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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, it's cheaper. (Never mind that the first maxim people learn as writers, "Show, Don't Tell", discourages this very thing.)

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

Examples of Second Hand Storytelling include:


Anime and 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 Mahou Sensei Negima are told/shown by Jack Rakan and Kurt Godel.

Film

  • Inadvertent example: The DVD of the first Dungeons and Dragons movie 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 A Nightmare on Elm Street movie when Nancy's mother finally gets around to explaining the original death of Fred Krueger.
  • Used to great effect in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca.
  • 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.
  • Hilariously lampshaded 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 film, 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 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.

Literature

  • 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 Smeagol
    • Boromir's defense of the hobbits against the orcs leading to his being fatally wounded
    • The death of Theoden'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.
  • 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.
  • Isaac Asimov made such use of this trope that in the introduction to a collected edition of the Foundation Trilogy, he called himself out for it, rather apologetically.
  • 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.
  • Due to not being a POV character, everything Robb Stark did after he became King in the North, was relayed after the fact, usually to his mother (and POV character Catelyn). His entire story in A Clash Of Kings was essentially told to the reader in a three page dialogue between mother and son after the fact.

Live-Action TV

  • This is why Weevil had to stop working for Keith in Veronica Mars.
  • Whos 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 ("Johnathan 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 chaffeur talking about these people.
  • Every episode of Grounded for Life makes full use of this trope in combination with flashbacks.
  • Used in the Danish 50's 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 fate of Miss Kitty Fantastico.
  • 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 Lannister's 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 Than Canon, 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...

Theatre

  • 90% of plays, out of necessity.
    • Especially 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 (Hamlet's "antic" confrontation of Ophelia, which we hear described from Ophelia's point of view, is one such scene). 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.
      • The Chorus' justly famous opening (and closing) of Henry V is a HUGE Lampshade Hanging for this, with all The Bard's eloquence: ". . .But pardon, and gentles all,The flat unraised spirits that have dared On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth So great an object: can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! since a crooked figure may Attest in little place a million;And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work. . .Think when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth; For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, Admit me Chorus to this history; Who prologue-like your humble patience pray, Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play."
  • 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.

Video Games

  • Cyberswine: At the beginning of the game, Lieutenant Sarah Lee says the Cyberswine nearly tore a technician's head off due to a software glitch. The Chief says it is a just rumour before saying that the techie survived anyway.
  • 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.

Web Original

  • In Doctor Horribles Sing Along Blog, the titular 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."

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).
  • 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.
    • Similarly, this Loserz strip, where focus returned to the three main characters after a couple of weeks without them.
  • 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.
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