Don’t hold your audience’s hand – be they readers, viewers, or listeners. I’m a huge believer in this adage. There is nothing worse than when an “artist” insults my intelligence. “Show, don’t tell” gets its routes from this idea. To constantly tell people things is to believe them incapable of understanding the things you show them. Hot flash – I understand things! And if you really want to piss me off, treat me like I don’t.
Vince Gilligan – who most will know as the creator of Breaking Bad, though my own fandom traces all the way back to his days as a writer on The X Files – once said, “If you give the audience 2 and 2, they’ll get to 4.” That’s where I first heard the quote, but apparently it originally came from famed director Billy Wilder. I couldn’t find him saying the words directly, but I did find him saying this: “Let people reach for it. Let them add it up. Don’t spell it out. They’re not stupid.”
Ah, music to my ears. Thank-you, Billy!
But how’s this for irony? When I finally gave up the superiority act and started watching Breaking Bad, by episode three I already found myself being called stupid. Now, don’t get me wrong – for the most part, Breaking Bad is perfectly intelligent storytelling, but this episode in question, …And the Bag’s in the River, which was otherwise terrific, had one moment where I felt thoroughly let down. Walter White has a prickly drug-dealer tied up in the basement, and he spends the entire episode questioning what to do with him: to kill or not to kill. This dilemma is bracketed by a series of flashbacks in which Walter is in a classroom, along with his then girlfriend Gretchen, going over all the chemical elements of the human body (or something like that). Ultimately all of the elements add up to 99.8%. Walter says, “It seems like something’s missing, doesn’t it? There’s got to be more to a human being than that.”
The episode is about morality – in effect, the whole series is about morality – so anyone with half a head on their shoulders should quickly understand that they’re alluding to the soul. It is said, after all, that the soul weighs some 21 grams. I watch this play out on Breaking Bad, and I’m thinking, “Vince, don’t give me 4. I got to 4 on my own.”
But he gave me 4.
How much better would it have been if Walter said, “There’s something missing,” and then the episode cut to black? It didn’t happen.
“What about the soul?” Gretchen asks.
Ugh. You were so close, Vince. So very close. How symbolic – Walter adds up elements on a chalk board, and yet the show won’t let the audience add things up themselves. But in the end, it shouldn’t have mattered if the audience got there or not. Even if they hadn’t stumbled upon the actual word, soul, they would have had their own interpretation, and a writer’s job is, for the most part, to let people have their own interpretation. So if you find yourself putting pen to paper one of these days, fiddle with the number 2 all you want, but stay away from 4. You’ll be all the better for it.