Allow audiences to expand your story

As storytellers, we want our audience to enjoy the worlds and stories we create. In order to do that, we need to make those worlds believable. We want our audiences to feel immersed into it.

That can sometimes be a huge creative block, since it can be so intimidating. But we don't necessarily need to create every single detail.

Let's have a look at some very successful films that achieve that by placing simple clues or story points:

Blade runner and Roy Batty's tears in the rain




"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

With this simple dialogue, the replicant gives us a glimpse into what his life was, just before dying. We get not to just see his humanity. But get to imagine other worlds, other planets, other wars. All this in a few words spoken at a crucial moment.

Alien and the engineers


When Alien came out in 1979, expanded its world with a brief appearance of a dead space jockey (known later as the engineers when the sequels got released).



This space jockey is taller and probably stronger than us. It has a technology more advanced than us. But it was still defeated by the alien. This made us even more afraid of it.

And it just did not increase our fear, it helped us imagine a world that wasn't shown on screen. 

True Detective and the Yellow King


True detective develops a mythology at several moments during its first season. It first starts by creating a very dark, but also very grounded story.



"It's time, isn't it? The black stars. Black stars rise. I know what happens next. I saw you in my dream. You're in Carcosa now. With me. He sees you. You'll do this again. Time is a flat circle."



"I'll tell you... about the Yellow King."



"You know Carcosa? [...] Death is not the end."

Carcosa and the Yellow King are recurrent theme in this series, even though it is never clearly explained, keeping the audience on its toes. It creates a mystic feel that never leaves the world created by this series.

Contact and the 18 hours of static




After the final hearing where Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is discredited by Kitz (James Wood), we get to see a dialogue that opens a new direction for the film:

Constantine: "I was especially interested in the section on airwaves video unit. The one that recorded the static."
Kitz: "Continue."
Constantine: "The fact that it recorded static isn't what interests me."
Kitz: "Continue."
Constantine: "What interests me... is that it recorded approximately 18 hours of it."
Kitz: "That is interesting, isn't it."

A truly beautiful and mind opening ending.

Starman and his view on human race




In this final scene, the character named Starman and played by Jeff Bridges explains his view on human race.

Shermin: "Have people from your world been here before?"
Starman: "Before. Yes. We are interested in your species."
[...]
Starman: "You are a strange species. Not like any other. And you would be surprised how many we are. Intelligent but savages. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?"

Thelma & Louise and what happened in Texas


And this last film proves that this does not just apply to the science fiction genre.

Louise (Susan Sarandon) has a heavy and traumatizing backstory which happened in Texas. Given the film's subject, we have our own guesses, but this will never be explained. This story element makes the film stronger than if it was.

There is even more gravitas associated to it when Hal (Harvey Keitel) tells Louise: "I know what happened in Texas."



Different angles to expand


As we've seen with those films, they find different ways to expand their universes. Some expand in :
- backstory of characters (Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner)
- backstory of world (Alien, Starman)
- with a mythology (True Detective)
- with what could happen after (Contact)

Audiences love filling in the blanks


Our job as storytellers isn't to spoon feed viewers, but to stimulate them. Give them enough, but not too much. A few starting points and they will enjoy expanding what's left.

This is not far from what horror films do. What is the scariest? What is out of view. What is in the dark. Because we imagine the worst. That worst might be different from one person to another, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that they are keen to imagine what you left out, that they are keen to expand what you started.

This is where storytelling becomes fun for both the writer and the audience. Aim for that sweet spot.


UPDATE:
In this conversation on reddit, someone mentions Predator 2, where Danny Glover's character discovers the trophy room. A great example that makes us imagine many battles between intergalactic species.