“Talking to the audience” is my term for the technique that some television, film, and play writers employ to unnaturally transmit contextual information, via their characters’ dialogue, to their audience. That is, they force their characters to supplement their natural communication with clarifying circumstantial details for the benefit of us viewers: such scripted characters are heard saying strange things that they otherwise wouldn’t if they were allowed to live their lives as if no one from another dimension were watching them.
Here are a few of my favourite examples of this troubling tendency:
(1) BACKSTORY COMMUNICATION:
Jenny is talking to Jim, whose arm is in a cast.
JENNY: Hi, Jim. How’s your broken arm from when you fell off your motorbike?
Jenny’s specifying of the particulars of how Jim got his broken arm is not for Jim’s benefit (since Jim likely already knows why his arm’s so sore right now), but instead is an indirect message from Jenny’s author to us so that we’ll know why Jim is wearing a cast. If Jenny were allowed to speak to Jim without the obligations of communicating to us peeping audience members, she would have likely just said, “How’s the arm?”
(2) EXPERT-TO-EXPERT DETAIL SHARING:
When two scientists in a show are talking about something with which they are quite familiar, but their author realizes most of their audience is not, we often get the following result:
JIM: Did you get any conclusive results on the DNA test?
JENNY: Well, in order to check for a viable match, I need to first apply X scientific process to determine results.
JIM: And, when you conduct that test, you’ll be able to see definitively whether the DNA sample matches that of our victim.
JENNY: I concur, doctor.
Admittedly, sometimes one scientist might not know the procedures or knowledge of another, but all too often in such dialogue, they tell each other things that they would have learned in scientist grade school and so would find quite condescending to be lectured upon at this advanced stage in their careers.
(3) RELATIONSHIP IDENTIFICATION:
Sometimes a writer might want us to know right away how two characters know each other, so they’ll offer the following dialogue.
JIM: Nice outfit, sis, are you going somewhere fancy tonight?
In my experience, real people rarely refer to their sisters as “sis,” but instead call them by their first names (or nicknames). This is not universal, so if the author of this dialogue honestly believes that Jim would refer to his sister as “sis,” then all’s swell in love and dialogue; however, I’ll be watching. If, during all other interactions in the plot, the character Jim nevermore says “sis” to Jenny, then we know for sure that in that anomalous first instance, Jim’s author was sending us a message (“By the way, these two are siblings!”).
Whenever I hear an author calling out to me in the above and other ways, I find I am removed from my engrossment in their plot because the show is so conspicuously reminding me that its characters do not have free will, and instead are agents of the writer-god who created them. (In fact, sometimes, I’ll talk back to television characters when they are talking to the audience so that I can see if their awareness of my existence will translate into them being able to hear me.)
Thus, from witnessing the works of many authors who don’t utilize this embarrassing information dissemination service, I would like to offer those who do a few proven suggestions for how to avoid it:
(1) Use a narrator. Narrators are amazing! Their job is literally to talk to the audience for you, so they can offer meta comments about your characters’ lives without poisoning their dialogue with strangely unnecessary details. For instance:
NARRATOR JENNY: There was Jim. I hadn’t seen him since the day that he broke his arm falling off his motorbike.
JENNY: Hey, how’s the arm?
(2) Tour your world through the perspective of a character just arriving in its grounds. So, for instance, your experts could be explaining their procedures to a newly-minted scientist just out of university.
(3) If in doubt, let the audience figure out the details for themselves. In most cases, if your world is well developed, we’ll be able to determine who’s who and how everyone is related to each other as we watch. Most of us have been watching popular entertainment since we were old enough to hold a remote, so we’re actually really good at extrapolating details that aren’t yet there. We’ll generally do this by a constant series of trial-and-error estimates as to what’s going on, which we’ll correct as we receive new evidence.
So, for instance, when we see that Jim and Jenny are really familiar with each other, we’ll estimate that they have a shared history. As we see them talking about each other’s separate dating worlds, we’ll guess that they’re either friends or siblings, and when one says to the other, “Did you hear about Uncle Charlie?” we’ll determine that they’re probably related, and so on. We really don’t mind doing that. It’ll be our pleasure.