Explain Nothing: The Secret to Storytelling

Over a lovely summer break I’ve had the chance to watch and read a number of fantastic stories. Many of them have been kids movies and books that I’ve been watching or telling to my four year old as we’ve endured the heat and rain. Some are better than others but the good ones have something in common.

They explain nothing.

The best stories invite you into worlds, populate them with memorable characters and then take you on a journey, but they don’t explain anything. They don’t explain the geopolitical machinations, the cultural landscape, the local mythology or religious beliefs. They just tell the story.

And it works because a good story is not seeking to become part of your world – you want to become part of it.

This lack of explanation is the secret sauce for truly great movies. From those of Studio Ghibli through to Mad Max Fury Road. It’s what made the new Star Wars good and the last three suck (seriously midiclorians are the perfect explanation and why it’s wrong). It’s why you can jump from the visual polish of Pixar to the painterly style of Song of the Sea – they don’t explain their worlds – they just make them worth inhabiting.

An explanation needs to find commonality. In order to bridge realities it must relate to our actual reality – it’s culture, science and political ideologies – and in doing so it destroys the magic. It destroys our ability to suspend our beliefs and be absorbed by the fiction and become part of their world.

Don’t get me wrong, you still need to get everything else right – the world, visuals, characters and story – but it just doesn’t need to be explained. That’s what we do, that’s how we participate in a book and a movie. We explain it, we build the bridges and anchor it into our world and cultural experience. It’s how we make art our own. By creating our own explanation.

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