A few years ago my kids gave me a copy of The Jedi Doth Return—or, in full, William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return: Star Wars Part the Sixth, by Ian Doescher (2014). This little book is a retelling of the movie Return of the Jedi in the form of a Shakespeare play, with the entire text in iambic pentameter.
It’s great fun to see the swashbuckling space epic transformed into sixteenth-century poetry. And the reading is surprisingly good as well, with some memorable phrases bringing out nuances not necessarily detectable in the movie; at least one passage was striking enough to make it onto my Quote of the Week page back in 2017.
But one thing in particular caught my attention, perhaps because of the contrast between SF subject matter and Shakespearean technique: how frequently the characters describe in words what’s happening. For example, in Act I, Scene 3 (p. 25), Leia sneaks into Jabba’s palace to rescue Han Solo:
In stealth I move throughout the palace dark,
That no one shall bear witness to my acts.
Now cross the court, with footsteps nimbly plac’d.
Ne’er did a matter of such weight depend
Upon a gentle footfall in the night.
Put out the light, and then relume his light—
Aye, now I spy my goal: the frozen Han.
Thy work is finish’d, feet. Now ’tis the hands
That shall a more profound task undertake.
Quick to the panel, press the needed code.
O swiftly fly, good hands, and free this man
From his most cold and undeservéd cell.
O true decryptionist, thy codes are quick!
The scheme hath work’d, the carbonite doth melt.
She’s narrating what’s happening, in just the fashion of a true Shakespeare character (“What light through yonder window breaks?”). Of course, if she were actually saying this aloud, she’d have roused the whole palace; but of course the Shakespearean convention of the inaudible (except to the audience) soliloquy is also in effect.
This self-description seems to be even more necessary in an action sequence. When Luke peels off from Leia to pursue Imperial scouts in the landspeeder chase through the forest (Act III, Scene 1, p. 77), along with stage directions, we get a similar blow-by-blow account:
LEIA: ‘Tis well. Be safe, and I shall see thee soon.
LUKE: [aside] O sister, all my thanks for tender words.
[Luke falls behind, alongside
Imperial Scouts 5 and 6.
Now shall this bike’s keen blaster find its mark!
I shoot, and one is dead; the other next.
[Luke shoots and kills Imperial Scout 6.
LEIA: I shall fly high o’er this one’s bike, that he
May think that I have fled. Then shall I from
Above make my attack. Ha! Now beside
His bike, surprise is my sure strategy.
[Imperial Scout 4 shoots at Leia.
Alas! My bike is hit, and off I fall!
Reading this as a book, the narration helps me figure out what’s going on (and helps me visualize the appropriate scenes from the movie I know so well). Of course, if I could see the play actually performed, some things would be clearer. Still, a stage play can’t provide all the visual background we’d get in a movie. I have no idea how they’d depict the land-speeder chase on stage—though I’d like to see them try! Maybe it’s the shortage of visual imagery that requires the dialogue.
But it’s not quite that simple.
The Comic-Book Monologue
In an old-style comic book, we also see characters providing a lot of description. The villain doesn’t just whip out his infernal device and fire it at the good guys; he’s also likely to announce something like, “Now, tremble before the power of my unstoppable Meson Beam, as it suppresses the strong nuclear force and disintegrates your very molecules!” Here’s an example from Fantastic Four #52, the first appearance of the Black Panther (1966):
Sometimes a quantity of prose is expended on a mere landscape scene, as with this magnificent Kirbyesque high-tech jungle shot.
Why all the verbiage? The trouble is, the special effects alone doesn’t tell us much. In primarily visual media, we don’t get internals or narrator comments. A genius like Reed Richards may be able to figure out instantly what an exotic weapon is doing, but we poor readers can’t. Even in a non-action scene, the implications of the Panther’s “jungle” might not be obvious without having someone to explain.
