the deleted scenes of Star Wars. The first act of the film used to be riddled full of scenes with Luke Skywalker and his daily life as his story comes to a trajectory that will put him on a path to meet the droids and rescue the galaxy. But did we need any of that? Withholding it and introducing Luke at the moment he meets the droids is much more satisfying and allows us to learn about Luke in a way that gets us to ask questions about him, rather than have that information spoon fed.
At the end of the day, the best advice I can give you with this example is to play with the structure of your screenplay to see how long you can put off the vital information. And go through and ensure that no piece of information is extra. Withhold everything you can in a way that raises questions for the audience but doesn’t confuse them. Hit them with the full story only when they absolutely need it.
And rewatch Casablanca.
That’s always the right move.
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