As a group, writers tend to be very generous with their colleagues. Nobody exemplifies that spirit better than my mentor, the late Robert Cenedella. Bob taught me the most important things I know about writing in the early 1970’s, when I worked for him first as a secretary and then as a script writer. Bob was a writer who had done it all: articles; short stories; an acclaimed novel (A Little to the East—well worth searching out); live and taped television dramas, including soap operas. At the time I met him, Bob was Head Writer for Another World, and just starting a spinoff, called Somerset.
Lessons from my Mentor, Part I
Among the many things Bob taught me, one of the first and most important was what I call The Soap Opera Rule. The rule is simple: Never have one character tell another something they both already know.
I call it The Soap Opera Rule because it's often broken on soap operas, but you see flagrant violations of this rule all the time, in novels, stories, movies and nighttime TV shows. When The Soap Opera Rule is broken, it looks something like this:
Chet shook his head. "I feel so bad for you, Roger," he said. "First you spent all those years studying to be a PhD in astrophysics. Then you married Camille. The two of you were chosen to be the first couple on the moon. But then she got leprosy and died hideously. They kicked you off the project. And you haven't been the same since."
Roger choked back a sob. "I didn't know it showed!"
Well, okay, they aren't usually this bad. But some come close.
The problem here is that the writer needs to insert a lot of background information into the script (or novel, or whatever). So he just throws it all in. (Whew! That’s over!) But there are many better, more natural ways to get that information across. One way would be for Chet to think about some of the facts during his conversation with Roger:
Looking at his friend's gaunt face, Chet couldn't help feeling sorry for Roger. All that work getting the PhD in astrophysics, all the training he and Camille had gone through, and then she had the bad luck to get leprosy.
"We're all sorry you won't be going on the mission, Roger," he said.
"Yeah, sure," Roger said. "If you're all so sorry, then why was I kicked off the project?"
Chet didn't answer for a moment. Roger had been so touchy since Camille had died. "I don't know," he said finally. "Rotten luck all the way around."
Alternatively, you could have Chet discuss the situation with someone who doesn't know about Roger's situation (during a scene that is about something else—or it will appear gratuitous); or put it in a flashback; or drop the pieces of information bit by bit in other scenes.
Whichever way you decide to impart the information, always remind yourself that you are informing the audience or reader, not one of the characters who already knows or should know.
Tomorrow: how to get from point A to point B.