Thursday, May 19, 2011

Information. Where? When? How Much?

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I've been thinking a lot about information, lately. My last project contained a lot of world building. A LOT. And with that comes the ever-so-tricky task of dropping vital information into the story without creating the dreaded infodump or just being all out random.

One of the major mistakes I made early on in my writing was giving inappropriate information, whether is was too much, too little, or just the WRONG information entirely. Honestly, the advice in this realm ain't so good. I mean, yeah, I can tell you where an infodump is in a book, but I can't tell you how to avoid them yourself, really.

For me, knowing when and where and how much info to give came through good old fashioned practice. I am a firm believer in practice. Yes, I have a lot of novels that will never see the light of day (And I don't want them to!), but those babies taught me a lot about rhythm. They taught me how to weave in information without bogging down the story. They helped me see what does work—mostly because I wrote a lot if stuff that didn't.

But I'm telling you, the proper dissemination of information is one mark of a skilled writer. I can always tell where a writer is at by the way they drop info. The more seasoned the writer, the more seamless it is.

I wish I could give perfect directions on how to do that—how to make it so the reader doesn't even realize you're feeding them information—but it's largely an instinct, one you have to develop through trial and error.

But here are a few tips that may help as you master the skill:

1. Only say what is necessary at the time.
Sometimes that's one line of explanation. Sometimes that's three pages. But the key is not giving anymore than what the reader needs to know. Note that I said reader. See, in first drafts, sometimes we writers end up writing a lot of stuff WE need to know at the time, not the reader. It's very important in revision to think about every piece of knowledge you give a reader and what purpose it serves.

2. Sometimes omitting information is NOT good.
Some writers are guilty of the infodump. Some go the other way—they leave out essential information, which can really kill the tension, actually. It's not always good to keep readers in the dark. Knowing can create just as much suspense as not knowing.

3. Sometimes giving information is NOT good.
See where this gets fuzzy? It's not a science! Just like not having enough info to care about a story can be trouble, so can knowing too much. This can kill tension, too. It's a fine balance.

4. If the reader knows everything you do, you're probably doing it wrong.
Writers know everything about their stories. They see every side and all the character's motivations. They know all the scenery and every specific punch of an action scene. They know the neighbor across the street has a dog named Sugar. And that their MC secretly curses his mother every time he hears running water, because she potty trained him to go when he heard the faucet running and now every time...

See what I mean?

Context is a huge indicator of what information to give. If your story is about how your MC accidentally killed the neighbor's dog, maybe Sugar would be important. If your book is about, uh, mommy issues? Then that rather uncomfortable potty training info could be relevant.

***

It's all about what's relevant. That's my general rule of thumb, but sometimes you just don't know what is relevant until after you're done with that first draft. The more you write and revise, the more you learn about your own pitfalls concerning information and how to quell them. I also suggest reading and critiquing, of course, because it's so much easier to see in others' writing at first. Then you go back to yours and you're like...oh.

Not that I've done that before.

10 comments:

  1. Very good tips!

    I've been pretty much going with these ideas during writing my ongoing WIP.

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  2. Great tips! When I first started writing, I was so excited about the story, I wanted to tell the reader everything. Then I pulled back and thought--"Oh, wait. If I tell them all the good stuff now, they won't have a reason to keep reading." Hopefully now I have a better hang of things : )

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  3. Great tips Natalie!

    Really enjoyed reading this post.

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  4. Lol I usually err on the side of "don't tell too much and bore the reader" and then my crit group asks me questions and I'm like, Doh, should have explained that, huh? Experience and crit groups, is what I'm saying.

    Also, I think Robin McKinley is a MASTER of how-and-when-to-give-information. Sometimes she info-dumps and it's so gorgeous you don't care (like in PEGASUS) or something she sort of throws you in and you're like WTH but you figure it out at just the right moments (like in THE BLUE SWORD). Love love love love LOVE her.

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  5. Thank you, Your writing has helped me,,
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  6. I think a couple of films to think about are Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, two films where we all think we know the story, certainly we all know how things pan out, and yet he manages to keep our attention. Another thing too: how come people don't get fed up going to see productions of Shakespeare's plays? The stories are all so well-known. I think what I'm getting at is how a story is being told is as important was what is being conveyed and there are more ways to hold an audience's (or indeed a reader's) attention than with facts.

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  7. You are absolutely right about critiquing others work. I critiqued a chapter recently and pointed out an infodump (an unnecessary paragraph, if that), then opened up my own MS and wanted to sink into my chair cushions. I had done the same thing only mine was like half a page. *facepalm*

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  8. I love a good mystery...but I sometimes think things are coming across that no one else gets. Oops.

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  9. Very timely post, Natalie. One of my critique partners asked for more insight into what my MC is thinking. I'm going to read the chapters with that thought in mind, but my gut says she wants more than is good for the story. I might be able to add little bits throughout, but I don't want his every thought and motivation laid open for the reader.

    My novel is a Pride and Prejudice redux, so I'm already handicapped when it comes to tension. The readers knows how the story will turn out. All I have going for me is the chance to surprise them with Darcy's motivations and what he's thinking at major turning points. If I give that away too soon, the book will fall flat.

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