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The Bunraku Effect

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There is a neat little movie called Bunraku that tells a story in a kind of fantasy realm of modern suits and crossed blades with not a firearm in sight. During the opening, we are told this is a post-apocalyptic tale, and guns were outlawed after the final war.

The movie didn’t need the explanation. It actually damages the story. The setting is very surreal, looking more like a stage production than a film. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with not having firearms. The lack of weapons fits with the surreal nature of the setting. In telling me this is post-apocalyptic, you lead me – as the viewer – to question. Are you – the filmmaker – trying to tell me that in the era following the apocalypse the world will look like a stage play?

Also, by explaining to me why there are no firearms, you are inviting my disbelief rather than helping to suspend it. Outlawing firearms might have been possible in Japan during the Shogunate, but it hasn’t worked anywhere else. Look at the artisanal gun manufacturers along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan and tell me how one can control guns. And pretending all of humanity would turn away from a violent technology because of its devastating effects and I’ll remind you that it only took 21 years for Europe to plunge into the Second World War after the First.

No matter the explanation, I must still suspend my disbelief when I see a movie with modern fashions and no firearms, especially when it looks like a play, so in explaining the absence of firearms you do not alter that required suspension, you just add to the list of items for which I must suspend it. And when I find the explanation questionable, it strains that suspension.

In a movie – a very visual medium – it is possible to avoid providing explanations. We are generally not inside the character’s head, and so are not privvy to the character’s personal knowledge. What about in novels and short stories? It is not so easy to avoid explanations in written fiction.

There are three ways I avoid providing information.

1) If it is common knowledge, why would the character be thinking about it anyway? It’s not like I consider the invention and evolution of the gas turbine engine every time I get into my car. I also don’t run down in my head the steps that led to the imposition of speed limits when I’m on the highway. This is common knowledge. Even if we are inside a character’s head, why would the character constantly be thinking about the reason for the lack of firearms?

2) Maybe the character doesn’t know. There is no indication that anybody in Bunraku knows of firearms, let alone why they are not available. If the character does not know the reasons or history behind something, the character cannot reveal it, even in an internal monologue.

3) You can write in extremely limited third person. This is basically writing as though one is watching a movie. We are not in any character’s head, and the narrator is only providing us with the most common pieces of knowledge, if that. This provides an experience like watching a movie or seeing events in which one is not an active participant. Like a movie, we are not in the character’s head, so even if the character has information, the reader will not necessarily have access to it.

It’s not that as a writer you want to hide information from your reader, but sometimes there are good reasons – such as infringing too much on the willing suspension of disbelief – to avoid sharing. Maybe you don’t even know. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the story stands on its own two feet.

And it’s your job to see that it does.

You can find more information on Bunraku at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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