Created By: Mith4 on April 2, 2011 Last Edited By: Auxdarastrix on August 4, 2011

Can Only Be Shown

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One character explains something to another. That is, if he just flat-out explained it with words, it would be boring. The audience will be much more thrilled if they aren't told anything until they SEE it themselves. So the story has the talking character unnecessarily babble that "it can't be explained"/"It's so hard to explain"/"I don't know how to say it", even though it should be easy to put it in words.

Examples:
  • Morpheus: "No one can be told what the Matrix is. They need to be shown." Nonsense, of course you can explain it to people. Just say "Reality is a simulation made by robots.." etc. In this particular case it's somewhat justified, in that he probably meant you wouldn't believe it unless you were shown.
  • In the beginning of the horror film "The Ring", one girl tells the other how she saw the cursed movie. She says "The tape didn't contain the film we wanted to watch but...something else." Why couldn't she explain what that "something else" is? Why didn't she just say "It was weird black-and-white pictures like a floating upside-down chair and a ladder falling over and a creepy girl and stuff"? Oh, so that the audience would only get to see it once the tape was actually shown to them.
  • I'm sure there are plenty of other examples I missed which had stuff along the lines of:
"Something terrible happened to Bob...it's so hard to explain, come and see." and then it turns out Bob was turned into a monster or an animal or whatnot. What's so hard about uttering the phrase "Bob turned into a werewolf/cat/whatever"?

It has some similarities to [1], but it's not the same thing. A possible alternate name: "Explaining is not cool".
Community Feedback Replies: 27
  • April 2, 2011
    LeighSabio
  • April 2, 2011
    dalek955
  • April 3, 2011
    Arivne
    Sometimes uses Never Give The Captain A Straight Answer, where someone who isn't physically present asks what's going on and gets a "You'd better come down here and see for yourself" answer.
  • April 3, 2011
    TonyG
    Show Dont Tell is about writing in general. No Time To Explain is related. I suggest You Have To Be Shown as a title.
  • April 3, 2011
    Earnest
    See also Exposition Beam.
  • April 3, 2011
    Dacilriel
    In Enchanted Morgan insists that she can't describe what's happening, her father must come see. So she drags him out of bed to see rats and pigeons cleaning their apartment accompanied by Giselle's singing.
  • May 18, 2011
    Mith4
    Yep, No Time To Explain and [Never Give The Captain A Straight Answer] seem to describe this trope.
  • May 18, 2011
    Ardiente
    Seconding You Have To Be Shown. I think it's distinct. No Time To Explain might as well be used in a "If you see a demolition master running, don't ask for explanation, just RUN". Also, neither of them explains The Matix example, for instance.
  • May 18, 2011
    ginsengaddict
    ^^ I'd say there's a slight difference between this and No Time To Explain. NTTE is invoked when a character is in a hurry and explaining the situation would be a waste of valuable time.

    This trope on the other hand, seem more focused on the complexity of the situation, rather than the urgency. It could also apply if the character doing the explaining is physically incapable of explaining (say, they have Spontaneous Aphasia).

    The DS9 episode, Babel, has a scene where Jake is trying to explain something really important to a nurse, but nothing is coming out right, so he just takes her hand and places in on the patient's forehead. That isn't No Time To Explain, because there isn't a time constraint, but rather an inability to communicate, which is what separates the tropes.

    ^ Thirding You Have To Be Shown
  • May 19, 2011
    jaytee
    How is this not Never Give The Captain A Straight Answer?

    And even if it isn't, do we really need three separate pages for what are all very subtle variations on a single trope? I mean, I get the distinction between this and No Time To Explain, but, but, but, but....
  • May 19, 2011
    ginsengaddict
    ^ I had a look at Never Give The Captain A Straight Answer (god that needs a shorter name), and I still say there is a distinction. I can't quite put my finger on it at themoment, but that trope and this one are different somehow.

    I think the difference is in the convention. NGTCASA is most often Played For Laughs or used as Time Filler, which implies that it's being done arbitrarily - the character can give a straight answer, but the plot is requiring them not too.

    What makes this trope different is that the character intends to give a straight answer (subverting NGTCASA), and is unable too.

    To use the description given on NGTCASA (seriously, Needs A Redirect):

    "A giant bug-eyed monster has just appeared in the engine room, and is asking to borrow a cup of sugar. Someone on the bridge calls down and asks what's going on."

    Instead of going "Uhm, Sir? There's a.. You might wanna... I don't wanna alarm you, Sir, but the engine room.. You see.. The lab boys.. they had this sample we picked up? And it... it kinda... grew... Then it got into the vents.... And now.. it's... kinda like... ripping our engine apart."

    That's NGTCASA (Gaaaah! Trope title too long!), but if the character were to be experiencing this trope, they would instead think "How can I explain this in Laymans Terms?", realize that it's impossible, and go over to the security monitor and bring up the picture of the bug in the engine room... That would be all the info the captain needs.

