Thursday 7 March 2013

The Perfectly Balanced Story

When you tell someone a story in person, you probably know the person you’re talking to. You will at least have a rough idea of how familiar they are with the people and places you’re referring to. And if you misjudge, they can always ask you questions.

In fiction, it’s much harder to know exactly how much information a reader needs or wants. And even if you did, it would be impossible to provide since you’ll have more than one reader, and each will have different requirements.

You can’t get the balance right, because there is no way to please everyone.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it wrong. You may not be able to please all the people all the time, but you can certainly piss them all off.

You can treat the reader like someone who knows nothing about the world you’re writing about and start from scratch, explaining every little thing, and for some types of stories that works fine (perhaps by having a character who’s new and needs to be instructed in how things work).  But that can still feel plodding and pedestrian.

As with most techniques, deciding on the approach is only the first step—you still have to make it interesting and entertaining.

The right method poorly executed is no better than the wrong method.

In my own experience, I find what usually pulls me out of a story that seems to be rolling along just fine is either too much information (and it gets boring), or too little (and I get confused).

And while you can’t please everyone, you can at least be aware of potential problem areas that nobody enjoys.

Too much info breaks down into three areas:

You start describing something, whether an object or a philosophy or the inner workings of a combine harvester, and you just can’t stop. You’ve read long, sweeping passages by other writers that seemed poetic and lyrical, so maybe what you’re writing will be received in the same way.

I think for most writers have trouble policing themselves but getting someone to read your work will usually bring it to their attention. And if no one says it’s terrible, are they telling you it’s great or not saying anything at all? Because if it was worth spending all those words describing the sunlight shimmering on the lake, don’t you think someone would have mentioned it?

In the real world you often have to repeat yourself. A  guy tells his wife what happened at work, then he tells his mate down the pub, then he has to explain it to the police. And then there’s the lawyer, and the judge and jury...

For a reader, seeing the same information in various different contexts is the same thing over and over. That’s not to say you should never repeat yourself on the page. Readers occasionally need a reminder, or a plan might be complicated enough to bear clarifying, but there are ways of investing each version with its own uniqueness.

The man might tell his wife about the girl who ran out of the boss’s office screaming, but he might add that it was the same girl he slept with at the office party, and deny the same to the police when she turns up dead.

When information gets repeated, it’s the parts that change that attract the attention.

Going off on a tangent or providing supplementary details that fill out the picture can be quite interesting, even entertaining.

But most of the time it slows things down and isn’t as interesting as the writer thinks.

If the story’s working, the reader will want to get on with it. If you indulge yourself in Tarantinoesque banter and nobody minds, what does that say about how engaged the reader is with the main action?

If it’s done well, and if the pacing and structure are designed to accommodate it, I definitely think it can work, but it has to be concise and it helps if it’s funny.

Too little information is usually due to the following:

By the second or third draft the writer knows pretty much everything there is to know about the world he’s created and the people in it. This knowledge can make things appear to be clear when they aren’t.

Personal bias can make arguments seem logical when they aren’t. Motivations for the way characters behave may be in the writer’s head but not in the text. Information that was in old drafts may have been removed, but feel like it’s still in there.

This is probably the easiest one to fix. Nobody will understand what’s going on.

Intentional Vagueness
In order to make things mysterious and intriguing why not make things a little obscure?

Holding back information is of course a tries and tested way to hook the reader, but there are only so many questions a person can take before they start requiring a few answers.

There’s nothing wrong with needing to find things out—it’s a key part of most stories—but you can’t keep piling up the mysteries without any development. It makes the character seem stupid and the reader feel like they’re wasting their time.

A character goes off to do something but it’s got nothing to do with the story, you just needed them out of the way for a while. It doesn’t matter what they do in that time, it has no bearing on the narrative so why waste time mentioning it?

The reader, however, does not know whether it’s relevant to the story or not, and since things the reader doesn’t know often turn out to be important, it’s a nagging distraction and a source of frustration to have something brought up and then never referred to again.

If it’s important enough to mention, it’s important enough to go into detail. If it isn’t worth going into detail, it isn’t worth mentioning in the first place.

When it comes down to it, I would say it’s better to have too much information rather than too little. Neither is great, but with too much you still know what’s going on, even if some readers end up skimming. With too little, once you get lost or confused, it can put you off reading any further. Yes it might all make sense in the end, but who wants to struggle through another couple of hundred pages to find out?
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Sarah Foster said...

Great post! My usual problem is giving so much information that it's like beating the reader with a sledgehammer just to make sure they get it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent checklist! I'm guilty of redundancy. I usually catch most of it and my critique partners catch the rest. Excessive information drives me crazy. Unless it really matters, I don't care what the characters are wearing down to their shoes.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - even the greats are guilty of that sometimes.

@Alex - a good critique partner comes in very useful when it comes to this stuff.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...


Reminds me of my SPACe Model

Which suggests readers and writers both tend to prefer a different combination of
- Setting
- Plot
- Action
- Characterization

I group setting and characterization as DESCRIPTION
- Action and plot as MOTION.

As reader or writer, we have a preference for the level of DESCRIPTION and MOTION.

Laura Besley said...

Interesting post and nice pictures too! :)

Rusty Carl said...

Well, I think we can both agree that your favorite author, Patrick Rothfuss, has passed along this piece of advice to aspiring authors (that he picked up from somewhere else):

Wonderful writing is all about withholding information.

I didn't put quotations around that because that isn't what he said, but it's the best I can come up with on the spot. I'm pretty sure I captured the spirit of what he said at least.

Seriously, great advice, and as always, following it is tougher for me than it should be.

mooderino said...

@Mac - I think we do all have our preference, but it is possible to get it so that you end up pleasing no one.

@Laura - thanks.

@Rusty - Ah, Patrick. If only his writing was as impressive as his facial hair.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

One of the things that bugs me about Laurell K. Hamilton's books is that she summarizes everything that happened in previous stories over and over to make it so that the book that you are presently reading can "stand alone." It gets soooo old and I hate those parts because it's getting to where they take up like a fifth of the book.

Margo Berendsen said...

I've been using the rule of three to mention something three times in different contexts to alert the reader, hey, this is important! This is a world building fact you need to know. Since I'm writing SF, this post is very relevant... I have to do a lot of explaining. Bookmarking it for more in depth consideration.

mooderino said...

@Michael - it's annoying because how many people start reading at book no.3?

@Margo - scifi is definitely expected to explain what's going on (for good reason).

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post. Sometimes I am guilty of redundancy. Sometimes I kind of ramble. My CP's help me out there.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - I think we're all guilty of it sometimes. It's when you convince yourself it actually makes the story better (as I tend to) that you have a problem.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Nice post. I think the hardest part of writing is spotting when what's in your head somehow didn't make it to the page. That's why I like my writing groups so much. They catch the things I miss.

mooderino said...

@Elizabeth - I'm especially good at having it in a previous draft, taking it out, but thinking it's still in there. It's a gift.

Unknown said...

A terrific post and great checklist. What all the items have in common is the notion that every word -- every single word -- should have a purpose and drive the story forward. If the place description doesn't tell the reader something about the character -- personality, or state of mind, for example -- it shouldn't be there!

mooderino said...

@Mary - I think you can go too far in that direction, too. The reason why writers go down the road of excess is because they've read work by other writers that seems to be there for its own sake and they've enjoyed it, so why not do something similar? In practice, though, it's a hard thing to get right

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