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.