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If You Came to My House, I Wouldn't Explain My Toaster
You don't need to tell your audience how everything works in your fictional world. Really you don't.
This is part of my “Art of Noticing” series, in which I learn, find, or discover the things around me that usually go unnoticed and turn them into an endless source of creative inspiration.
Today, I noticed that I have no idea how most of the technology around me works. It made me realize that in a fictional world, it would be unrealistic to fixate on how things work, or to go out of my way to explain them.
The world all around us is magical. Just invite someone to time-travel here from the past, and they’d think we were doing magic. Really think about it. All that we accept as normal, today, is actually pretty nuts.
But do we normally think about it? Would you look to your friend, who also lives in the here and now, and explain how your cell phone works?
Okay, so why do people do that sort of thing all the time in fiction — explaining tech to other characters, or explaining via narration inside a character’s head?
Most of us don't even consider how our gadgets work. We simply accept them and move on. I’d like to put forth that characters in even the most fantastical stories should do the same.
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Here's how this "noticing" can benefit my stories and art:
Letting Imagination Fill the Gaps
Your audience isn’t stupid, and yet writers in particular seem to be deadly afraid (or certain) that they are. That’s why they overexplain. I’ve been guilty of it in the past: A character walks past a fantastical machine, and I feel the need to explain that machine via the character’s perspective … instead of having them simply walk past it without so much as wondering, as any of us would, if we lived every day in that world.
But your audience isn’t stupid … and what’s more, they want to use their imaginations at least a little to fill in the gaps. Unless something is critical, it doesn’t need explaining. I hereby resolve to be more hands-off, and let people intuit, from context, how things work.
By not over-explaining, we leave room for readers to paint their own pictures. It makes them active participants, adding depth to their own experience.
Creating Universes with Depth
A universe with accepted norms, no matter how fantastical, feels deep and lived-in. It gives the sense of a broader world beyond the immediate story, inviting readers to explore further.
It’s worth considering that magic often lies in subtlety. Whether it's a flying car or a talking tree, letting those things exist as part of the world's fabric can make our stories both wondrous and grounded.
Your readers or audience will figure out the parts that matter if you tell the story well. Trust them for a change.
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