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Is it ever okay to "spell it out?"


Well-Known Member
I ask this because of how in fandoms, certain things in a show or book or any sort of story can go over people's head with certain subtleties or, as TV Tropes calls it, Fridge Brilliance. While some may be able to get it, others wouldn't. On the flip side, spelling things out could come off as you thinking your readers are idiots that need every damn thing explained. Which isn't good.

This is an issue with me since I'm damn awful at elaborating on something like a character's inner conflict or psychological stuff. Hell, I'm praying that you're getting at least the gist of what I'm getting at with this thread.

Kutie Pie

"It is my destiny."
Eh... kinda depends on the situation? If you know you're going to give an answer later on in the book, like showing an important event or in the climax or whatever, it's best to assume your readers are intelligent enough to catch on. Of course, do keep in mind that Fridge Brilliance doesn't happen the first viewing/reading. It takes a bit for it to sink in, whether through a second viewing or just from repeating questions over-and-over in your head, and eventually the answer, or something close to the actual answer, will pop up, and you'll go "A-ha!"

I kinda let it go when it's one character telling another character whom is just as clueless as the reader (usually) what is going on, but if they're beating it into your skull every chance they get, or that it's obvious they're spoon-feeding you everything, I'd say that's pushing it. You really only need it explained once, it's just that unfortunately not everyone is on the same page, so you'll sometimes get complaints of "I still didn't get it!"

So I think it mostly just depends on your own personal judgment and on how it is you plan on telling the story, and also in revealing the meat of it all. I've thought about this myself, but as far as I know, I haven't had to go so far as to spell things out in the story. Giving an explanation to someone in a personal message, though, I have done a couple of times. But for the most part, I've had readers who thought for themselves and came to their own conclusions, which in turn became my own personal fridge brilliance from time to time.


Lost but Seeking
It's really a question of what your reader must know in order to understand and enjoy the story and what it would be cool for them to know. Generally, I think you should be as explicit as possible with information that's essential to understanding the actual progression of the story; otherwise you stray perilously close to being confusing for the sake of being confusing. There are times when you might want readers to struggle with the text or to feel a bit lost, but you have to ensure that there is eventually some payoff and you aren't just obfuscating things because it makes you feel like a sophisticated writer or whatever.

Fridge Brilliance strikes me as something a bit different, though. It's not like you can't follow the story if these things aren't explained; they're kind of little subtleties that just make it way cooler once you do understand them. If a reader doesn't get something like that, it's not going to utterly ruin the story for them, although they might not enjoy it as much or they might fail to take away what the author had hoped. In this case, I think "spelling it out" is generally better avoided--I mean, the real cool thing about those little details is the joy readers have in discovering them for themselves. It makes them feel like they've stumbled on something really cool and can help them feel more connected to the story, I think; they kind of "own" a part of it, it's something they themselves found, and that not everyone necessarily noticed. It's the kind of thing you can ask your friends about, like "Hey did you notice this cool thing??". Those are the really exciting moments in fiction!

So yes, I do think it's okay to lay things out straight in some cases; if the story is just going to be unreadable or unfulfilling if people don't understand something, I think you should be sure you've gotten it across, as explicitly as you think necessary. But other than that, I think a light touch is best. It can be very, very difficult to get this kind of thing right, especially because you're never going to be perfect about conveying information--sometimes you might think you were totally blatant about something, but people won't understand it anyway, for example, because your execution was poor. I probably tend to err more on the side of saying too little, for example.

Fortunately, fanfiction is particularly good for honing your skills in this area, because if people don't get it you're likely to actually get comments about it, whereas there's less interaction with readers in more traditional media. Ultimately, there are going to be some people who just don't get it, sometimes even when you spell it out, so you can't expect 100% comprehension, but you can try and gauge around what percentage of your audience is just lost and which ones are with you and try to adjust your writing to reach a proportion you're comfortable with.


Well-Known Member
To be more specific with Fridge Brilliance, it's common with MLP and Korra and those webpage enhanced my love for the shows. But I don't want to come off as a lazy dick telling my readers to "figure it out yourselves."


Okay, there's a bit of a difference between subtlety and fridge brilliance. I think you're confusing the two and I need to make it clear they aren't the same thing.

Subtlety is hinting at something, generally relevant to the overarching plot, that readers may not get the first time. It's done by all manner of things, like (good) foreshadowing, slow and well-measured character development, the seamless incorporation of plot objects, etc. Subtlety is usually key in executing subplots and, by the end of the story, the things you were showing should be clear to the reader, even if they aren't entirely sure why its clear to them. Basically, you're taking tons of little tiny threads over the course of the story and weaving them together so that when all the cards are on the table, suddenly all these little things make sense, but it'll take the audience a second read-through for them to understand why they had that "Eureka!" moment in the first place.

