The other day, I watched Lord of the Rings Return of the King with my roommate. And, in addition to being STILL blown away by the sheer epic of that movie despite multiple rewatchings and ten years of advances in special effects, I couldn’t help falling into fits of giggles every time Legolas opens his mouth.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I genuinely love the character of Legolas. He’s the ultimate badass of pretty boys and his friendship with Gimli and the dynamic between them makes him easily one of my favourite characters. But despite all this…
Legolas really has a knack for stating the obvious, doesn’t he?
There’s an even better example of this (which I sadly couldn’t find a clip for) where they’re swanning (the default way of walking for all self-respecting elves) around a war camp and the horses are neighing and shifting around nervously. Thankfully we have Legolas to let us know after about ten seconds of this that “the horses are restless”.
Insightful. If that’s the epitome of elf wisdom I wonder how Middle Earth survived.
But Legolas’s stunning acuity did get me to thinking. Most conversations are pretty much the exact opposite of that. Instead of having people helpfully letting you know exactly what’s happening and why, often conversations are as much about what’s not said.
For example, say that your characters are simply talking and one of them unwittingly insults the other. What happens?
If the insulted character were Legolas the rest of the conversation would probably go along the lines of “You have insulted me and now I am angry.”
But when does that happen in real life? When was the last time outside of a Self help workshop that you heard someone honestly state their feelings?
When you’re talking with someone which is more likely? That they’ll tell you flat out that they are feeling miserable today? Or that you’ll pick up on it from their body language and tone of voice?
This is a great way to add interest to your story without any effort. Take our two aliens up there, which do you think would have the more interesting story to tell? The one who tells us his state of mind straight up or the one who is (badly) pretending that everything’s peachy?
Unless, of course, the stating-the-obvious alien is under some sort of stating-the-obvious magic and needs to find and defeat an evil witch before he alienates (ha!) all of his friends with brutal honesty, my guess is that you were thinking the guy who’s insisting that the world is sunshine and roses.
Is it because there’s a challenge there? Because there’s an opportunity for a friend to contradict them or to find out what’s really going on? Or is it because that’s what happens in real life all the time?
But how can you show this conflict? Unlike with my little aliens, writing is not a visual art. I can’t simply draw a sadface on someone and BAM insta-conflict.
Or, I could, but that would kind of defeat the purpose of the whole ‘creating interest through conflicting messages’ thing don’t you think? Compare:
Sam was upset, “Totally fine over here,” he insisted.
The corners of Sam’s mouth tightened, “Totally fine here,” he said after a small hesitation.
Which created the most interest? And Why?
The second one, yes? The one where instead of describing an emotional state (‘he was upset’) I described the signs of that emotion as you might see them on a real person. (As a side note, if you’re trying to work out the correct expression for a given emotion I’d suggest you don’t practice it on public transport. Weird looks may be given.)
So how else can we create this conflict? If you’re writing in first person, one of the major advantages of using that style is that you have access to your protagonist’s inner life. You have fulltime access to their thoughts about what they’re saying and who they’re saying it too and look into the differences between what they’re thinking and what the world at large hears. Hence we get moments like
I smiled, “Of Course I’ll help you” Loserface.
Of course, if you describe every nuance of emotion rather than just stating it outright you run into the murky territory of Shiny Shiny Floors. Especially when there’s no need to hide your character’s emotional state. For example, if they’re about to start yelling it’s probably a good bet that they look angry.
Another place Captain Obvious likes to show up is in describing motivations and reasons for people’s actions. For example, you don’t really want a character to show up and say something like:
“Captain Snivelwurst, I am upset with you because you murdered my parents.”
Wouldn’t you agree that it would be much more effective simply to let them know their crime and tell them to prepare to die?
Similarly, if your reader has been following the story with any kind of concentration they should be able to pick up on things without captain obvious blaring it at them. Let’s say that your protagonist was abandoned as a child and you’ve already discussed what a big event that was and how damaging it was for them. And then somewhere along the line they come across someone who’s about to do the runner on their kid. When your character reacts to that new there doesn’t need to be an explainer there, helpfully reminding us that this mirrors what happened to them. We know that. Get on with the story.
Unfortunately, working out what is obvious is something that you, as the writer, are probably not equipped for. You know the inner workings of the characters and you know the boring and somewhat grisly inner workings of your story. This is where readers who aren’t afraid to be honest about when they find something confusing or when they feel like you’re beating them over the head come in handy.
Now before I round off this post, I should probably mention that I’m terrible at this. I have a bad habit of either chronically under explaining things, imagining that readers are privy to the inner workings of my mind and logical reasoning (a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies), or stating the same thing five different times just to make sure that everyone got the message.
Hey, no one’s perfect.
And I’ll also leave you with this which is everything I just talked about taken to a hilarious extreme.