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Second-Hand Storytelling

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There's an event that is important to the storyline, but instead of showing us the event itself, the writers have the characters telling us about it, sometimes in retrospect. Because hey, Show, Don't Tell aside, it's cheaper.

Can be used humorously, by implying that we've just missed something much more interesting than what they showed us. When used dramatically... well... this implies that we've just missed something much more interesting than what they showed us.

Another humorous variant is a staple of most traditional sitcoms, which is the format most likely to lack the budget or the running time to stage a comparatively elaborate stunt: Character leaves for strenuous/dangerous activity, airily insisting that 'I can handle it!' Cut to some time later, when character returns, groaning and/or bandaged, to tell the story (or have the buddies that helped him home tell it for him, since they're generally the more with-it characters).

Second-Hand Storytelling has a long tradition dating back to ancient Greece, where the traditions of Attic Drama insisted that none of the violence actually take place on-stage. Whenever a character dies in ancient tragedy, for instance, the event is related by an eyewitness in the messenger speech.

While a talented writer might be able to get away with it in a novel, it can be a problem in a movie or play, pointing to production constraints. As a result if a character tells a story, it's standard to show a Flash Back.

Occasionally this is used for a Take Our Word for It, or to set up The Rashomon. Battle-related Second-Hand Storytelling is sometimes preceeded by a Charge-into-Combat Cut. Related to Framing Device, but "framing device" applies more to cases where the second-hand story is a very large piece of the story and presented with all the vividness of the main narrative. Particularly bad examples have a tendency to turn this into a Offscreen Moment of Awesome. Please keep in mind, however, why this is not always bad - making it impossible for anything important to happen if the protagonist is not present is, after all, a prime trait of the Black Hole Sue. Compare with the Noodle Incident, wherein the Secondhand Storytelling incident is presented as something tantalizing that is only referred to obliquely.

A side note for smartass tropers: when a character is describing an event they're currently watching, you can also call it teichoscopy (viewing from the walls).


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    Anime & Manga 
  • An episode of Natsu no Arashi!! Akinaichuu involves the cast traveling back and forth through time in a series of hijinks involving a rare pottery cup. Different from the usual, the action stays entirely in the present. We only hear about what happens when the characters travel back in time, and considering the rules of time travel in the show's universe, there are apparently some very close calls.
  • Episode 4 of Katanagatari. Towards the end, Togame and Shichika are discussing his Epic battle across land and sky with Hakuhei sabi over dinner. The epic battle was shown off screen, with the rest of the episode focusing on his sister, Nanami.
  • Important parts of Ala Rubra backstory in Negima! Magister Negi Magi are told/shown by Jack Rakan and Kurt Godel.
  • In Saki, most of what we know about the Miyanaga family is what Saki tells other characters. It's still unclear whether Saki is an Unreliable Expositor, though, although there are some indications that Saki initially doesn't fully understand how much Teru has distanced herself from her.