    I don't put as much stock into this as I do the above not-NTTE argument, but it's up to the other tropers to decide if it's enough of a distinction.
  • May 19, 2011
    Riddlewizard
    This is just begging to get a Troper Tales section. Who hasn't had this happen to them or done this to someone else at least once?
  • May 19, 2011
    ginsengaddict
    Has the OP been keeping up with this at all?
  • May 20, 2011
    Arivne
    The difference between this and Never Give The Captain A Straight Answer:
    • In Never Give The Captain A Straight Answer, Bob is not physically present and can't see what's happening. If Bob were there, he could see it for himself without Alice needing to say anything. It's a reason for The Captain to come to the scene and see it for themselves.
    • In this trope Bob can be physically present: the problem is that whatever Alice wants to convey can't be explained (or at least can't be explained easily). It's a reason for Alice to show Bob something instead of explaining it.
  • May 20, 2011
    Kazekun123
    • Played with in The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya; Kyon, who has undergone some time traveling, was instructed by the future version of Mikuru to not give younger/current day Mikuru any details on what happened in the same way younger Mikuru always says "Classified Information" whenever she is asked about the future. However, on one occasion, he sees Mikuru crying and lamentng that she can't do anything properly, while Kyon ( who knows just how competent future Mikuru can be knows this isn't true. When he tries to explain it to Mikuru, he cant say anything related to time travel and struggles to find a way to set her straight. In doing so, Mikuru sees him struggling through a similar situation to her own, making Kyon indirectly show her that he knows exactly how she feels.

    • In The Twelve Kingdoms, Taiki, who had lived as a human for the first ten years of life, doesn't know how to return to his original Kirin Form. When Keiki visits him, Taiki ask him how he does it, and Keiki tells him the phrase. He then proceeds to transform himself into his Kirin form.
  • June 8, 2011
    Kazekun123
    @Damr1990, I don't think that either of your examples fit the proposed trope, the Haruhi Suzumiya example is along the lines of them mutually understanding the problems of IWouldSayIfICouldSay's effect on the pair of them, more than either trying to convey understanding of a thing/concept that they can't explain/understand - which is what this trope is. The Twelve Kingdoms example is simply the completely opposite of this trope, where Keiki actually does tell him flat out, and then just provides a demonstration.
  • June 8, 2011
    Damr1990
    @Kezekun123, maybe We can count I Would Say If I Could Say (and Could Say It But since we are here as related tropes),when for X reason the verbal comunicatiĆ³n would not be able to give a straigh anser('cause the expresion X would be inapropiate/ironic/etc or because it is forbiden to comunicate X in the first place).

    As For the 12 Kindoms example maybe i expressed myself wrong, when Taiki Ask Keiki how to transform to his kirin form, he directly tells taiki that he does not know how to explain it since it has been a natural hability for him all his life , so he doesn't give taiki any advice or instructions on how to transform to his kirin form, he simply does it so taiki can witness it
  • June 11, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    Katherine Kurtz's Deryni do this a lot, partly because they can convey emotion directly (what with their empathetic psionic powers), and partly to ensure no salient details are missed (Kelson and Morgan regularly read their scouts' minds while on military campaigns). Of course, they will also do it because it's faster for them, or to keep their "conversation" private in the presence of other people.
  • August 2, 2011
    Mith4
    It seems to me, the main difference between this trope and "Never give the captain a straight answer" is that in NGTCSA, the situation is urgent, the speaker has just recently discovered the wacky thing he can't explain. Whereas in my trope, a character can also be talking about something they knew all along and are now describing, in a calm environment.

    NGTCASA would be if the Matrix had just been built five minutes ago, and someone's like: "Oh my god Bob, come see what the robots built! I can't explain it, just come look!" Whereas this trope is like in the movie: Morpheus has known about the Matrix for a long time, and he's explaining it to Neo in a chat.

    I don't know, it's fairly similar to NGTCASA, probably close enough. I would simply suggest that that trope's name isn't very nice/clear/short.
  • August 2, 2011
    quedonX
    Personally, I think a rework of Never Give The Captain A Straight Answer is the better way to go on this, since this could easily be covered under that trope (with a new name!). As it is, NGTCASA is defined very narrowly, with a "oh and sometimes it's done like this" throw-away paragraph at the end that alludes to the trope described in this YKTTW (from NGTCASA: "...occassionally shows up as a way to...hold off The Reveal until the moment of maximum drama." This is more or less the purpose of this new trope, regardless of why the character cannot simply explain it). Maybe take this to the discussion page or Trope Repair Shop?
  • August 2, 2011
    c0ry
    The Matrix example is rebuffed by this XKCD strip in the first four panels.
  • August 3, 2011
    Arivne
    Mith4/OP: Warning - with the new "no trope titles that are line of dialogue" policy, Fast Eddie will discard this YKTTW as soon as he sees it unless the name is changed right now.

    Cant Be Explained Only Shown?
  • August 3, 2011
    Stratadrake
    ^ That's enforcing the policy too hard.
  • August 3, 2011
    Auxdarastrix
    I'm not taking over the trope, I just changed to name to avoid a discard. There may be a better title out there but I figure this will do as a working title.
  • August 3, 2011
    Mith4
    I agree that this should go into NGTCASA under a new name. Am I the one who has to move it to trope repair shop or can anyone do that? I've never done that before, so I don't know how.

    Thanks for changing the name. I have to say, the policy is a bit strict if it would have gotten this YTTW deleted, since this was written before the policy came into effect and just sorta revived.
  • August 4, 2011
    Sailor11sedna
    Book 10 of Animorphs has this. A f***king book.
  • August 4, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    So is this about in-universe reasons for Show Dont Tell? To wit:

    I agree with quedonX that this is a technique for building up to The Reveal.
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