In visual mediums like film or video games, events the audience witnesses are said to happen onscreen. In written mediums, this term applies to events that are directly described. Everything else takes place offscreen, whether it is revealed through exposition or simply left to the audience’s imagination.
So long as all the important events happen onscreen, everything is fine. But sometimes important plot points get left offscreen. This either confuses the audience because vital information is missing, or it disappoints them because they didn’t get to see something cool. Both situations are problems storytellers must learn to avoid.
Spoilers: No Country For Old Men, Mass Effect 3, Deep Space Nine, Blood of Tyrants, and The Last Colony.
1. The Main Character’s Death, No Country For Old Men
No Country For Old Men is a film that people like to call deep and edgy, and it does have Tommy Lee Jones talking about how things were nebulously better at some unspecified time in the past. More specifically, it’s a film that likes to subvert audience expectations.
Take the protagonist, Moss. He’s a hard-bitten veteran who steals two million dollars in drug money and goes on the run. Pursuing him is a fellow named Anton Chigurh, an assassin so dedicated to his job that the people who hired him eventually hire another assassin to stop him.* Chigurh is not only really good at killing, but he also takes sadistic pleasure in it.
The unstated expectation is that Moss and Chigurh will have an exciting showdown, probably with lots of bullets and explosions, and then Moss will walk victoriously into the sunset. Even if Moss doesn’t win, he’ll at least look like a badass when he dies, right?
Nope. Instead, Moss is killed by some random gangsters who aren’t even connected to Chigurh. It’s the ultimate anti-climax. Whether it works is up for debate, but it certainly goes against audience expectations. That could be fine, except that Moss’s death occurs offscreen, and the film only does a quick pan over his body to show that Moss has died. The whole thing happens so quickly that it’s easy to miss.
This offscreen death confuses the audience at the worst possible time. The film already throws a curveball by having some random mooks kill the protagonist instead of Chigurh. Everything else should be rock solid, so the audience can properly take in what’s happened. But because Moss’s death happens offscreen, it’s not even clear that he’s actually dead, and this uncertainty distracts from the rest of the film.
2. Shepard Getting Arrested, Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 2 ends with a victorious Shepard and company flying off into the sunset.* They’re on their own and prepared to do whatever it takes to stop the Reapers, a race of machine intelligence that want to purge the galaxy of sapient life. For plot reasons, Shepard has completely cut ties with the human government. The government was too hesitant in dealing with the Reapers, so Shepard had to take matters into their own hands. One question on the player’s mind is how that dangling thread will be resolved.
Then Mass Effect 3 (ME3) starts, and Shepard is in a cell on Earth with no explanation of how they got there. Wait what? In the previous game, Shepard commanded the most advanced human ship in existence, backed up by a team of loyal badasses. How was Shepard caught? What happened to their crew? ME3 doesn’t say.
While players are distracted with this, they’re asked to absorb a large exposition dump. Shortly after, the game’s big emotional hook arrives in the form of a Reaper invasion, yet players still don’t know the fate of the crew they invested time and energy in over the last two games. When Shepard finally meets back up with their team, it seems everyone just walked off after the previous game’s finale. No other explanation is forthcoming.
That is, unless you’re willing to fork over some extra cash. Between games, Bioware released the DLC Arrival, which details Shepard swooping in to stop the Reapers from gaining an early foothold and getting caught by the government in the process. So, to know what’s going on in a game you paid 60 dollars for, you need to pay extra for a DLC you may not have even known existed if you weren’t looking for it. Classy.
It’s clear from the beginning of Mass Effect 2 that Bioware knew how to do this better. That game also features Shepard waking up in a strange room that’s far removed from where they were in the previous game. However, ME2’s prologue fully explains how Shepard got there, including a playable scene as Shepard’s ship is destroyed around them.
ME3 could have explained how Shepard got into their cell on Earth but chose not to. The third game’s opening is poor storytelling and a shameless cash grab mixed together, which isn’t a good combination.
3. Indoctrination of the Illusive Man, Mass Effect 3
If I seem to pick on Mass Effect 3 a lot, that’s only because it has a lot of problems. This time, we’ll take a look at the Illusive Man, a major foil and villain. He’s first introduced in ME2 as the leader of a human supremacist group, Cerberus. His views are abhorrent, but he has resources and doesn’t want humanity wiped out by the Reapers, so he and Shepard form an uneasy alliance. Throughout ME2, the Illusive Man is built up as ruthless and intelligent, the kind of person who’ll do anything to achieve his goals. He’s a useful ally but a dangerous one.
