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Trusting the audience - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Trusting the audience
I just watched the repeat of the L&O: CI season finale, and there's something I like about the writing that I thought I'd share.

Something I like in all of the L&O series--it's least prominent in SVU, most prominent in the original--is that the writers trust the actors and the audience to pick up nuances about the characters. They don't have to write that Jack McCoy and Danielle Melnick have a long history together, because its evident in the way the two characters interact, and was from Danielle's first appearance. Was it a romance, or just a friendship? What's the scoop? It doesn't matter to the current story, so it's not mentioned. (What a thought.) But it's impossible to assume they're indifferent to each other, or that they're hostile to each other.

In CI, one of the things I appreciated in the Nicole thread was that no character sat down and analyzed Goren's relationship with her. Yes, he wanted her behind bars, but he also wanted to know what made her what she was, and I don't think there was any suspect he disliked more than the guy who taught her to kill. There was no Clarice-Hannibal thing going on--Bobby wasn't going to be manipulated into anything, nor was Nicole about to actually help him solve other cases. But at the same time, in this season finale, from the moment Warner says that the heart in the box belonged to Nicole and Goren starts denying it ("It can't be her! She has nine lives!"), there's very little doubt that he is genuinely hurt by her death, even though she'd killed his brother. It's a twisted, complex little relationship... and never once is it explained. And I can't imagine anyone either in the audience or in the fictional world of the show being surprised when Declan said that her last words were that Bobby was the only man she ever loved. All of it was done under the strict principle of show-don't-tell, which is what's accomplished by trusting the audience to know that for every word spoken, there are many more that are left unsaid, and trusting the actors to be able to convey the unsaid ones.

In On Writing, Stephen King frets about writers using too many adverbs because they are "timid"--afraid that the audience won't get exactly the same image they have, afraid that they aren't writing powerfully enough to convey the sense of things. He also does a charming little thought exercise--which he calls an exercise in telepathy--in which he describes a rabbit in a cage on a table (with a red tablecloth), sitting in a basement room. The rabbit has an "8" on its back. At the end, he asks if anyone had the slightest difficulty guessing that the important thing in the tableau was the number, even though he never mentioned it as being especially important. The way the CI writers did Nicole and Bobby's relationship was like that. No one ever danced around talking about how important she was to Goren (though his importance to her came up in a couple of cases). It just... was. They let the telepathy work, and paid it off in the end with an episode that confirmed--again, without direct statements--that the hunch was right.

To me, that's a pleasing piece of writing.
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Comments
threnody From: threnody Date: August 29th, 2008 10:10 am (UTC) (Link)
I've always liked Law & Order for that. The writers freely admit that yes, the audience has a brain and can figure things out for themselves. It's a nice change from being told *everything*. Sometimes the spaces between tell us more than when they're all filled up.
(Deleted comment)
snorkackcatcher From: snorkackcatcher Date: August 30th, 2008 01:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Good point -- in fact it stands out sufficiently that a reader might wonder if the writer was going to turn around and surprise them with the revelation that the red tablecloth was actually the most significant item. If the number hadn't been there, there would have been no particular way to know what was significant -- maybe the fact that the tablecloth was red not blue, but the writer would have to tell the reader that, either directly or because it became apparent as the story went along that blue was normal in that sort of situation.

"Show not tell" is a good principle, but like more or less all writing principles, it's a rule of thumb not an iron law. You could probably say that the art of storytelling is to find the best balance between the two for the story at hand. I tend to be a bit suspicious in general of suggestions that some writing technique is Best Avoided.

As for adverbs, far be it from me to disagree with Mr King (except that I'm obviously going to anyway :D), but In this particular case, adverbs seem to me to perform a very useful function -- they go a fair way to replacing the tonal cues you get in actual speech and which convey a lot of the mesning. Yes, you can write around that in some cases, but in numerous cases you can't without ambiguity or artificiality or verbosity, and using the adverb gets your meaning across concisely (in one word, in fact).
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 9th, 2008 11:47 am (UTC) (Link)

Adverbs

I think King's aversion to adverbs is more with the Lucy Maud Montgomery kind of writer who was CONSTANTLY adverbing you as though you couldn't possibly understand what she meant if you didn't. Adverbs are like anything else in writing; judiciously used, they're not a problem.
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