Hi doggies, I’m so thrilled to be back in the Dogpatch!
As I’ve been entering my revisions for Dream of a City of Ruin (Book II of the Dreams of QaiMaj series), I’ve been thinking a lot about managing information in a novel.
Information is broad word so I’ll define it here as anything that the reader might need to know in order to follow your story. It might be backstory about a character, technical details about how something works, or the description of a setting. Lately I’m thinking the single most difficult part about writing, and the thing that ultimately separates “a book I’d like to read” from “a book I’d like to hurl across the room” is information management.
It’s a little like Goldilocks and the three bears: not too much, not too little. You have to include just the right amount of information for the reader to follow the story, without dumping in too much information, and you have to reveal the information so that the reader isn’t taken out of the story, so that your book doesn’t read like a technical manual, and so that your characters don’t sound like infomercials. It’s easy to fall into the trap of either including rambling, disruptive dumps, or trying to hide important information in a misguided attempt to create suspense, resulting in a lost and confused reader.
While there is no simple answer, I’ve picked up a few tools over the decades, from teachers, mentors, editors, peers and books on writing. For what it’s worth:
1. Kill your darlings, ruthlessly
It’s tempting to get carried away with including information. Chances are you’ve written pages and pages of backstory, world-building, research and character profiles. But just because you are in love with a particular bit of information doesn’t mean that it serves the story. Always ask yourself, does the reader absolutely need to know this particular information right now in order to follow and enjoy the story? If not, omit it. If a piece of information doesn’t either develop character or push the plot forward, we don’t need it.
Readers read fiction when they want a story, not a college textbook. If the reader isn’t already invested in the characters and plot, they aren’t going to care about how the hero’s gamma-ray gun works.
2. Prioritize information in order to determine how to reveal it
In order to understand how and when to reveal information, you have to have a sense of how important the information is to the story as a whole. You’ve likely heard the caveat that a gun on the mantle in Act I must be fired in Act 3. Well, the reverse is true. If something significant happens later in your story, you want to be leading up to it so that your reader is not so surprised by it that the story loses credibility. For example, if the villain is killed in the end by a gamma-ray gun, the reader should know both of the existence of such guns in your story world, and at least a little bit about how they function and how dangerous they are. Obviously, the presence of a weapon is a much more important piece of information than the details about how the fabric of the villain’s cloak was made. (Unless the fabric can teleport the villain, in which case we’d like to know something about it.) But the importance of some details isn’t as clear. So, how do you know what information in your story is going to be important?
3. Tell the story first
Whether you’re discovery drafting, outlining or summarizing, when you’re constructing your story, I’d advise you not to include any information you don’t absolutely need to craft a scene. That paragraph of backstory you think you need in Chapter 1—skip it. Chances are your information priorities will change by the end of your draft. When you tell the story first, you begin to get a sense of what is important and therefore what the reader will need to know, and when.
4. Choose key details: take cues from visual artists
It’s all well and good to wait and add in backstory and technical information later, you say, but what about the details I need to include now in order to build a scene? Character descriptions, setting, etc? I can’t very well wait and add everything in later.
As with backstory, description often falls into the too much or too little categories. To avoid either pitfall, take a cue from visual artists: when artists paint a picture, they don’t include every single thing their eye actually sees on the canvas. Of course, there are a wide variety of artistic styles, just as there are many different writing voices. A comic artist can tell a whole story with a few squiggly lines. But even the most photo-real painting is an illusion; the artist did not paint, grain for grain, what they saw in the real world. Instead they use lines and contrast to trick the eye into thinking what they are seeing is like the real thing.
In writing, you want to do the same thing. A lot of writers start to describe a character by listing every detail about a person, their height, eye-color, hair color, girth, etc. While it is important for you to know this information about your character, this doesn’t translate in the readers mind to a picture of the character. Instead, pick key details that leave the reader with a solid impression. Visualize what you are about to describe, and then ask yourself, what are three specific images that would best convey this setting or character? Limit yourself to those three impressions, and you won’t overwhelm the reader with information. And speaking of description . . . Continue reading