In ME3, the writers decided to turn the Illusive Man into a full-on villain. Shepard spends more time battling Cerberus than any other enemy, and all trace of the previous game’s alliance disappears. But the third game is still about stopping the Reapers from wiping out all sapient life, including humanity, so how can that line up with the Illusive Man’s previous motivation of protecting humanity at any cost? Simple: mind control.
The Reapers had previously shown they had the ability to control minds through a process called indoctrination. So all the writers had to do was show that the Illusive Man had been indoctrinated, and then he’d dance to the Reapers’ tune. The problem is that indoctrination requires extended contact with Reaper technology, and the Illusive Man knows that. In ME2, he even took extensive precautions to isolate anyone who’d been working with Reaper tech. So how did he become indoctrinated?
The player never finds out, nor does Shepard. It apparently happened offscreen at an unspecified time for unspecified reasons. On its face, this contradicts everything the player has learned about the Illusive Man. It’s hard to imagine him suddenly bringing a piece of Reaper tech into his office after he was so careful in the previous game. The player is left asking questions about the main villain’s motivation, questions that are never answered. Worse, Shepard and the other characters all act like this makes perfect sense.
The Illusive Man becoming indoctrinated is not inexplicable. Perhaps his scientists developed a technology that was supposed to protect him but didn’t work properly. Maybe Cerberus was infiltrated by an agent who was already indoctrinated, with the sole task of bringing the Illusive Man into the fold. Showing his indoctrination could have been a major turning point in the story, with Shepard going to the Illusive Man for help and getting a knife in the back.
Instead, it comes across like a mistake. The villain’s motivation is important enough that audiences expect to see it, especially in video games, where cutscenes are commonly used to clue the player into something the character can’t witness. Not including the Illusive Man’s radical shift leaves players feeling like they’ve missed something important, which isn’t a good feeling to have when the game is rocketing towards its final climax.*
4. Destruction of the Maquis, Deep Space Nine
Taking their name from the French Resistance, the Maquis are a group of Federation colonists who became insurgent fighters against what they see as unrelenting Cardassian aggression. Their backstory is extremely complicated, but the short version is that after the Federation-Cardassian war, the border was drawn in such a way that put several Federation colonies in Cardassian space. This lead to rising tensions and, eventually, open conflict.
Originally created for Voyager, the Maquis saw most of their screen time on Deep Space Nine (DS9), where they’re a serious problem for the Federation. Despite living in Cardassian space, the Maquis are still Federation citizens. When the Maquis attack a Cardassian ship, the Federation is obligated to intervene, even though many Federation officers sympathize with the Maquis.
DS9 has some great episodes centered around the moral dilemmas the Maquis present, but then the Cardassians form a military alliance with the powerful Dominion. The new Cardassian dictator, Gul Dukat, swears to wipe out the Maquis once and for all, as dictators often do. Then nothing is said about the Maquis for several episodes, until it’s revealed that the Maquis were all destroyed offscreen by the Dominion.
That’s a huge let down for anyone interested in the Maquis story, and it ignores the moral dilemma that made the Maquis interesting in the first place. The Federation had to stop the Maquis because the Maquis were Federation citizens, but does that obligation not go the other way? The Federation heard that its citizens were being slaughtered by a hostile military power and did nothing? Worse, the Maquis were based out of Federation colonies in Cardassian space. Unless the Dominion had a magical way of telling exactly who was a Maquis fighter, there would have been civilian casualties. And the Federation was okay with that?
With some effort, it’s possible to explain the Federation’s actions, or lack thereof. Maybe the Federation was unprepared for the onslaught and didn’t have the military strength to intervene. Maybe there was a short, undeclared war and the Federation got its butt kicked. By not featuring the events, the show leaves a number of plot threads hanging, and that makes it difficult for the audience to get any closure.
The Maquis’ destruction could have been an opportunity to further build the Dominion as a threat. If a space battle wasn’t in the budget, the writers could have crafted an episode about needing to evacuate the Maquis colonies before the Dominion showed up, because the Federation wasn’t ready for war. There could have been intense drama as the DS9 cast went to the aid of the Maquis, their former enemies. Instead, the audience was left to wonder what actually happened.
5. The Final Battle, Blood of Tyrants
The eighth book in the Temeraire series, Blood of Tyrants, continues Naomi Novik’s epic story of adding dragons to the Napoleonic Wars. This book covers Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, but now both sides have twenty-ton flying monsters at their disposal. Our heroes are with the British expeditionary force, sent to stop the French juggernaut before it conquers all of Europe.