    Fan Works 
  • This happens in The Prayer Warriors from time to time, especially in "Threat of Satanic Commonism". Examples include when Clarisse describes the journey to "Stalin Town", and when Rachel describes her assassinating Idiosy.
  • In Necessary to Win, a Girls und Panzer and Saki crossover, the "Interlude" chapters involve certain characters telling their backstories to others, and these alternate between them talking to others in the present and flashbacks to scenes in the past. Word of God has it that what the characters in question say happened is not necessarily true, and may involve them omitting details, not remembering correctly, or jumping to their own conclusions.
  • In The Stalking Zuko Series, this happens fairly often, as a result of the story being a diary written by Katara. Anything Katara doesn't see herself, such as Sokka and Zuko's raid on the Boiling Rock prison, is told to her later by people who saw what happened.
  • This happens a lot in Beyond Heroes: Of Sunshine and Red Lyrium, because Varric isn't always present when things happen. Rather than being an Unreliable Narrator for the fun of it (as he sometimes is in canon), he's periodically Locked Out of the Loop when circumstances separate him from the Inquisitor. The narrative instead shows what he's doing at the same time, and later has him being brought up to speed afterward by Bethany or another character.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Inadvertent example: The DVD of Dungeons & Dragons (2000) reveals several instances of Second-Hand Storytelling. Sequences that were actually scripted and filmed were only described in the final cut, because they didn't have the budget to finish the effects.
  • Parodied by Monty Python in their movie And Now for Something Completely Different. The "Killer Cars" animated skit featured an apocalyptic battle with a giant monster cat which suddenly cuts away to a man reading a narration of the story to a young child. The man then mentions the cat being destroyed in "a scene of such spectacular proportions that it could never in your life be seen in a low budget film like this. You'll notice my mouth isn't moving, either."
  • Used late in the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie when Nancy's mother finally gets around to explaining the original death of Fred Krueger.
  • The climax of Burn After Reading suddenly cuts to two minor characters discussing the aftermath of said climax followed by the credits.Contrary to what you'd expect, this ends up creating one of the funniest scenes in the whole movie.
  • Primer, Primer, Primer. Half the reason the film is so mind screwy is because several key events are described rather than shown... and the characters doing the describing are geeks who would rather be laconic than descriptive.
  • This is the premise of the central story element of Reservoir Dogs. We see before and after The Caper, but never the actual heist itself. According to Quentin Tarantino, the whole idea was to have a heist movie without the heist.
  • The subject of a Brick Joke in The Big Fix: Moses Wine spends the entire movie with a cast on one arm, explaining to everyone he meets how he broke his arm — every account different, and every account calculated to make him look sympathetic to the listener (to a civil-rights activist he says, "A couple of cops were hassling this black kid"). In the last scene, he attempts to demonstrate his facility on his ten-year-old son's skateboard, with the boy shouting after him, "It's not my fault if you break the other arm!"
  • One of the many, many major problems with The Last Airbender, since most of them go into Offscreen Moments of Awesome. When it's for budget reasons, you can understand even if you don't like it... but when the scenes in question include "they became great friends"...
  • Quint's USS Indianapolis monologue in Jaws, which ends up being the best scene in the movie.
  • In the opening scene of The Godfather, Bonasera the undertaker tells Don Corleone the story of how his daughter was brutally beaten by two boys attempting to date rape her. They were taken to trial and found guilty but their sentences were suspended. Bonasera now begs the Don to exact revenge on them.
  • Pulp Fiction: Captain Koons tells young Butch about the history of the gold watch that belonged to Butch's father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
  • Anatomy of a Murder completely avoids showing Barney Quill's murder or Laura Mannion's rape. This lets the audience know no more of what actually happened than the protagonist does in his investigation.
  • The beginning of Tim Burton's Batman (1989) has a bunch of Mooks telling stories about the rumor of the Batman. Since Batman dresses up as a bat to play on criminals' fears, this scene is very effective at showing that it's working.
  • A rather strange example in the Friday the 13th reboot. The film begins with a violent opening and the next scene has a character DESCRIBE the violent opening that the audience just saw. It was pretty stupid
  • Zodiac: The two first known murders committed by the Zodiac killer aren't shown in the film due to there being no surviving witnesses. The 1966 murder of Cheri Jo Bates is also talked about but not shown, again due to the lack of survivors and also due to it happening three years prior to the start of the film.
  • In Avatar we follow Jake Sully's story practically minute-by-minute until he begins to gather the tribes, when we just get narration.
  • Since 12 Angry Men is about a jury deliberating a crime, we only ever seen them talking. All information about the crime is related to us by them discussing it amongst themselves.
  • In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley's encounter with Karla is only shown by Smiley telling someone about it, and is stronger for it. It really expresses Karla as an enigmatic force.
  • Logan has no flashbacks of any sort, with the backstory/worldbuilding being conveyed entirely through concise dialogue and visual hints. For example, the explanation for why the X-Men are broken up at the start of the film is never fully given on-screen, only hinted at through a radio broadcast and a monologue from Xavier.
  • Superman III features a scene where Richard Pryor acts out how Superman thwarted the Big Bad's latest scheme rather than show it onscreen. Probably a combination of budget concerns and an attempt at comic relief.

