The Expository Friend

Over the last two days, I’ve seen the Expository Friend everywhere…in books, TV shows and movies. I’m thinking that, for the sake of good writing, the WGA should put a ban on the Expository Friend into our next contract with the studios and networks.

The Expository Friend is the character who exists only so the hero or heroine can reveal what they are thinking and feeling, what they are conflicted about, and what they intend to do about it.

The Expository Friend also comes in handy for telling the hero things they already know  that we, the audience, do not (the big clue is when the Expository Friend starts any sentence with the words: "As you know" or "As we discussed," or "Remember when we," or "You realize that if you do this you," etc. etc.).

The Expository Friend is usually the frumpy single or married best friend/co-worker/next-door-neighbor/sibling of the romantic lead and is, in every case, a completely pointless character that could be removed from the movie/tv show/book without losing a thing.

Any time you see the Expository Friend, you are looking at tangible evidence that the screenwriter is either incredibly lazy or doesn’t have the talent to reveal character in any other way except, well, to have them step up and tell us directly who they are and what they are feeling.

The Expository Friend violates the basic rule of good screenwriting: Show don’t tell.

18 thoughts on “The Expository Friend”

  1. In my writing group, we always referred to him as the Exposition Fairy, fluttering in on wings on unnecessary blather.

  2. I disagree about Dr. Watson. He is crucial to the story…he’s not just there so Sherlock Holmes can tell us what he’s thinking. You couldn’t have Nero Wolfe or Monk without Archie Goodwin and Sharona/Natalie. Here’s the test of the expository friend…if you can remove him from the plot without changing anything significantly than he exists purely for exposition. The Expository Friend is usually just someone the hero/heroine confides in so we, the audience, can get inside their heads or all the backstory the screenwriter couldn’t integrate smoothly into the storytelling.

  3. Part of the blame for this needs to be put on the casting of films with only major stars and people you’ve never seen before. One of the good things about BATMAN RETURNS was the fact that all the roles that required good actors were actually filled with actors capable of holding screen attention with the leads. It really points out exposition problems that would be hidden by more ‘matched’ actors.

  4. I don’t think casting has anything to do with it. The Expository Friend is the result of bad writing. Often, the Expository Friend is played by very good actors (Jon Favreau in DAREDEVIL, Vince Vaughn in MR. AND MRS. SMITH, Kristen Chenowith in BEWITCHED, Marisa Tomei in SOMEONE LIKE YOU, the foursome of friends in BRIDGET JONES, Tim McInnerney in NOTTING HILL, etc. etc.) But it’s always a dead-end role.

  5. I think you could make a case that Watson is actually the hero of the Holmes stories, or at least the protagonist, and that Holmes is actually more the subject of the story rather than the hero.
    I never know what to think with movies in terms of bad scripts – simply because I know that most of the time, writers didn’t have any say in the finished product (especially when there are ten to twelve writers on the film, some credited, some not) and so while this is bad, expository writing in a lot of films, isn’t most of that writers simply doing what they’re told by the directors or producers? I think the bad writing choices are being made by folks that are mostly, uh, not writers, right?
    I understand TV writers have much more say – but we were discusing film examples and I thought I’d toss that in.

  6. I have to disagree with “Watson being the protagonist” idea. Yes, although he does change slightly and gain alittle detective experience, Watson is a supporting character that plays a substantial role.
    Holmes on the other hand, changes throughout the 52 short stories and 4 novels. Weaknesses such as cocaine are brought up and we see him struggle and eventually overcome the tribulations of the drug. His character changes the most, and while we hear about Watson coming back from a trip to Africa, his personality never seems to be altered and continues to be the helpful biographer.
    Watson writes stories (even if it really is Doyle doing it…) with Holmes being the protagonist, hero, and main character, it certainly doesn’t make sense for the narrator to become the protagonist.

