Well, the day before I wrote this article, I happened to see something fascinating that made me think about something which anyone who is telling a story, making a piece of art etc… has to grapple with. Namely the decision of what to show the audience.
Anyway, the thing that made me think about this topic were a few videos from a fascinating Youtube series called “Boundary Break” where, using various tools, someone manipulates the “camera” in videogames to show you what you normally wouldn’t see whilst playing the game. And it is fascinating.
This is mostly because, in order to save memory and processing power, videogames will often only display the absolute minimum needed to make everything look convincing. For example, if a game displays a fenced-off road or passageway, the only things behind it will be what the player can actually see through gaps in the fence. After all, the emphasis is on making sure that the game looks convincing, whilst also finding sneaky ways to show the minimum amount of detail possible.
And, well, the same thing is true in almost every other creative medium too.
For example, many studio-based film and television sets will only actually contain what appears on camera (eg: the classic example being a set in a sitcom where one wall is missing in order to allow the cameras to film what is happening). Films can also take this a step further by giving the illusion of a large set through background details whilst only actually showing a few smaller locations.
The classic example of this is the 1982 film “Blade Runner“. This is a sci-fi film set within a giant futuristic mega-city. Yet, if you look closely at the film itself, the only actual locations in it that are shown in any real level of detail are several interior locations and a few streets. But, thanks to things like distant background details (created via things like paintings, scale models etc..) etc.. the audience feels like they’re seeing a much larger setting than they actually are.
Likewise, many pieces of visual art (especially in things like comics) will often focus more heavily on adding detail to more prominent parts of the picture, with the background detail often being left slightly vague or impressionistic. There are several practical reasons for this, such as time reasons and the fact that (unless you’re making a very large piece of art) it can be difficult to cram lots of detail into small background areas.
The same is true for prose fiction too. After all, if you have to describe literally every detail of a story’s setting, character backstories etc… you will end up with a very long, very slow-paced and very boring story. As such, you have to be very selective about only describing the most important, evocative and/or interesting details in each scene of your story.
For example, if you’re writing a “film noir”-style scene set inside a detective’s office, you might describe a few key details like the light filtering through the blinds, a cigarette smouldering in an ashtray and a rusty old filing cabinet. This gives the audience a quick impression of the scene, whilst avoiding the slow-paced boredom that would come from describing literally every detail of the room.
So, yes, working out what not to show is actually quite an important part of making any creative work. And the best way to learn how to do this is simply to see the thing you’re creating from your audience’s perspective. In other words, you need to think about how your audience will see the things you create, what they will find interesting and, most importantly of all, what their attention will be drawn to.
Once you know what grabs your audience’s attention, then focus most of your time, effort, words etc… on that.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