The entire story builds up to a giant clash of armies. The Russians retreat again and again, stretching out Napoleon’s supply lines while they wait for the Chinese aerial legions to arrive.* Not to be outdone, Napoleon frees abused Russian dragons from their breeding grounds so the mistreated beasts will wreak havoc behind Russian lines.
Both sides jockey for position until finally there can be no more delay. The Chinese dragons arrive to reinforce the Russian line, and the mighty Grand Armée bares down on them. The stage is set for the most epic battle of the series, and then the book ends. Wow, talk about a cliffhanger. It’s fine though, readers only had to wait… three years for the next book, League of Dragons.
But that’s fine, so long as we finally get to see the battle Blood of Tyrants spent so long building towards. Except not, because League of Dragons starts with the battle already over.* This was a huge letdown, and it made all the setup from the previous book feel pointless. Why bother with it if there wasn’t going to be any payoff?
Novik is great at writing dragon battles, so why she decided to skip over this one is baffling. It would have been the first time the Chinese aerial legions really demonstrated what they could do after several books of buildup. Just as importantly, it would have been the first time the Chinese met the French in combat. Those two nations are acknowledged to have the strongest dragon forces in the world, and seeing them fight would have been a treat.
League of Dragons does eventually show a battle between the French and Chinese, but it’s mostly a mopping up exercise, not the epic clash Blood of Tyrants promised. It’s unclear if Novik never planned to include the battle or if leaving it out was born from necessity. Starting League of Dragons with a giant battle would certainly have been difficult, because where does the rising action go from there? Better to have included it in Blood of Tyrants, where it was originally set up.
6. The Entire Story, The Last Colony
The first book of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series features soldier John Perry journeying to strange new worlds, killing the aliens that live there, and then falling in love with the super-soldier clone of his dead wife.* The second book features said clone, who goes by Jane Sagan. As an officer in the special forces, Sagan’s story has higher stakes than Perry’s and reveals a lot more about the setting’s complicated space politics. So far, so good.
The third book, The Last Colony, is about an alien named General Gau. Gau is trying to form a massive alliance of different species so he can finally put a stop to the constant fighting and dying that’s rampant across the galaxy.* To make this alliance work, Gau must overcome millennia-old enmities between species, survive assassination attempts, and deal with devastating sneak attacks by a human government that can’t bear to see the status quo change.
Sounds pretty exciting, right? We barely see any of that. Instead, most of the story focuses on Perry and Sagan* raising their adopted daughter and managing a new colony. We only hear about Gau’s adventure through the occasional exposition dump. Despite the book’s insistence that settling this colony is hard and dangerous, it never feels that way. Food shortages are solved in exposition, and Sagan’s enhanced strength makes any physical dangers trivial. The story gets a brief surge of interest when hostile locals attack, but then they run off never to appear again.*
Meanwhile, General Gau is locked in a vicious civil war engineered by the human government. He’s not only fighting to keep his dream of peace alive but also actively trying to stop a number of other species from ganging up to wipe out humanity, despite the fact that humans keep hindering his plan. Again, we only hear about this secondhand.
Towards the end, it finally looks like the colony story will be relevant to Gau’s Conclave story. Instead, Perry and Sagan send their daughter, Zoe, to deal with the issue offscreen. Zoe is instrumental in solving Gau’s political problem, and she secures a piece of technology so advanced it turns the story’s climax into a cake walk. We don’t see any of this.
I believe The Last Colony is supposed to be a story about Perry and Sagan dealing with the fallout from events they can’t control. That might have worked if they’d faced real threats, but instead we were left with a boring story that occasionally tempted us with something much more interesting. Even Scalzi realized he’d gone too far by having Zoe’s adventure take place offscreen, and he eventually wrote the book Zoe’s Tale to cover those events.
That’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t change the fact that this book should have been about General Gau and his epic space adventure. It would have been the perfect continuation of the first two books’ buildup. Perry and Sagan could have been security for the human diplomatic envoy instead of being shunted off to babysit a colony where nothing happens.
The question of what to include onscreen will forever plague storytellers. When creating your own stories, ask yourself if leaving a plot point out will make the audience stop and question what’s happening. If so, that’s something to put onscreen. You don’t want your audience to spend the whole story wondering how Shepard got to Earth, after all. Another good test is to ask if the part you’re leaving out has more gripping conflict or higher stakes than what you left in. If your story skips over the epic quest of General Gau in favor of Perry and Sagan growing some corn, it might be time to revise.
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