  • Many key events in The Lord of the Rings take place "off-camera" and are only related to the reader by the accounts of the characters within the book. Examples include:
    • Gandalf's first confrontation with Saruman.
    • The discovery of the Ring by Sméagol.
    • Boromir's defense of the hobbits against the orcs leading to his being fatally wounded.
    • Gandalf's fight with the Balrog.
    • The death of Théoden's son in battle with the orcs.
    • The fall of Isengard at the hands of the Ents.
    • Faramir's stand at Osgiliath with the legions of Mordor.
    • The battle between the Dead and the Corsairs.
    • Saruman's conquest of the Shire.
    • Most of these are actually shown in the film trilogy, with the exception of Théoden's son's death (he's found badly wounded and dies some time later) and Saruman's conquest of the Shire (which was not included).
  • The original Dune novel by Frank Herbert. Interesting scenes or important plot points, such as the initial journey to the planet Arrakis in a spaceship of the mysterious Navigators' Guild or Paul Atreides drinking the lethal Water of Life, are either touched on only fleetingly or narrated by characters in retrospect, several weeks later. The chapter simply ends and cuts away from the action about to unfold to a different scene in the next chapter, with characters sitting around their camp fire and telling each other what happened. In both movie adaptions (the 1984 movie and the 2000 three-part mini-series) we actually get to see it on screen.
  • Happens from time to time in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, often containing Aesops of one flavor or another that the character telling the story wants to impart.
    • In the X-Wing Series, Corran Horn tells Gavin Darklighter, who's interested in dating outside of his species, the story of his very hot date with a Selonian, the moral being that even assuming there are no massive anatomical issues, problems can arise.
    • Death Star has Admiral Motti's mentor tell him about an excellent sharpshooter whose blaster misfired in his hand, giving an untrained thug time to shank him. The moral here was that no matter how good something was — say, the Death Star Motti so admired — something could always go wrong.
  • Discussed, in an odd sort of way, in Zuleika Dobson, where the narrator chastises the readers for complaining that he didn't use this device to relate the events of the climactic scene.
  • David Weber uses this technique a lot in the Honor Harrington series. Often, he'll cut away from a battle scene either A. just as the shots start firing, or B. when it's about to get worse for someone, with the following chapter having the other characters discuss the results. Tends to happen if the battle is particularly one-sided, or if the viewpoint characters of the battle got wiped out.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Due to not being a POV character, everything Robb Stark does after he became King in the North is relayed after the fact, usually to his mother (and POV character) Catelyn. His entire story in A Clash of Kings is essentially told to the reader in a three page dialogue between mother and son after the fact.
    • Similarly, everything we know about Rhaegar Targaryen comes from the reminisces of others, since he's dead. However, these reminisces fall into two types: extremely positive (Targaryen supporters, mainly, who describe him as a noble, sensitive prince and great warrior) and extremely negative (his enemies, like Robert Baratheon, who describe him as a right dickhead who inadvertently started a war that killed thousands).
  • The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein is written from a first-person perspective as the protagonist recounting his memoirs. The climactic battle, however, is narrated in an Apocalyptic Log style, glossing over the details of what happened and deliberately leaving the audience hanging as to whether or not he survives.
  • One Sherlock Holmes story ends up with its quote marks nested four deep: Holmes describing a past case to Watson, in which a character describes to Holmes an incident he was told of by another character, in which yet another character describes an event...
  • Roughly half of Stephen King's The Dark Tower, Wolves of the Calla.
  • In The Magician's Nephew, Uncle Andrew complains about how Queen Jadis went all Mage in Manhattan and forced him to sell his watch at a pawn shop, robbed a jewelry store, and so on. But for those few hours, the narration treats us to the story of how Digory was sitting at home waiting for Jadis and Andrew to return; and both the narrator and the character obviously find this quite boring. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to read if it had narrated the events that were going on with Uncle Andrew? And the book does contain a couple of other scenes that narrate Uncle Andrew's misadventures that take place when Digory's not around; it's not like it has a strict policy of only using Digory's point of view.
  • Because the Harry Potter series is written almost exclusively from Harry's point of view, any event that he does not personally witness or cannot be included in will become this. Examples include what other Champions did during Goblet of Fire's Triwizard Tournament and what happened to everyone except Harry and Hagrid in the chase scene early in Deathly Hallows.
  • James Bond:
    • The short story "Quantum of Solace" from For Your Eyes Only has a Jamaican governor relaying a story about a failed marriage to Bond. Bond finds it more dramatic than his just finished mission of destroying boats full of drugs.
    • In The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond tells Vivienne about his last mission, and how it led him to enter the motel she was in.
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series
    • Most of the excitement tends to happen off-screen, especially during the trilogy, due to Dr Asimovís style of clear and simple descriptions.
    • "The Traders": Ponyets tells Gorov about his Blackmailing of an Askonian government official after-the-fact in order to explain why a private navy is escorting them to an Askonian official's mining estates. Both of their ships are going to be filled with tin!

