One of the most commonly given pieces of advice for young writers is this: “show, don’t tell”. Stories are always more engaging when the audience is allowed to see for themselves what’s going on, and to draw their own conclusions and implications. When the author is constantly holding the audience’s hand, it just makes for a boring story.
One of the easiest “telling” techniques to identify is narration. Since narration involves a character speaking more or less directly to the audience, it’s easy for narration to become a lazy author’s way of communicating information they cab’t think to work into the story. However–this isn’t the only way narration is ever used. It’s actually an essential element of written-word stories, and it can be well incorporated into visual stories–television and movies–as well. It all hinges on the narration playing a meaningful role in the story.
Two of the television shows I’ve watched recently feature narration as an element the writers attempted to use within the first few episodes. These shows are DC’s Arrow and CBS’s Limitless, both of which are currently available on Netflix in their entirety. Arrow is a superhero adaptation of the DC comics character Green Arrow, and Limitless is a spinoff of the 2011 Bradley Cooper film of the same name. Both shows are available to stream, and they’re both fairly interesting. But their respective usage of narration effectively shows the pros and cons to using such a narrative device in a visually told story.
Arrow features narration by the main character in the first few episodes only. Said main character eventually stopped narrating along to the events of the show, because the narration was effectively useless. All it did was sum up the events that had happened so far–events the audience had already seen play out. The narration was redundant, and that made it boring. Even worse, it had little to no entertainment value. Arrow has drawn criticism for taking itself too seriously, and the narration at the very beginning of the show was the perfect example of that problem. Arrow‘s narration, limited as it was, was an unendingly grim summary of the show’s events–and some of those events were too absurd to fuse well with the gritty, self-serious style of the show. Fortunately, the writers seem to have realized this, the amount of narration in Arrow dropped dramatically within the first few episodes, almost to zero.
Now let’s talk about Limitless.
Limitless also features narration by the main character as a defining characteristic of its first few episodes. However, narration in Limitless works much better than it does in Arrow, for a few reasons.
First: it actually serves a purpose. In Arrow, the narration really only exists to let the writers rehash what they already showed the audience, and to let them tell the viewer how the main character is feeling. It’s essentially the worst combination of showing and telling. Limitless‘s narration, by contrast, gives the writers a way to show the main character’s thought process. this might not work in a different story, but Limitless relies on being able to quickly communicate the main character’s genius-level reasoning and leaps of logic with the audience. This justifies the use of narration, making it less grating to the audience.
The second reason is that it’s just more pleasant to watch. Arrow‘s narration, as I said, is almost unendingly somber and bleak (just like the show itself, but that’s another topic). Limitless plays to its strengths and keeps its bouts of narration relatively lighthearted, in keeping with its own tone. The actor also delivers the lines with more emotion and interest than there is to be found in Arrow. All in all, Limitless is just more fun to watch.
Finally–going back to what I mentioned in the first point–Limitless‘s writers don’t use the narration to cheat their way out of writing an emotionally engaging character. They never use it to tell the audience how the main character is feeling–only what he’s doing and thinking, whenever he’s doing or thinking it faster than the average audience can follow. In essence, the writers of Limitless don’t take the chance to be lazy. They weave the characters’ feelings into the story and let the actors portray those emotions within each scene. The show isn’t perfect, but it feels more authentic than the early episodes of Arrow, because it trusts it audience to understand what’s going on, and draw their own conclusions.
Narration, like all elements of story, isn’t right for every story. It can’t and shouldn’t be applied across the board. But it is a useful tool for some stories, and when it’s used well in visual media it’s important to study why it works. Looking at the difference between these two shows, it’s easy to see where one went wrong. Limitless lets the actors and story communicate the emotional beats without holding the audience’s hand. Arrow feels that it can’t rely on its audience to understand what’s happening, so the characters are constantly talking about how their emotions. And that’s a failing that can make a decent show mediocre. If not used carefully and purposefully, narration can all too easily become a crutch that writers use to avoid writing emotional subtext.