Showing, Telling and Hating Oblivion

Dear Oblivion, please shut the fuck up*. (And you Pacific Rim. And you Lawless**. And probably plenty of other films I can’t remember right now.)  Really. You annoyed the shit out of me from minute one.

Here’s a guideline from writing 101:

Show, don’t tell.

If you have to have a sodding voice-over that spends 10 minutes yammering on about the back story of your plot, before your story even starts then EXPOSITION – YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.***

It doesn’t matter how pretty/CGIed/3D what I’m looking at is. You’ve just employed author’s voice to convey information. It’s boring and lazy.

Anybody seen Red? Remember the opening scene where Bruce Willis tears up his pension cheque before he phones up the office to lie to them that it’s gone missing in the  post and has a long chat with the customer service person about how his avocado is getting on? Do you need Bruce Willis saying, “It all started when I was bored and lonely and so desperate for human conversation I was lying to people I’ve never met to get them to talk to me about my houseplant?”

Do you need two other people standing around saying, “I’m really worried about Bruce Willis. He’s an honest guy, but he seems so isolated and a bit odd since he retired.” (This is just another form of telling.)

No, because all the details are there for the audience to read and put together. It’s showing not telling and it’s a far more satisfying experience than having the writer boring on in your ear.

One of the reasons I’m so ranty is that Oblivion could have been a much better film, and some of the fixes are easy. [Spoilers below the jump.]

I think when we write our first stories, we often go for the twist ending.  In some ways, it’s the simplest story structure to write. (“Aha, I have this information. And now, at the end I tell it to you, the flummoxed reader! See how clever I am!”) In others, its the hardest to pull off, because the twist has to be obvious in retrospect but also surprising. And your story shouldn’t be ruined if the reader is cleverer than the writer and guessed the twist before the end, or is reading it for a second time knowing what’s coming.

I know when I started out I thought the way to build tension was to withold information from the reader. Then Dave Gullen passed on a writing tip from Kurt Vonnegut, “Tell the reader everything”.  Mr. Gullen writes about his thoughts on that here.  It changed the way I thought about writing, because now there’s always a choice to be made about tension.

For example, (from the story I was struggling with when I first heard this tip) does it create more tension to tell the reader that a character is a woman on the run from a forced marriage,  and let them worry about someone catching her? Or does it work better for the story to hint a bit that she’s got a mysterious past and then do the big reveal? The answer will depend on the story, but now I realise there is a choice to be made. At the very least, I think the reader should know something when the viewpoint character knows it.

But I appear to have stopped ranting for a moment.  Back to Oblivion!

There is a scene late in the movie that shows the Inciting Incident: Andrea Riseborough and Tom Cruise are astronauts making first contact with the alien ship (the Tet). Why not open the movie with that? No voiceover.  The audience sees the astronauts approach the ship, witnesses the dynamic between Andrea and Tom, then whiteout.

The next thing they see is the setup on the Tower with Tom and Andrea (who is basically doing Sigourney Weaver’s job from Galaxy Quest. Oh, and being posh and English for no reason, so you know she’s going to be evil, but that’s a whole other rant.) Surely that way you’ve got tension straight out of the titles. The audience knows something’s happened, but not what. They’re in the same position as the characters.

Give Tom and Andrea some dialogue that indicates the memory wipe, let them talk to the command up on the Tet, and we’re half-way set up.

We haven’t covered the scavs or the seawater processing plants yet. So, rewrite the pointless scene where Tom goes down to Earth’s surface to look for “scavs” and the audience gets faked out by an encounter with a dog.  That’s there to replace the tension that’s missing, but that scene is not working hard enough; it doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know.  (Except that a dog is alive. Which could be seen later as a hint that the scavs are humans. Woo. Big surprise.)

Any scene (or piece of dialogue) should ideally do 3 things at once:

  1. convey information,
  2. illustrate character/relationships and
  3. move the plot on.

Change it so Tom investigates scav damage to one of the seawater processing plants and we’ve got the rest of our world setup.

Obviously, anything not set in the here and now has to work a little harder to get the audience to understand the world of the story.  The writer needs a bit more room to do it. But the audience can be drip-fed information as they need to know it.

I then graciously allow Oblivion to keep the (not very surpising) reveal that the scavs are humans, and keep the much better reveal about the clones, because the audience finds out about those as the same time as Tom’s character does.

Of course, none of this fixes the problem that Andrea, who was an astronaut, is now apparently happy never leaving the Tower, doing an entirely pointless job and cooking, making coffee, and generally being a Stepford wifebot for Tom.

Or that she’s apparently evil for being in love with the man that she believes is her husband. Or that she’s all bitches be crazy enough to let the creepy command woman know that she and Tom are no longer an effective team when his real wife turns up. (Seriously, what does she think will happen here? The film half-implies she’s in on the whole thing just so she gets to shag Tom. You can’t have it both ways, Oblivion. Either she’s in on it or she isn’t. And are we honestly only supposed to sympathise with Tom at this moment?)

Or that Tom’s actual wife is apparently entirely indifferent as to which clone-Tom she ends up with. She’s just happy having survived childbirth on her own, being a mum and puttering about in Tom’s playhouse waiting for the next I-can’t-belive-it’s-not-Tom to turn up and rescue/service her.

Or that I didn’t give a thrown Revel whether anybody in this film lived or died, and would have been entirely happy with the aliens wiping the planet clean.

Or that Tom’s character is called Jack, which is apparently compulsory for every white American male ever in a film where he might be called on to run away from an explosion. (See also Jake.)

It doesn’t fix those things.  But in the balance between telling the reader everything, and pulling an “Aha! Fooled you! This is what you didn’t know!” I firmly believe Oblivion came down on the wrong side.

*A good friend loaned me Oblivion. I’d like him to know that I fully appreciate his kindness, and that I hope he won’t stop loaning me DVDs, or discussing them with me, no matter how much I rant and foam at the mouth.

**Lawless – ugh. Seriously, a five minute voice over about Prohibition? Also, it’s a crap film.

***It’s tempting to blame this upfront infodumping on the influence of computer games, where the player just wants a quick primer on the world before they get in and start splattering alien pixel butt (or whatever). But some games writers are making an effort to improve the story telling and get away from the non-interactive infodump. The tutorial to Fall Out 3 is a nice example, which starts with the character’s birth, and walks you through character set up as you grow up.


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