Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Monday, June 20, 2011

Getting Meta: Narrative Economy

You're flipping through the channels on cable. You find a movie that all of your friends have told you to see and its right at the beginning. Cool beans. You start watching it, but it seems a little slow. Eventually you start to lose interest. Eventually you say, screw this and decide to do something else.

People have limited attention spans. As such writers have a limited amount of time to tell a story or at least gain and retain the interest of the audience before it all goes to hell and they get bored which is bad.

That's what economy of narrative is all about. How do you tell the story you want to tell as efficiently as possible so the audience isn't staring at the TV, or reading the book saying, "get on with it already."

As a writer there are certain pieces of information that are important to the plot and that must be conveyed to the audience or nothing else makes sense. The problem is that explaining all this stuff so when you can get to the interesting stuff so it has impact can be, well boring. Since I'm in a Scott Pilgrim mood let's use that. Let's just pretend you pulled a Scott during that scene I just showed you. You're pretty much screwed especially if you also tune out Patel who was polite enough to write an email and send a letter in advance of Scott's face pounding explaining the matter.

The email explains pretty much the set up of the entire movie. Scott likes this girl and her exes have teamed up to kick the crap out of the dude going out with their ex.

My point is you have to explain, who that guy is, why they are kicking the crap out of each other and who that girl is. Yada yada yada you get the point. Edgar Wright did it with a 2 minute letter to Scott and for that matter the audience. Very convenient, and Scott deleted it not only from his computer, but his brain. It's part of his character. What are you going to do?

Anyway just about every story has this problem. How do authors deal with it. A couple of ways. First off they assume you already know some basic information and decide that they don't need to explain it. This is why a lot of people love sequels. The Dark Knight didn't have to explain who Batman is, why Gotham is so messed up or who this Commissioner Gordon guy is. It could just say, "You know what. We already told the origin story. If you're still in the dark, watch it. We've got more interesting stuff for you cats."

Also this is one way show don't tell comes in. Most people say that show don't tell is important because it gives the audience emotional impact, but especially in visual mediums it can be faster than explaining something through dialogue. That's why people love good actors. The directors and the writers don't have to write a bunch of cluttered lines to convey emotion when a simple glance can say it all, while the characters can continue a conversation conveying other information.

No need to say,"I feel angry" or worse, "I'll cut his heart out with a spoon" with that look.

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