(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Emperor’s New Groove.)

JIf you spend any amount of time reading writing advice, you’re going to encounter certain phrases a lot.  Such phrases tend to be pithy and memorable, but it doesn’t take long to realize that, well, we don’t seem to be talking about quite the same thing.

Take “show, don’t tell.”  It’s an exhortation to better description.  Unless, of course, it’s meant to encourage you to focus on action instead of description.  Or to focus on subtext.  And then there are the situations where you should ignore the rule completely.  So you can see where this gets confusing to a beginner.

One major version of this rule, or perhaps a corollary to it, is the “show/tell mismatch“: You can’t tell us one thing about the story but then show us something completely different.  If you tell us your main character is the greatest assassin in the world but show us someone who’s constantly getting snuck up on and has the self-preservation instinct of a lemming on the Disney backlot, the reader is going to have a hard time taking you seriously.  (Yes, that’s a real example, and no, I’m not naming and shaming.  It knows what it did.)  Basically, the action has to match the narration.

Except, you know, when it doesn’t.  Yes, any rule can be broken, as long as it’s broken for a specific reason.

The Emperor’s New Groove starts with a flash-forward prologue, although it’s mercifully brief and is necessary to establish that Kuzco isn’t providing his voice-over from after the story is all wrapped up, but from right in the middle, which is rather unusual.  The voice-over continues throughout the setup, as Kuzco protests that he’s a purely innocent victim.  Meanwhile, the scenes he’s narrating show clearly that Kuzco is a total dick and brought this all on himself.  The narration emphatically contradicts the action, so it’s a violation of the rule, right?

But we’re dealing with two different types of information here (which is probably why this rule can get so confusing).  As far as the events that took place are concerned, yes, this is show/tell mismatch.  But that mismatch shows something critically important to Kuzco’s character: he’s not just a dick, he’s an oblivious dick.  He honestly and genuinely does not understand the consequences of his actions.  He doesn’t think he did anything wrong because he has no working definition of that concept.  And in case you didn’t catch that in Act I, near the end of Act II there’s this very meta moment (because it is a very meta movie):

VOICE-OVER KUZCO: So, this is where you came in.  See, just like I said, I’m the victim here.  I didn’t do anything and they ruined my life and took everything I had.

ON-SCREEN KUZCO: Hey, give it a rest up there, will you?

V.O. KUZCO: What?  I’m just telling them what happened.

O.S. KUZCO: Who are you kidding, pal?  They saw the whole thing, they know what happened.

Kuzco has to call out his own delusions before he can move past them, and the narration serves as a rather literal vehicle for doing that.  His voice-over may be masquerading as the omniscient impartial guide, especially when he narrates scenes he wasn’t there for, but Voice-Over Kuzco is a character, one that’s biased as hell.  Contrasting how he sees the world with how the world actually is tells us quite a bit about the arc his character will take.

Rules in writing tend to be nuanced, Pirates’ Code sort of things.  It’s good to know the basics, but it’s more important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and if the rule helps you get there.

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