I was watching this episode of the Nostalgia Critic, in which he analyzes M. Night Shyamalan’s travesty The Last Airbender and compares it to Avatar: The Last Airbender, upon which it was based. I recommend you check it out, too– you won’t be disappointed.
He made one point in particular, though, that stuck with me:
“You have a great set-up for an emotional moment. Aang is seeing all his past lives. The power and weight of who he is should hit him at this very point. But instead, what do they do? Try to explain more exposition… And that is the problem. Whether you’re aware of the show, or you’re not aware of the show, the movie is all explanation with no humanity. Why do you think they waited twenty minutes to ask [the protagonist] his name? Because that wasn’t what was most important to Shyamalan. The identity? Who gives a shit. It can’t be nearly as important as explaining and explaining and explaining and explaining.
I DON’T FUCKING CARE!
And you know why? Because I never once heard anyone in this movie say ‘I feel this’ or ‘I like this’ or ‘I wonder this’. There are no emotions being addressed. Traditionally storytelling is setting up a character, sending them on a journey, and learning more about them through the journey. Last Airbender is just chess piece storytelling. Character goes here. character goes there. Characters says this. Pawn to King Four. So in this scene, which should have been the emotional pinnacle of our main star, it’s just more explaining about what happened, rather than why it happened.”
We’ve all heard the standard “Show, Don’t Tell,” but I got something a bit deeper out of Doug Walker’s commentary: don’t let a work’s story usurp its soul.
What does that even mean?
Shyamalan’s problem with The Last Airbender was that he tried to include all the mythos and backstory of a three-season television series in a two-hour movie, and he does it at the expense of the characters emotions and interactions. I’ve noticed that I have the same problem in my own writing. I get so caught up in the backstory and worldbuilding that I forget that the characters are supposed to be taking center stage in this story. It’s what Walker calls “the most essential element of telling any story; if the character can never express any emotion, why should the audience ever express any emotion?”
The same holds true whether you’re trying to tell a character-driven story or a plot-driven story. The characters are our way of connecting to the events going on. If we can’t relate to them on some level, the story becomes little more than a textbook.
Like I’ve said, I’m still working on this myself. But here’s some fixes that I’ve been experimenting with:
- If the backstory is more interesting than the protagonist’s story, try telling that one instead.
- If a subplot is taking up needless space but isn’t strong enough to be swapped for the A plot, consider cutting it entirely.
- If the reader doesn’t receive this particular piece of exposition/explanation, will they be utterly incapable of grasping the plot from this point on? If the answer is no, you’re probably safe to cut it.
Notice that all of these are a variety of “snip that sucker”? It’s not a coincidence.
That isn’t to say a deep and well-thought-out world and backstory is a bad thing. In fact, it can become fuel for the sorts of significant details that make a world feel lifelike, creates more well-rounded and interesting characters, and can add subtext to dialogue. But in all three of these cases, the effect is strongest when that backstory is omnipresent, rather than being described every thirty seconds. After all, you don’t need an advanced degree in physics to feel the effects of gravity. Just by seeing it acting around us, we have a pretty strong grasp of what it does.