11 May 2018

The Zen of Presentations, Part 70: Giving away the plot

Mike Nitenbach wrote:

Huge mistake to design scientific presentation like fucken Sherlock Holmes story.

Becca replied:

If you set things up and present your logic at every step, the audience can tell where things are headed without being explicitly told in advance.

Over on Better Posters, I’ve talked a lot about the Columbo principle. Columbo taught us that even when the audience knows the answer, the fun can be in learning how you prove it. I think that advice works well for titles, but it still implies a sort of “mystery” aspect that Nitenbach is criticizing.

But you can structure a talk where you tell the audience what’s going to happen, but not leave them disappointed.

When making Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, writer Nicholas Meyer (who also directed) was faced with a problem: Spock, the show’s most popular character, was going to die.

Actor Leonard Nimoy was bored with the part, not interested in doing another movie, and was sort of lured back in by the prospect of killing off the character. Fans learned about this, and were upset. Meyer got death threats. So what did Meyer do?

He killed Spock in the opening scene.

Of course, Spock doesn’t actually die at that point. He pretends to die as part of the Kobayushi Maru training scenario. So when the film is winding up for the actual, powerful death scene of Spock, people were not thinking about, “This is the one where Spock dies!”

Meyer said he learned on this movie that you can show an audience anything in the first ten minutes of a movie, and they will forget about it by the end of the movie.

You can do the same thing in a talk. You can tell people right at the start of a talk what you found. If you involve them, and make the narrative of that process well told, you can bring people through to the end, and they will think, “Oh yeah, I already knew that!”

Meyer said in the film’s Blu-ray commentary:

The question is not whether you kill him. It’s whether you kill him well. If it’s perceived as a working out of a clause in a star’s contract, then they’re gonna hate it. If it’s organic, if it’s really part of the story, then no one’s gonna object.

Or, to paraphrase Anton Chekov, if you want fire a gun in the third act, load it in the first act. The audience will forget the gun was even loaded until that final climactic shot.

External links

Detective stories: “Whodunnit?” versus “How’s he gonna prove it?”
38 Things We Learned from the ‘Star Trek II’ Commentary

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