    Live-Action TV 
  • Who's the Boss? frequently does this. For example, they show Danny Pintauro wearing a cast and telling Judith Light about how he got it from a nasty gymnastics fall rather than showing the fall itself ("Jonathan The Gymnast").
  • 7th Heaven has frequent (ab)use of second hand storytelling, especially in later seasons. For examples, check out their page on Television Without Pity, and this season 8 review of their most poignant moments, which turned out to be mostly second-handed.
  • Marion and Geoff is all about a chauffeur talking about these people.
  • Used in the Danish '50s drama-series Matador, describing a dramatic fight on a roof. Of course, in this case it was actually done so well, that decades later when the show was rerun, people called in to complain about the fight scene missing. The scene had never actually been shown, just described very vividly.
  • The later seasons of the Science Fiction Space Opera TV series Andromeda frequently made use of this trope due to low budget. Large-scale shoot-outs or space battles were not shown directly, instead the audience saw the protagonists stare at a computer screen, commenting on the carnage.
  • The Bill Brasky sketches in Saturday Night Live used this for comedic value. They consisted of several men sitting around, drinking and telling stories about their absent friend Bill Brasky. As the sketch went on, the stories grew increasingly ridiculous and over-the-top. The punchline: when Bill arrives, he's The Faceless, but shot at an angle that makes him look gigantic - implying the stories really happened.
  • The jellyfish incident on Friends spends a lot of time as a Noodle Incident, before turning into a second-hand story.
  • On the Seinfeld episode "The Fire" Kramer tells a story of how he recovered his girlfriend's severed toe and also stopped an armed robber on a bus. Originally they were going to cut to a Flash Back during it but Kramer telling the story was so funny by itself that the actual scene showing the incident was dropped.
  • On Everybody Loves Raymond Ray gets a call that his brother Robert, a cop is in injured on the job. When Ray, his wife Debra, and his parents Marie and Frank visit him in the hospital, they find out he was gored in the butt by a bull. Robert tells a story of how he and his partner were breaking up an illegal rodeo in Brooklyn and a bull started chasing him. At the end of the episode a tape of the bull chasing him is shown on the news.
  • On Game of Thrones episode "Baelor", the battle between Roose Bolton's northmen and the Lannisters is not seen. Instead, Tyrion is knocked unconscious at the beginning of the battle, and the events are recounted to him briefly by Bronn when he regains consciousness. This was almost certainly done for budget reasons.
    • Of course, some find this better, in that it re-writes a scene where Tyrion - a dwarf with no real combat training - kills several soldiers, one of them a fully-armored knight.
  • At the start of "The Cross My Heart Job" on Leverage, the team are discussing the exotic island caper they just returned from — which we will, for obvious reasons, never see. Sophie on a topless beach, Hardison hacking a volcano, Eliot having an underwater battle with spear-guns...
  • On Merlin, Morgana is captured by the Sarrum of Amata, who uses her Morality Pet to lure her into a trap, chain her at the bottom of a well-like cell, and keep her there for two years before she eventually escapes. We don't get to see any of it - in fact, when the Sarrum relates the story, he skimps on the details, giving us no understanding of how exactly Morgana was captured or how she escaped.