Of course, as the first panels above illustrate, wedging all this dialogue into an action sequence requires another convention, as arbitrary as the Shakespearean soliloquy: “talking is a free action.” We are simply to accept the notion that a character can deliver a lengthy speech while taking split-second actions. The expository lecture is more plausible when cruising through a landscape, as in the second image.
When my brother Matt and I were working on our great unfinished comic-book epic back in grade school, we faithfully replicated this convention, allowing a hero to get off an appropriately heroic declaration while a roof is falling on his head. (Apologies for the black-and-white shot; I don’t have the full-color original ready to hand.)
Not all graphic novels use this convention. It may not be as common in manga, for example, where there’s a lot more action without explanation—and where, as a consequence, I sometimes have trouble figuring out what’s going on. This discrepancy may reflect a cultural difference; I didn’t grow up with Japanese comic culture and may be missing some clues. Still, I think it’s harder to make out events without the occasional verbal aside. In the Sailor Moon manga and anime, for example, if there’s any dialogue at all that relates to a superpower, it’s likely to consist in calling out an attack name like “Moon Princess Halation,” which by itself communicates even less than “magnetic anti-polarity.” I’ve encountered some similar problems reading contemporary American graphic novels like Monstress.
Visual media have some advantages in being able to show directly what people are doing, depending on the medium. However, the audience for a stage play is likely to be at some distance from the performers, which means that very small actions may be hard to make out. If a character on stage is, say, picking a lock, there will probably have to be some setup to make clear what they’re going to do (especially if the locked door is invisible and not actually part of the stage set). In a movie, on the other hand, the director is free to show the character crouching next to the door with her tools, then cut to a close-up shot of her hands working the tools in the lock, then back out to the door opening. Comic books can do the same thing.
This assumes we already understand what picking a lock is. The need for explanatory narration is accentuated in science fiction and fantasy stories, where the things that are happening may be extraordinary. When the action is more mundane, we can get by with less explanation. If the villain fires a pistol at the good guys, we don’t need to be told how a pistol works. But if the action uses superhuman powers or advanced technology that we haven’t seen before, an explanation may still be necessary.
Consider Marvel Comics’ Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff). Her powers originally consisted rather vaguely in casting a “hex,” which caused things to go wrong (in unspecified ways) for the target of the hex. Later retcons and expansions introduced a number of different power sets. But in the Marvel Cineverse movie versions, her powers are hardly explained at all. We may see her blasting Thanos, but we don’t actually understand (even in the lenient comic-book-movie sense of “understand”) what her powers are supposed to be. For all practical purposes, she might as well be Sailor Moon. (Now there’s an idea for a crossover . . .)
As always, there are good and bad ways to supply the necessary explanations. As I’ve mentioned before, the original Star Wars is good at this: Han can snap out the line “. . . while I make the calculations for the jump to lightspeed,” and that’s all we need to know. On the other hand, there’s what Shamus Young describes as “Super Exposition” in a 7/6/17 blog post: “The villains blabbed their plans for no reason. Heroes narrated their own actions to themselves, out loud, during a fight. Characters would stop and explain why something was good or bad right in the middle of it happening, because the writers didn’t set anything up ahead of time.” Overdone, the practice falls into condescending overexplanation.
On the whole, the different media seem to require different types and levels of exposition. In a purely verbal medium like a book, when we have only the words to work with, every action must be described. On stage, at least some forms of presentation describe the action verbally as well. And even in a movie, where we can see what’s happening in detail, we may still need to have the events analyzed.
4 thoughts on “Tell Me What You’re Doing”
I’ll have to check out the Shakespearean version of Star Wars for sure! That’s a crack up
Yes. There’s a whole series of these — all eight episodes in the main series, I think — but I’ve only read the one. (So far.)
Working the exposition into the narrative remains one of the great challenges of fantasy and science fiction *books.* Visual media, though, can get away with more, I think, because we can see the action, it isn’t interrupted, and we don’t have to stop for explanations.
Excellent post as usual!!