Show AND Tell – SciFi/Fantasy Rule

Are you up for a mental exercise?

Take a look and tell me what’s happening in this picture:

             A                             B

Yeah, I know you’re missing a lot of context, it’s an exercise in minimalism.  What is the absolute minimum that is happening in the picture.

Right Person (let’s call them ‘B’) is threatening Left Person (who we’ll call ‘A’).

There might be any number of reasons or events leading up to this moment.  B might be a villain about to execute innocent victim, A.  B might be the hero threatening villain A to stand still and be captured.  Maybe it’s a misunderstanding, maybe it’s a tragedy.  Regardless of what might be behind the image, you know regardless that B is threatening A with injury or death.

 

Now, let’s imagine we have a time scoop that allows us to reach back to the past and pluck out an ancient storyteller.  Then we give them the same quiz.  Would Homer or Shakespeare really grasp what is happening in the image?  They might get close to the idea just going from the body language, but they might also interpret it as B giving A a gift and A being very excited over the present. Shakespeare might get closer to the meaning in the image than Homer.

Now ask yourself: Why? Why would you understand that image better than other humans from the past?  Because the foundation of the image’s meaning is built upon the gun in the image.  You have background knowledge and context to know what a gun is and what it can do.  People from the distant past lack that knowledge and context, so to them the object in B’s hands can mean any number of possibilities.  They might interpret it as a wand but wands can bestow blessings as well as curses.

There is a rule of thumb in storytelling: show, don’t tell.  Awesome heuristic, I highly recommend all storytellers follow it.  However there is an asterisk to it: when writing scifi or fantasy, you need to show AND tell the audience.

Why?  Because of what you are putting into the story is something for which the audience has no background or context to, it is up you, the storyteller, to give them that background and context (using story logic).

This is something I’ve seen quite a lot in recent movies and tv: the creators will show the audience something happening on screen but never offer any explanation about what is happening.  This then leads to audiences watching the show to get into fights over interpretations of the scene.  A fight which can never be settled or resolved because there’s no clue in the story for them to resolve the debate one way or another*.

While yes this can work once in awhile, the principle should be that the more important a bit is to making your story work or convey an emotion, the more you should explain it.  Yes, the explanation can be badly done too, you do need to be smart with exposition.  But it seems like after a few decades of movies having excess exposition, now films are running the opposite direction in having none.  Which means the audience has to do work to fill in the story.  But if the audience is doing the work to make the story, the question then becomes what do they need you, the storyteller, for?

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*I also partially blame David Lynch for this as apparently he loves to use imagery in movies with no explanation at all (I haven’t watched any of his films yet, just seen clips and others discussing it). The problem is that this technique is extremely easy to do without requiring any effort. I could probably write a code script right now that would just trawl the internet for random images and then assemble them into a video with random sound clips overlaid and call it a “lynchian” style film. While we might not agree on what is art, surely we can at least agree that it shouldn’t be automated.

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