Show and Tell

Pompous-phobic writers (an oxymoron in terms?) try to avoid quoting themselves, for probably obvious reasons.

Guess that means you’re reading the work of a pomp right now; from last week’s article about exposition:

“The least interesting way to communicate something to an audience is by laying it all out bare in straightforward words.”

Since publishing this sentiment, I’ve decided that “straightforward words” requires further elucidation, because you might be confused about how authors like Kazuo Ishiguro can communicate anything to their audience without using straightforward words, because what other communicative means do novelists have at their disposal besides words??

Herein lies the magic of Ishiguro’s exposition in his Klara and the Sun.

“Straightforward” is the key word in my aforementioned phrase, and juxtaposing the deftness of Ishiguro’s hand against a clunkier example may clarify my point.

Luckily for me, and unluckily for the select few who watched it this weekend, the new movie In the Earth clunks away in the exposition department.

Like Klara and the Sun, In the Earth unfolds in a science-fiction world different(ish) from our own. But unlike the former, its approach to informing us of these differences is exposition 101 (AKA: exposition for dummies?).

A bulk of its runtime — and its dialogue — is devoted to nothing more than explicit information-dumps. I’m sure the analytically-minded amongst us could unpack the specific composition and construction of these scenes to enlighten what their subtext reveals. But on a surface level, these sequences seemingly drown the movie in segmented explication. Regardless of what they relay about character and/or theme, their raison d’être is to explain in straightforward words what the audience absolutely needs to know about the conditions and backstory of its science-fiction world/universe.

Even though Ishiguro only has words to achieve a similar aim, he refuses to halt the onward march of his narrative for the sake of explanatory diversions. Instead of telling us within the story about the world, he shows us the world by how he tells us the story. Put another way, he shows us the world through telling us the story. It’s a simultaneous act; the progression of the plot organically clues us into the nature of the world, avoiding the artificial segmentation of goals that makes In the Earth‘s exposition feel like a transparent device that wanting writers rely upon when they can’t figure out how to substantively layer their artistry. Ishiguro trusts us to sufficiently glean certain details in a drip-drip fashion, without pausing to turn that clear faucet on and off.

Ishiguro’s writing tells by showing, which is harder to do on the page than the screen because CINEMA IS A VISUAL MEDIUM. The default function of a camera is to show, whereas words, almost by definition, tell. And yet, Ishiguro’s words tell by showing, while In the Earth‘s camera simplistically shows its characters telling.

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