Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Putting Things Off, But in a Good Way

I’ve been in edit mode these past few weeks and, as usual, I can’t help but notice most of my revisions involve rearranging the order in which my sentences are written. Sometimes it’s only a sentence or two, but often it’s whole paragraphs. Occasionally it’s entire scenes. I don’t seem to have the knack for writing things down in the appropriate order during my early drafts.

No surprise there, but what really surprised me was that most of these changes involved moving the words farther back in the story as opposed to moving them forward. I rarely tell the reader stuff too late. My problem is telling the reader stuff too early.

Now I’m sure this happens to all writers to some extent. Most of us infodump in the early drafts, and that pile of information needs to be whittled down and moved back until the reader absolutely needs it. But even when I have a paragraph or two of information I wouldn’t consider an infodump, I’ve discovered it’s still better to move the information as far back in the story as possible.

I suspect my difficulties stem from teaching chemistry classes and giving research seminars. I’ve grown accustomed to explaining a topic in a nice linear fashion that maximizes understanding and (hopefully) decreases the number of questions I get at the end. It doesn’t occur to me to leave out information just to leave the class wanting more. So when I have the characters in my stories explain something to other characters, I usually have them spill everything they know about the subject. Good for teaching, not so good when writing fiction.

In real life, most people explain things in a haphazard manner—wandering about the topic, leaving stuff out, and often contradicting themselves in the process. And good writers take advantage of this quirk. Think about the conversations in your favorite books or movies. Rarely does the character explain things thoroughly. The information usually comes in snippets, with just enough to make you want to know more. And how many times have you seen a character leave out important points during a conversation so that another character (and the reader) can be surprised later?

So even when it makes perfect sense for a character to mention A, B, and C when talking to another character, the story is often better served by mentioning A, vaguely hinting at B, and ignoring C altogether. The trick is to dole out just enough information to leave the reader asking more questions.


12 comments:

  1. I'm not good at at this in a first draft either, Ken. Exposition is HARD, and doing it well, no matter when it happens in the story, is something that takes a lot of skill. I'm not there yet! It's a great thing to notice about yourself, though, and to keep an eye on; I have a feeling you'll do less rearranging of sentences the more you write!

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  2. Me, I have the opposite problem. I keep secrets too long. I just finished revising an old manuscript where I had to move information forward (and even include information that, in my mind, I thought belonged in a potential sequel). This manuscript had already gone through a round of submissions and the feedback was mostly the same: Your protag has secrets. We don't know what they are. Therefore we don't understand the stakes, and the story doesn't draw us in.

    So that's me -- not the info dump author, the secret-keeper. A habit I'm working on breaking!

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  3. I think I have a mixed problem. I'll dump information, but not the right information, so I need to move some worldbuilding stuff forward and some character stuff back. yWriter saved my butt a couple years ago, because I found I could drag and drop scenes to wherever I wanted them. I hadn't heard of Scrivner at the time, so fell in love with free yWriter and haven't looked anywhere else.

    When it comes to my bigger books, I hardly ever write in order, so I totally get the need to move stuff around.

    Best of luck with your rearranging!

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  5. You're very perceptive.

    I've thought about me and how being a nurse affects my writing. I can't diagnose, so I have to describe things rather than label them. (I can't say a new baby has Down's Syndrome, but I can chart that he has low-set ears, a large protruding tongue, simian creases, and poor tone.) It helps me show-not-tell. ;)

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  6. I used to tell more in the beginning and got better at moving it back. I think that just comes with practice.

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  7. Great points! I tend to think and write more linearly, but I need to get better at leaving more for later in writing.

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  8. I had the opposite problem when I first started writing. I would keep too much from the reader thinking I was building suspense. I had to learn that not everything needs to be withheld. It was a hard habit for me to break.

    I can see how being a teacher would make you want to share everything up front. :)

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  9. It is a trick/knack/skill. I hope I'm getting better at it. I'm usually guilty of holding too much back. It's something I had to learn to quit doing. I see things as extraneous that others don't.

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  10. pacing, and information release is an art form. It's a formidable task to put it to paper well, so I commend you. I've written a lot of novels and that's part of why I like to tell things from a single POV. I sort of prefer the Noir Detective style story where the MC is discovering the information, but it's because I'm lazy and don't know how to craft information release.

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  11. I've always been good about not info-dumping. It's one of the few writing things I never had to learn to do, oddly enough. I'm glad you are seeing it in your MS and learning how to rearrange it. Pretty soon, you'll find you don't even do it, anymore, in your first drafts.

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  12. This is why you're better at story structure than I am. I want to know more up front, and I tend to get aggravated when the information is withheld until later. So when I rewrite, it'll be your job to tell me what I should have saved for when it's really needed.

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