Hi, friend! Just your friendly neighborhood The Heat here. Anyone who’s known me for more than five minutes will likely be able to tell you that my favorite scene in all of cinema is the “Space Jockey” scene from Ridley Scott’s Alien. This scene has it all, and by “has it all” I mean it only offers you just enough to start a conversation in your head about exactly what the hell is going on in this film.
The “Space Jockey” scene is a classic example of one of the most fundamental rules in writing: show, don’t tell. The more time you have to spend with expository dialogue the more your writing suffers for it. Don’t get me wrong, exposition certainly has its time and place and it’d be nearly impossible to have a film without some level of scene-setting via dialogue, but the best writers know restraint when it comes to this issue. Basically the long and short of it is that if you don’t need to explain it via dialogue, don’t explain it via dialogue.
So breaking down the anatomy of this setup isn’t difficult: Space truckers find a weird ship. They investigate. There’s alien stuff on board. Problems ensue. What really makes it magical is the fact that we’re shown something that’s never fully explained (and barely elaborated upon) via dialogue. The petrified original “pilot” of the space vessel has a hole in his chest and has likely been there long, long before our space truckers arrived. What was he doing? Why was he flying a ship full of horrible space penis monster eggs? Was it a war ship of some sort? Genetic experiment gone horribly awry? We’ll never really know, but that’s what makes it so much fun – you get just enough of a story to spark imagination and craft the rest of it yourself.
“That’s all fine, but what does this have to do with Eastern media?”
I thought you’d never ask, Dear Friend! Though I just cited a Western film as my primary example of this concept, I see the principal of ‘Show them, don’t tell them’ executed in Eastern media more frequently, oftentimes to both amazing and disastrous effects.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is probably the worst offender when it comes to overusing this principal. As Grant stated in our Rebuild of Evangelion episode of the podcast, Evangelion as a series notoriously hints at deeper plot points and makes you do all of the homework when it comes to sorting those things out.
There’s a certain point where cultivating a healthy amount of “headcanon”, as many fans have dubbed it, begins to become a crutch when it comes to writing. This becomes most obvious in the latter half of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the show, but you can’t tell me that you got through your first viewing with a clear idea of exactly what happened. Intentionally obfuscating your story ideas in the hopes that the audience will do a ton of background research is not only pretentious, but it’s also a lazy writing habit that separates you from general audiences who are alienated by your story that requires 50 hours of outside research to fully comprehend. It’s one thing if you’re throwing out bread crumbs to a neat idea that operates independently of your story’s main plot, and it’s a totally different thing if you’re asking your audience to do a ton of research just to understand the central part of your story. I’m looking at you, Donnie Darko.
A much better example of Eastern media nailing this concept would be the “God Warriors” of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
The film gives us slight glimpses at the past civilizations and their mistakes. The interesting bit is that it’s implied pretty subtly (in my opinion) that the world we’re seeing in this film is, in fact, a post apocalyptic one. We’re never given enough details on exactly what happened in the past, but we do know that the “Seven Days of Fire” was, in all likelihood, a global nuclear war that shaped the world that Princess Nausicaä inhabits. Like the Space Jockey, we’re given glimpses of the “God Warriors” and their rampage that apparently broke the world.
I’m fully aware that both the “Space Jockey” and “God Warriors” scenes are expanded upon in other media. The former being the premise behind the wretched 2012 film Prometheus and the latter being expanded upon in the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga. As you may have guessed I’m not really a huge fan of having to do a ton of homework when watching movies and shows; so as far as I’m concerned I’d like everything I need to know to be presented within the film/series in question. While I understand some people’s desire to want to know more about fascinating glimpses of a larger picture, I personally prefer to be left in the dark about these sorts of scenes if possible. As stated before, half the fun is in crafting your own stories and ideas to go along with your favorite media.
The contract between the filmmaker and audience has always been a two-party arrangement, whether the audience views it this way or not. The ‘show, don’t tell’ concept can bring an already decent story forward to the canvas of the mind and give the viewer their own level of input. In-between scenes and unspoken concepts are an extremely potent tool for storytelling when done right; allowing the viewer to have that extra level of creativity can yield an extremely personal and rewarding experience. All of these concepts can be found on the screen, but their details reside solely in your own mind.
So, friends, what are your thoughts about this style of storytelling? Are there any great examples of exposition-free storytelling I overlooked? Does anyone else have a “Space Jockey” scene of their own? You will give me your thoughts, they sustain and strengthen me.