Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mad Max Fury Road: All Show No Tell

My characters tend to be emotional teens who are stuck inside their heads. When I was in high school, I had a hard time seeing the world outside of myself. I overthought and over-analyzed everything (probably still do). Because of this, when I write contemporary young adult novels, my characters tend to have the same self-reflection and existentialism.

Recently, I've been moving in another direction. While I still plan on making several contemporary, emotional YA books (A Criminal Heart, No Sugar Coating, and The End Diary), I am working on several fantasy and sci-fi titles. While these characters still have some introspection, the books revolve heavily around plot rather than internal turmoil.

So why Mad Max: Fury Road? Warning: Spoilers. Not only is the movie visually stunning, but there is virtually no "telling" at all. There are moments where the characters could explain a lot (through monologues and exposition), but they don't. Information is passed along quickly with characters interrupting each other as a natural ebb and flow of dialogue.

"The soil, we had to get out."
"We had no water."
"The water was filth."
"It was poison..."

This conversation takes a minute, but they (along with the viewers) come to the horrible realization together: there is no green place. Furiosa screams into the desert, heart-wrenched. We know how she's feeling, and it's done visually. No existential internal narration needed.

We never receive an explanation of the war boys, but we collect knowledge of this universe through context and dialogue. "At the end of his half-life" and the tumors growing on the side of Nick Hoult's neck. We know how hard it is to have a non-deformed child because the stillborn baby was "perfect in every way" (a grand announcement), and every single ruler has something physically wrong. This makes extra narration unnecessary.

This is hard to do when most YA books feature a teen at the start of their journey. With In a Blue Moon, my MC Effy stumbles down a rabbit hole into absolute chaos. She needs to ask questions, but only has limited time due to her deadly situation. Information is revealed as new questions arrived to avoid any long-winded info-dumps.

The story I recently started, Ferals (working title), features Wren, a teen who has grown up in this universe. She knows and understands the world, thus she doesn't need to explain it to the reader. I am taking a page from Mad Max and trying to show this universe is instead of explaining how it came to be. In the first 5000 words, there are two paragraphs of exposition. Two. The rest of the world comes through descriptions and dialogue between the seven characters.

By having an MC who is aware of the world, more work is placed on the reader to fill in the blanks. Mad Max: Fury Road unfolds the universe without explanation, while still providing viewers with enough information to draw conclusions. A good writer should be able to do this. I should be able to do this.

While film does rely on the inherent visual aspect, books can and should lean that way as well. Sure, you don't want your MC to sound like a robot prattling off X happened then Y happened. You need some flavor. You need descriptors and emotions. Incorporate all the senses. If you are writing in first person, you can have some internal reflection (heck, you can have this in third person too).

Instead of: I stuck out my hand, and he shook it.
You can have: I stuck out my hand--a stupid move I wanted to take back--but he still shook it.

The second gets you into the character's head. The MC is self-conscious around this guy. It keeps the focus on the visual aspects, but provides insight into the MC's thought process without a long-winded diatribe (though, there can be a place for that as well).

If anyone wants a refresher on "how to create a universe where your MC is aware of how the world works, but the reader does not... and how to clue the reader in without over-saturating your book with exposition," watch Mad Max: Fury Road. Analyze how they show the world and how they accomplish bringing you into the universe. The script might give you some good ideas for writing your next novel. Reflecting on this movie has helped me.


  1. I have this one waiting in my queue for me to watch. I look forward to seeing what you mean here by how they explain the world without oversaturating informational dumps on the viewer. I'm glad I read this post before I've seen it so I'll know to pay attention :D

    1. Hope I didn't spoil too much for you, Jaclyn! Violence and explosions aside, it is a really cleverly done movie. I thought about the script a lot because it's so minimal. I think it is easier to see the core of why it works so well when there isn't a lot of dialogue/over-writing. :) Enjoy the movie when you finally do see it!