  7. Does Holmes change, really? And if I recall, Holmes doesn’t recover from cocaine in Doyle’s novels, but rather the one by Nicholas Meyer (Seven percent solution) and even once he beats coke, he’s still the same person making the same choices.
    Watson, on the other hand, it the one fellow who has a completely different life view at the end of his adventures with Holmes.
    There was a very interesting discussion on this very subject at the Artful Writer called the Subtile Hero – here’s the link-
    The bottom line being, sometimes whom we think the protaganist is actually isn’t – I think of Holmes as Loki (definition in article) more than a protag –
    Why can’t the narrator be the protagonist. Surely there are many examples in literature of Narrators being the protagonist, are there not?
    Ultimately, we’re arguing over semantics, but what fun it is –

  8. I think Watson’s only the protagonist if you really twist your logic. Change isn’t part of the definition of “protagonist.”
    Holmes is the one who moves the action, and he’s the one who’s opposed by outside forces.
    There’s a reason they’re not called “The Dr. Watson stories.”

  9. You’re right, the definition of protagonist is necessarily the one of change (in my opinion) but I didn’t raise the point of change – the previous poster did – and you are also correct that they’re not called “Dr. Watson Stories” because, as I mentioned, I think Holmes is more the subject of the stories rather than its hero – just my opinion, of course, but I don’t think that it takes a huge twist in logic to state that position.
    We wouldn’t know about Holmes if not for Watson’s involvement – it’s all through his eyes – you can make a case for Holmes being thhe protagonist, but you can also make a similiar case for Watson – we would have never known about Holmes had not Watson chosen to move in with him – and Watson was hardly a passive character in every story.
    That’s the rub, really – I think it really depends on which story we might be talking about – they are many, perhaps some where Holmes is the protagonist, some where Watson is, don’t you think?

  10. Lee is right about the Expository Friend. Watson don’t come into it, as far as I’m concerned–he’s the narrator, after all, and exposition is part of his job. But it’s not his only job.
    No, the real death kiss of the Expository Friend is that it is one of several “techniques” one might classify as Passive Exposition. Passive Exposition is wherever explaining takes the place of action or interaction. If the purpose of exposition is to give the audience the data they need to understand the action, it makes far more sense to make it part of the action itself.
    Of course, that’s not always easy to do. Lee, you’re dead-on when you say that use of the Expository Friend is a sign of laziness, as with any passive exposition. (Either that, or evidence of an unreasonably short deadline. Sometimes you just have to make a fiddle instead of constructing a Stradivarius, as Karl Malden said about portraying his character in “The Streets of San Francsico”.)

  11. I should mention that I’ve been using John August’s definition of a protagonist, since it seems to be the most descriptive one I’ve come across.
    You can read it here:
    Joshua: You make some excellent points and yes, thinking about it some more I agree that depending on the stories, the protagonist varies.
    For example, in the “Sign of Four” Watson is definately the protagonist… I mean, he gets his wife in the story. So yes, you’re right there 🙂
    On the other subject, In “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarte” Holmes has been “cured” of his cocaine habit, I believe that the “Seven-Percent Solution” just shows how it is done, but Doyle had already written that conclusion into the Holmes canon. I just mentioned it because it shows that he had a weakness but eventually overcame it.
    A Rant:
    Shouldn’t we become more imaginative and better at writing expository friends? I have rarely seen one as well written as Watson (who actually contributes to an investigation) in the last 100 years.

  12. The Expository Friend can be pretty annoying, but for my money nothing beats that magical moment when someone turns on a TV/radio just in time for a news broadcast directly related to the plot. I’ve tried it, but all I seem to get are car ads and that Gwen Stefani song where she thinks she’s still in high school.

  13. Fiction: Kill the confidante

    Lee Goldberg’s “The Expository Friend” discusses the protagonist’s friend who is everywhere in fiction: The Expository Friend also comes in handy for telling the hero things they already know that we, the audience, do not (the big clue is

  14. Ok, Dr. Watson is not an expository friend. He’s a sidekick. In fact, he’s a special brand of sidekick: the student. (As opposed to the mentor, the handy hostage, the kick-ass bodyguard, or the psycho pal.)

  15. The Expository Friend — Or the Pointless Friend

    Lee Goldberg states in his blog post titled The Expository Friend:
    The Expository Friend is the character who exists only so the hero or heroine can reveal what they are thinking and feeling, what they are conflicted about, and what they intend to do…


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