Watch enough movies and read enough books, and you’re bound to run into some ambiguous themes – where something is important to the story, quickly touched upon, and then that’s it. Audiences will go along with it if you get this right – but if you get it wrong – which is easy to do – you can throw the audience right out of the story. Let’s dig deeper into this topic because I think it’s important to writers of all levels.
Just Enough is Enough
When I think back to some of my favorite movies especially – and some of my books, there’s a lot left unanswered.
ALIEN. Perhaps my favorite movie. The monster terrified my youth. I was fascinated but terrified of this thing at the same time and collected every magazine with the thing on it. The movie was released when I was seven years old and I couldn’t handle it until I was in high school. It was that freaking scary. (Yeah, some of it’s dated now, but damn…they don’t make movies like this anymore)
There is a LOT that isn’t explained in Alien. What the hell is the space jockey? Where did this thing come from? Over time the creature got a name (xenomorph) and there have been varying attempts at an origin story, depending on which mythology you want to read.
STAR WARS is another pivotal movie from my youth. It’s a great movie, a lot of fun to watch, and the universe has so much depth to it they could mine films from this for decades to come and still have lots of material to mine.
Obi-Wan’s explanation of the Force in the first movie is excellent – it’s just enough to give us an idea what we’re dealing with, and no more.
As a story progresses, it seems like there needs to be an attempt at explaining things in more depth. Where did the xenomorphs come from? Exactly how does the Force work?
My heartfelt advice is if your story heads down this path, stop.
Frying the Small Fish
I’m going to paraphrase Lao-Tse for a moment and say writing a story is like frying a small fish: the more you prod it the more likely you are to ruin it.
Let’s stick with film because we have such rigid rules – you’ve got 70-120 minutes to setup, execute, and resolve your story. That’s it. In a novel sure, you’ve got more freedom, but you still can’t go on forever.
As you’re writing, think carefully about how much detail you need to go into about how things work or where they come from. You should have an idea of this stuff, sure, but it doesn’t always have to make it into the story.
While I’m writing this Alien: Covenant hasn’t arrived yet (which I am guardedly optimistic about), so let’s go back to Star Wars for a minute.
Personally – and this is my opinion, mind you, and I know I could get a lot of angry comments about this – but I think trying to explain how the Force works in
The Force Awakens The Phantom Menace (oops) was a really bad idea. I’m not going to say any more, except that as I was watching it I was really, really disappointed.
It would have been like spending your youth dreaming of flying; you spend every waking minute studying airplanes and collecting toy planes and patches and going to airshows and then you finally get into the cockpit and find you puke your guts out as soon as the wheels leave the ground. OK, maybe it’s not that bad but it was close.
The takeaway here is a little ambiguity is not a bad thing. It keeps audiences interested and builds engagement. It also leaves things open for you to revisit and write in the world again. After all, if you explain everything, where else can you go?