I am just starting my first screen writing class and I got an assignment that says: Exposition and Ammunition – back story. I have been searching online but I don't get it. Can someone explain it for me please?
"Turn exposition into ammunition" is shorthand for a writing technique. A quick Google turns up this article: http://michellelipton.wordpress.com/2009/08/17/mckee-on-exposition/
“Convert exposition to ammunition … when [the] story is thick with conflict, the characters need all the ammunition they can get. As a result, the writer has little trouble dramatising exposition and facts flow naturally and invisibly into the action … when stories lack conflict, the writer is forced into ‘table dusting’.”
What your assignment means is to take the backstory of your character, break it down into individual items (known as "beats") and use each item in dialogue. Create some kind of conflict between the characters so that the backstory of A is brought up, and use the items either for B to attack A, A to defend against B, the reverse, or both.
For example: B'Elanna's mother is Klingon and her father is human. Her parents fought increasingly during their marriage, to the point where her father gave up on her fractious mother and left. B'Elanna blames her mother's Klingon-ness for driving her father away, so she tries to repress her own Klingon instincts.
Tom loves B'Elanna, Klingon-ness and all, and thinks her Klingon heritage is cool. He can't understand why she won't join him in bat'telh fights or drink bloodwine.
So you open with the two of them having an argument about why B'Elanna will spar with Tom using any other kind of martial arts or weaponry, but not the bat'telh (the curved Klingon sword). She makes lots of excuses, Tom keeps pushing, and eventually she starts shouting at him that if he loves Klingon culture so much he can go be one. He doesn't understand this, he shouts something back, and through the course of the fight he gets her to explain what happened to her parents and why she feels the way she does. The backstory (exposition) of B'Elanna's family is now ammunition for their conflict.
(Source: Star Trek: Voyager's "Lineage")
"As all members of the scientific community know," Dr. Bigpipe said clenching his big pipe between his teeth. "The F'zargh of Multath V has a unique means of camouflage. It is able to assume the shape of small household items and then, surreptitiously worm its mind control tendrils into the basal ganglia and from there it's Goodnight Vienna!"
"As all members of the scientific community know," Dr. Bigpipe said clenching his big pipe between his teeth. "The F'Zargh..."
Bigpipe faltered to a stop, his skin suddenly pale, his eyes glazed. The pipe clenched between his purpling lips suddenly shivered and squeaked, it seemed to suck inwards invading the doughty professor's mouth.
"Well, well," a strange slithering voice emerged from between Bigpipe's lips. His face had taken on a menacing cast, an inhuman sneer played at the corner of his mouth. "Looks like you chumps are about to get a lesson in F'zargh pathology 101, straight from the parasite's tendrils, so to speak."
The transformed professor of xenobiology, leaped towards them snarling, teeth bared. The crew of the Starship Redoubtable had no choice but to draw their flaz-gaz heat pistols and join in battle with their friend and mentor.
Audience: paid for whole seat, only needed edge
EDIT: So, in case I'm not being clear enough, you could explain someone's back story by just telling people what it is but it's better for the back story to come out through action. SF has a real problem with people constantly explaining stuff so the "Exposition/Ammunition" thing is easier to explain with an SF example. It basically means show excitingly instead of explaining dully.
Drama is conflict, while exposition are facts. All stories have facts, but the facts themselves are not the storytelling. Sometimes I use this analogy. If storytelling is motion, facts are the brakes. Hit the brakes too often and the whole thing grinds to a halt. This creates one of the big dilemmas of storytelling. How many facts can safely be provided (or how can they be conveyed) without disrupting the story itself?
The principle of exposition in ammunition (facts in drama), is a strategy for safely providing factual information without disrupting or pausing the storytelling. If two characters are old friends, inform the audience by having the characters argue. If their insults suggest an intimate knowledge of each other, than the audience catches their established relationship without the author explicitly informing them.
The advantage of this approach is to merge fact and storytelling together. This avoids the 5 pages of story. Pause. 2 pages of information. Pause. 7 pages of storytelling... You get the idea.
Not sure what your teacher meant by backstory in this context save that authors often struggle to convey the facts of a character's backstory through exposition - often leading to the dreaded prologue or flashback both of which tend to become story-stopping, data-dumps.
Most exposition is a setup for the rising action or when the protagonist or villain pulls the trigger, and then the action starts. Sometimes, the exposition starts with a trigger or as Robert McKay likes to call it, an inciting incident. This is the ammunition for the resolution of the story - who wins, who loses, who gets get killed, and the dramatic action and complications to follow.