The invention of telling

One of the popular credos of creative writing is “show, don’t tell”. This is a kind of multi-cellular thing – sometimes for the sake of brevity or pace you’ve just got to write some exposition or state an emotion – but mostly not. I’m guessing it also depends on your audience too – who are you writing for?

Last weekend I watched the first few minutes of The Invention of Lying before switching it off. Now the movie has garnered some good reviews, and I do admire Ricky Gervais’s talent – his moment was the best thing about Night at the Museum (don’t get me started on that movie, whew) – and his energy, his comic timing and skills both on and off screen. The premise behind The Invention of Lying seems pretty cool too: a world where no one can tell a lie, upset by someone who discovers how to. The thing was – and here’s the point about show, don’t tell – the movie begins with a voice-over explaining all that.

Why explain so explicitly? Where’s the elegance, the subtlety, the build? I guess it’s worked on a level, given the positive reviews on IMDB, and since I didn’t watch the rest of the movie I can’t speak about it’s merits later on (just that the first voice over, and the first couple of lines of dialogue were enough to put me off). From the cover and blurb I already knew enough about all that – I guess I was looking for some chance to discover this world, to learn and grow with it, rather than being slammed with the obvious right off.

I’m in no position to dis the film – that’s not my intention – I just want to examine that technique and question it. What if they’d begun just with that city fly-over, then in the building as the nervous man (shown through his demeanour and actions) heads to his blind-date’s door, without the voice-over? What if their first moment of conversation was a little more subtle? Certainly, that would have engaged me more – and I likely would have watched beyond that.

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