  • William Shakespeare: This was an extremely good strategy for him: not only did Elizabethan theatre use minimal sets and props (making elaborate scenes difficult to stage convincingly) but, more importantly, Shakespeare's greatest strength by far is his use of language, and so he really can describe a scene (even one that would not require elaborate staging) much better than he could show it. Scenes that might appear odd or even Narm-ish if simply performed on stage can seem much more meaningful when a character describes them, and allows us to hear the character's thoughts about the events as they tell it. Nonetheless, many modern film adaptations seem to feel obligated to show the scenes on camera anyway, sometimes with a voiceover, because people have come to expect movies to show everything.
    • Hamlet: Hamlet's "antic" confrontation of Ophelia, is told to the audience from Ophelia's point of view so that we we gain insight to how she saw the confrontation, which has much more impact on the plot than the confrontation itself.
    • Henry V: The Chorus' justly famous opening (and closing) is a HUGE Lampshade Hanging, as they humbly ask the audience to forgive them for not managing to fit the fields of France on a tiny Elizabethan stage.
    • Macbeth: The beginning is just one long string of people coming up to King Duncan and telling them what a great warrior and wonderful human being MacBeth is, for — pretty-much singlehandedly, the way they tell it — defeating two Scottish rebels and their allied invasion forces from both Ireland and Norway.
  • 12 Angry Men is third-hand storytelling. The entire play/film takes place inside the jury room and consists of the jurors arguing about events that they themselves only know about second-hand. It's also an intensely gripping film, regularly appearing around #10 on the IMDB top 250 list, proving once again that Tropes Are Not Bad.
  • A lot of what happens in The Women is told second-hand, in large part to avoid bringing any male characters on stage. Most notably, the marital quarrel between Mary and Stephen Haines is related after the fact by the maid to the cook.
  • The Broadway version of Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989) features the entire backstory between Ursula and King Triton being told through dialogue and/or song. Subsequent versions of the show featured an even more in intricate in depth backstory and details that explain why Ursula was unloved by their father, Poseidon, why he gave her the magic shell, how she killed all her other siblings but forgot to kill Triton, and how she is in fact responsible for the death of Ariel's mother which in turn led to Triton hating humans. We aren't shown any of this.

  • The Foundation Trilogy: While most of the examples are played as straight as they are in the original work, "Part Two: The Mayors" manages to shift King Leopold's recounting of the Nyak hunt to occurring during the hunt itself, rather than speaking of it in the past tense.

    Video Games 
  • FromSoftware's Souls Series games (Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne) all employ this extensively. Intro movies describe the setting, and select minimum of exposition comes from the few NPCs you'll meet, the vast majority of story must be extrapolated from environment, item locations and item descriptions.
    • One excellent example comes from Demon's Souls. The Valley of Defilement is a slum society sunken so deep into a canyon that it never sees daylight. Poisonous, leech-infested swamps, droves of plague rats and massive mosquitoes make the place nearly unlivable, but the Church sought to change this some time before the game began. You're never told about this initiative, of course. But you do find the missionary-knights' remains.
      • Risaia of Istarel's spear is found in the cove of three Giant Depraved Ones, high above the swamps and slums, but on the path descending to them. This confesses how the massive foes swarmed her, and sure enough, her body is found further down, in the swamp among leaches.
      • Vito, the Moonlight Knight's Large Sword of Moonlight is found down in the sickly swamps, suspended in a hanging nest of poisonous Phosphorescent Slugs and not far from mosquito swarms. This confesses he was better fit to face the swamp's brutal locals, but died of its harsh conditions.
      • These two knights dead, only The Sixth Saint Maiden Astraea and the implacable Garl Vinland make it any further. The Maiden, whom you face as a demon, has evidently given up on converting the swamp, and instead grants the locals immunity to disease and poison by taking their souls and transforming them. She kindly asks you to leave, when encountered as a boss, so she can continue her business. Garl, the de facto area boss, only attacks if you attempt to approach her.
  • A good portion of Xenogears, especially Disc 2, involves various characters, such as Fei, Elly, or Citan, talking about the proceedings while standing (or sitting in a chair) on a black background while images depicting such events scroll by, with Sophia's pendant swinging to and fro for symbolism. Often, these involve discussion of storming Solaris installations, but rarely do they allow the players to traverse the dungeons themselves. Which tends to be a problem when these lengthy narrations lead to a boss battle, but not to an appropriate Save Point beforehand.
  • Seen in the ninth installment of the New Yankee in King Arthur's Court series. The game is leading up to a great battle between the heroes and the forces they've gathered and the Deadly Book and its minions, which is illustrated in one picture of them about to start tearing each other apart. It then cuts to Bran the raven, talking to the imprisoned Spellbook, telling it the story of its own defeat. Bran then notes that the Spellbook clearly doesn't like the story and offers to play chess instead.