A good example of this would be going back and rereading the Harry Potter books after finishing the seventh, and looking for all the little instances where Snape's behavior towards Harry seems out of character from the brusque, sardonic and surly authoritative figure he usually is. In a rare case, this is also quite evident in the movie adaptations, because Rowling took care to tell Alan Rickman how Snape's character ended up in the end in the early days of filming Sorcerer's Stone. So all along, Rickman knew exactly how Snape would react to any given event as it concerns Harry given his history with Lily and Dumbledore. There are cuts in scenes of him (in the early movies most especially) looking incredibly concerned or worried when it would be far more in-character (or so we'd think) for him to be smug. That's not fridge brilliance, that's just incredibly subtle little things that didn't make sense until everything came to light in the end.

Another (different) example of this would be a novella I read for class early this year, The Nun of That. I can't remember the writer, and I'll edit this post if I can. Within the first two pages, the narrator says that her daughter and her best friend are imaginary, but she's kind of a strange woman who does some strange things, and since the daughter and friend are written as convincing characters, you sort of disregard that they're imaginary. Little clues over the course of the story remind you that, yes, they are, but you as a reader want to think that it's just the narrator being weird. But in the end you realize that they never existed and she's built up this whole fantasy life for herself, and while she was totally up front about it it was you who convinced yourself she was lying.

Fridge Brilliance is a bit different, and it tends to have its roots more in symbolism than subtext. Not to say it can't be subtext, but it's far more common to see it in symbols and actions employed in the work that convey a psychological resonance. You cited Korra as an example, so I'll use that in my examples. Korra is meant to be Aang's opposite, and in many ways, he overall demeanor reflects that. There's also the fact that the events of the first season take place in the fall, while the earlier series took place in winter, then spring, then summer. It picked up right where the last one left off, albeit 70 years later. Then there's Amon's use of the red disk, which pretty universally means the sun. He was supposed to be looked at as an enlightener, a bringer of a new age of reason. Not to mention, he was the Avatar the city needed, one who could have brought balance and harmony except that he went about it wrong. For my last example, I'll call up one of the last scenes of the finale, with Korra on the cliff. One could assume that yes, she just ran as far as she could to be alone and to think, but there's also the possibility she meant to commit suicide there. Certainly, standing on the edge seems to poke at that.

If you look through other TV Tropes Fridge Brilliance pages, you're going to find that a lot of the examples in there are symbolism, and that in turn conveys a subtext, because we are psychologically wired to associate certain things with other certain things, and it's only when we go back and look at them understanding that that we begin to understand why we associated those two things together in the first place. Does that make sense? I hope it does...

If you're looking to get more into a character's psychosis, you'll want to look more at subtlety and subtext, and less at the potential for fridge brilliance. To do that, to have people go back and say "Oh, that all makes sense now!" or "So that's why I associated this with that", you'll have to understand people first. The best way to write convincing characters and all that other stuff I've talking about is to watch and listen to people doing what they do all the time. Someone could say "I'm fine", but what they could mean is "I'm in desperate need of a hug" and it's our job as writers to convey that through our writing. So watch people as they pass on the street, at how they carry themselves and form their words and use their intonations. Watch movies with skilled actors who understand emotion and how to convey it believably. Read Chekhov and Shakespeare and Dickens and Shelley (Mary, principally, but I'm sure Percy did something right somewhere) and Twain and Hugo. You can't write psychological depth until you understand psychological depth, and writing with subtext takes a lot of practice. The best thing to do is try it, and when it doesn't work, try it again, rinse and repeat.


This has always baffled me. How do you give readers enough information without giving too much away or conversely, too little?

My biggest fear is that well, to be blunt, there are a lot of people who aren't all that smart these days (I don't mean anyone here, but potential generic audiences in general.) They won't understand big words, which are frowned upon, for instance, so how will they understand subtle hints strewn about?


Well-Known Member
Another example would be the Anime Madoka Magica where a criticism is the apparent lack of "character depth and development" yet others (like me) didn't find the series to be lacking it even though it wasn't really spelt out. It was there, just not spelt out like other series would've. Conversely, I would venture to guess that they'd be the same kind of people to complain about being treated like a baby for having things spelt out.

(Oh and if possible, could we not have this thread spiral out of control with tangent on how Madoka is GREAT or AWFUL? Okay? Please keep this in mind.)

Liz Azzimagica

Angelic Trainer
when I started writing here, I got critizised for not writing numbers out, but I think for that, if the number is a symbol (ex: District "12" in the hunger games) then the 12 would stick out more then writing that number out. Also in other things, their has to be a balance that if say you have a major villain that you do not want revealed yet, or you want the reader to think that the villain is someone else...that's where the balance of plot and plot twists come in.


Well-Known Member
If you look through other TV Tropes Fridge Brilliance pages, you're going to find that a lot of the examples in there are symbolism, and that in turn conveys a subtext, because we are psychologically wired to associate certain things with other certain things, and it's only when we go back and look at them understanding that that we begin to understand why we associated those two things together in the first place. Does that make sense? I hope it does...

It does make sense. And thanks for your explanations. I'm just worried about being subtle or letting the readers connect the dots (provided there's enough evidence) but being accused for laziness. You know...