Be stingy with your facts. A reader doesn't need to know everything.
|When beginning a new story or novel, our first inclination is to give background. We want the reader to know everything about the character, what he or she looks like, how they came to be where the story opens, even describe the newly created world spinning in our mind.
But does all that make for interesting reading? Will the reader honestly care about all this minutia?
We live in a “Gotta Have it Now!” world. Gone are the days of the Oliver Twist or The Count of Monte Cristo type novels where an author could go pages and pages of description. Readers simply don’t have the patience, or the time.
For instance, I could write: The four story mansion stood at the edge of a cliff overlooking a large, blue, freshwater lake; so large the far bank could not be seen. It was made of a gray marble back in the 1500s by a count who made his money from slavery. It had three wings, fifty rooms, three kitchens each with a 6 foot wide and 4 foot high fireplace for cooking, a stable made of cedar and river rock, and capable of housing twenty horses . . .
Okay, I’ll stop there. I’m getting bored.
You see how it doesn’t move the story along? If I were writing an historical piece on castles, that would be different. But for a short story, or the beginning of a novel, I just wasted 81 words. 81 words could very well determine whether I make or exceed the maximum word count of a contest or publication.
Here’s an example, using some of that same information, but making it move the story along:
Jackie shivered from the sudden ice that filled old, musty library as well as the whispered voice behind her. She wanted to turn from the window overlooking the cliff and massive lake, but what would be the point? She wouldn’t see the man who spoke her name.
No. Not her name. Jacqueline’s name.
“Don’t ignore me, my child,” the man said, his deep, harsh voice now so close to her right ear she could feel his breath. Or was it imagined?
Jackie turned and fled the room. She sprinted down the long hallway, her sneakers slapping on the marble floors and echoing throughout the hushed and long abandoned mansion.
The man followed. She could feel it.
But she kept on running, hoping she’d make it out the door before the Count, now dead for over 400 years, caught her and claimed her as his own.
Although not the best of all examples, this will still hold the reader’s attention longer than the first one. There’s intrigue, action, and above all, unanswered questions the reader will want answers to.
However, information dumps can be necessary, especially for first drafts. In fact, they’re crucial. This is how the writer finds the way through the story and discovers the characters. The writer needs to know the details in order for the story to make sense.
When the story is ready for the second draft, the history at the beginning needs to be removed. If the story makes less sense without it, place that portion where it’s crucial for the reader and the character to know it. That could come later, sometimes as late as the ending.
You don’t waste your time writing all the background information on your world and characters. Keep it all in a document, printout, or journal and close at hand when you’re writing. That way, if you forget the color of a character’s eyes or confuse the location of the stables with the guest house, you can go back and refresh your memory. Readers do pay attention to the details you give them, and will notice if you mess up. Having all that information close at hand will make sure you’re consistent.
Remember the reader doesn’t need to know everything, just what’s necessary to move and complete the story.