  • El Goonish Shive: During the Sister 3 arc, the subplot of various characters searching for Elliot, Ellen, and Ashley is not shown to the audience. Instead we get Ellen recapping the events to Elliot, Ashley, and Arthur after learning about them from Nanase. According to the author, this was done for pacing reason.
  • The vast majority of Homestuck is told through dialogue (through the form of text boxes called pesterlogs or dialoglogs), leaving other important events to occur offscreen, and talked about later. This includes such moments as the Trolls defeating the 24-hour long Final Boss of Sgrub (which is told by their last surviving ghost-robot) and any meetup/fight between the protagonists and the Denizens, with one exception within the last 50 panels of the comic.

    Web Original 
  • C0DA, written by former The Elder Scrolls series writer/designer Michael Kirkbride, takes place in the far distant future of TES universe. C0DA is the final text of a semi-official and loosely connected series of "Obscure Texts", including Loveletter From the Fifth Era, The Prophet of Landfall, the "partially released" Landfall: Day One, and two "Un Installments" - Dies Irae and Stringendo. The situation is reminiscent of the missing portions of The Trojan Cycle, in which it is generally known what happens, but the details are lost. Some of the events of those works are mentioned via Secondhand Storytelling in C0DA and the other supplementary works.

    Web Videos 
  • In Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, the title character's first (and failed) attempt at his initiation into the Evil League of Evil is relayed to the audience by him through his video blog. To wit: "Captain Hammer threw a car at my head."
  • Happens frequently in Jake and Amir, typically in the form of Jake reminding Amir of something embarrassing he did before.

    Western Animation 
  • All Grown Up!, "Brother, Can You Spare The Time?": The main plot is set up through an event that Tommy second-hands to the viewer: winning an award for a short film he made.
  • Hey Arnold!, "Career Day": We only hear about the most potentially interesting events today in after-the-fact conversations, as we see some woman thanking Gerald for saving her baby from a burning building he's currently putting out, and then Helga shutting the door on a police truck filled with some bank robbers and saying "My jujitsu lessons came in handy."
  • Occurred at the end of the series premiere episode of Dave the Barbarian, "The Maddening Sprite of the Stump", as they were "way too cheap to show" the triumphant battle.
  • Parodied in an episode of Clerks: The Animated Series, wherein Dante and Randal resolve not to leave the Quick-Stop for the entirety of the episode. Meanwhile, Jay keeps running in to inform them about the excess of plot occurring outside (including, among other things, the President having his head transplanted onto a gorilla's body and then turned into a vampire). And Caitlyn is cheating on Dante.
  • Played for laughs in the South Park episode "Best Friends Forever" where, as Kenny leads the army of Heaven in an epic battle against the legions of Hell, all the viewer sees is St. Michael vaguely describing the chaos and talking about how anyone who missed it would regret it for the rest of their life.
  • The second season of Young Justice has caught some flak for doing this. Almost every change to the team in the previous season is given an Info Dump to explain what happened to them during the five year Time Skip and moves on.
  • Steven Universe has a fair amount of this; the vast majority of the backstory is related to the audience through dialogue or environmental storytelling rather than flashbacks. The Gem War that forms a huge part of the storyís background is never shown on-screen; rather, we see ruins from that time and have it described by characters who lived through it. Things are complicated further by the fact that many of said characters are unreliable or biased...
  • Centaurworld: In "Bunch O' Scrunch", the herd prepares to rescue Horse from a pit, making silly faces while thinking about a suitable way to do that. In the next scene, Horse is already safe on the surface and the herd is happily discussing the good job they did using what sounds like rather unconventional methods. None of those actions are shown onscreen.