Friday, August 1, 2014

Balancing Drama with Discourse

Writing is a bit like a courtship. We've either been on those first dates or heard about them where there was way too much information shared. I can't even remember what the commercial was for, but I saw one recently where the couple is on their first date, and the guy has made a creepy look-alike doll of his date. Halfway through the night, he starts making out with the puppet. Hilarious, but creepy. And it totally makes my point. A good first date is one in which the participants have an enjoyable evening and learn just enough about each other to be interested in learning more, but are not entirely creeped out. And thus it progresses on to the second date. And so on and so on until marriage. Even after marriage we are still learning about our partners. The key is that at each step along the way, a little more info is shared.

So why do we treat our books and stories any differently? Why do we as writers think we need to let our reader know everything as soon as possible?

It's a balancing act. We want to give our reader enough info to keep them interested and engaged in our story, but we don't want to provide so little that they are bored or confused. We as writers know so much about our characters and their worlds in which they live. And of course, as writers, we want everyone else to know all about them too. Unfortunately, we are sometimes disappointed when we discover just because we want our readers to know everything does not mean our readers have the same desire.

So how do we maintain the balance? Really, it's a matter of trial and error with lots of feedback from alpha/beta readers until it feels right. Basically it feels right when the necessary info is integrated so seamlessly that the reader doesn't even notice you put it in. Below are a couple of tricks I have learned along the written way.

  • Use a variety of techniques. When you are trying to convey either background story or technical information to a story, there are generally three ways to weave it in unnoticed: 1) discussing options in dialog between the characters, 2) the thoughts of one character, or 3) an experienced character explains a concept to a novice character.  
  • Cut to the chase. This is probably the #1 recommendation. Give enough background or info to help the reader understand your story, and then move on. But this is also a balancing act because it can lead to not enough info. If your reader is confused, you either need more explanation, or a better positioning/set-up in the story. Nuggets of background story or technical explanation are usually a sentence to a few; rarely more than a paragraph; and never a full page. An early draft of my medieval novel had a scene in it where I described a plow. This description stretched on for over half a page by itself. It was so long and twisted that my readers couldn't even picture the object I was describing. So I took that scene to the woodshed and I hacked at it. I read and re-read that description to determine which parts of the plow were the most important for a reader to picture or understand. I focused on those and cut the rest. I rearranged the order of my descriptions to flow more logically as though someone were examining it. Suddenly, my readers could see a picture among all the words.
  • Right time, right place.  First of all, don't break up the "action." Anything with a heightened tension to the scene is "action," and it probably isn't the right place to give explanations. It will bog your scene down. If it's a scene that has more of a meandering or musing feel to it, then it's probably an appropriate time to add the information/background. So if you find you are adding info in the middle of action scenes, there are a couple of ways you can fix it. First of all, determine if the info is really necessary for the reader to have. Perhaps they need the info to fully appreciate an insult, or why a character responded they way he/she did. Or perhaps it's just extra info that really doesn't add anything to your story. (Remember our date analogy at the beginning?) If it isn't necessary, cut it. As much as it may hurt, your story will be better for it. If it is necessary, either find a way to weave it in more artfully, or - my preference - somehow introduce the concept earlier (or occasionally later) in the story where there's a better opportunity for explanation.
  • Provide a set-up for the info. In the above mentioned scene, my first draft just had the plow plopped into the story. On the revised version, I had a character mention that this was the first year for her beau to drive the oxen and plow. She pointed, and the other characters looked. A perfect opportunity for my main character to describe the beau's struggles, and therefore the equipment itself, when normally the plow would be an object taken for granted and ignored, at least as far as description goes. Which leads in to my next point...
  • Don't force the explanation. Yes, there will always be info that we need to somehow convey to the reader that the characters already know. If we use the "As you know, John..." tactic, it will be obvious to our readers that the info is only there for his/her benefit. Instead find a way to convey the info in a way logical to the story. I read a novel by Michael J. Sullivan called Rise of Empire (it may have been another book in the series, but I know it was that author and series). As a writer, I was stunned at how beautifully he worked in the description of a typical falconing hunt. Because one of the main characters had recently been promoted to nobility, a knight enamored with her explained the whole process on her first hunt. After that scene, I just giggled at Sullivan's brilliance.

So the general rule of thumb: your reader wants to read a story, not sift through a bunch of stuff to find the story.