But today, I’m going to persevere. I’m just not sure what’s wrong with me lately. It’s probably not anything quantifiable; it’s only going to get worse, as I’m going to have splitting headaches for the next week on top of this general ennui.
Maybe it’s that it’s August. Yeah, that could be it.
|I have a very real fear this may one day happen to me.|
The answer, usually: never as much as you think it is, honestly.
For me, I write excessively wordy first drafts. It’s a bad habit from years ago that I’ve never managed to kick, but it doesn’t bother me. The first draft, to me, is where you toss too much stuff in—too much action, too much emotion, too much exposition, way too much dialogue. It’s the second draft where you grab the flamethrower, the hacksaw, the broadsword, and finally the scalpel to chop bits and pieces off of your favorite characters and the scenes that go around them. I once deleted forty thousand words off of a novel. That was fun.
With Fates, where the first draft plus some polishing is what you read as a finish product, I can’t work that way. If I wrote Fates the way I did my long-form novels, we’d probably still be somewhere around Halloween, and I’d be laboriously explaining the social dynamics of the ’Ski/Walker Ranch when Chuck’s not there, somehow. And you know what? You don’t need to that. Sure, you might want to (mxpw says Fates is a Sallie story), but is it really necessary for the story to happen? Not at all.
So what does the reader need to know? The bare minimum to make the story work, and that’s it. Recently, I read some of the newest entries into the archive and one story wouldn’t allow me to get past the first chapter (which was unfortunate; it sounded like an awesome premise and we know how I love me a good AU). But the first chapter was bogged down by these long, long explanations of where everybody stood with everybody else and a brief history of anything and everything having to do with that world.
This is what is called an “infodump,” readers. And it’s mud. It gets in the gears of your story’s pacing, and it mucks everything up. With an infodump, your story literally grinds to a halt while the author explains something that’s going on. And this is the last thing you want to have happen. Unless you’re writing stylistically, the last thing you want is to remind somebody that there’s an author present.
(One man that gets away with this style of writing is Douglas Adams. He does it satirically, often giving entire chapters full of information and statistics and then bringing home the joke with the main characters being tossed into space or a bowl of petunias hitting the earth. Are you writing a humorous take on the misadventures of a bloke that doesn’t quite get Thursdays? Chances are, likely not. So save the statistics and infodumps for that work meeting on Monday morning.)
But wait a second, what if your situation needs to be explained? In that case, ask yourself: What do they really need to know? “Well, they need to know that Harry is the grand-nephew of the Duke of Archer, who seduced Hattie Lewis’s great-grandmother and nearly drove her to ruin, but she was saved by gallant and dashing Admiral Gallagher, whose second cousin thrice removed is now Hattie’s best friend and madly in love with her, but has considered Harry a mortal enemy since their days at Eton together.” To which I’ll probably blink, but that’s okay. If the reader needs to know all of that, I can point out three or four of those things that can be told within the story itself, rather than an author giving a bunch of narrative facts that are generally going to be viewed as something like a history lesson more than not.
Ways to avoid dumping information on the reader:
1) Show. Don’t tell.
I know, I know, this rule gets preached so much that it’s pretty much hated across the board now. But it’s true. What’s more affecting? Telling us that your main character is a crack shot and earned her place in the army division she’s serving in, or seeing her boldly face down a moving car and take out the driver with a head-shot from two blocks away with only a pistol?
(Hint: it’s the pistol)
Let your character’s actions define them. Don’t tell us a character is the top agent of any agency and then turn around and show us he has not gotten anywhere in five years and he can’t even properly carry out his own mission without needing to be saved by four or five different people. More about backstory will be revealed through actions and reactions than ever through a writer’s infodump.
2) Keep things to yourself.
Just because you came up with a really, really cool idea doesn’t mean it actually needs to go on the page. About four or five people just balked at that, I know, but it’s the truth. A really neat idea that doesn’t advance the story at all is just that: a neat idea that doesn’t advance the story at all. Not every idea that crosses the threshold is not always meant for the final product.
I got my start as a video editor and producer, which is something a lot of people may not know about me. My first job was to go into the field, to various events, get as much video as I possibly could, and come back and assemble it into a 4-7 minute package for air. One of the hardest things I had to learn starting out was that I could get the COOLEST SHOT ON THE PLANET, but if it didn’t fit anywhere in my piece or mucked up my pacing, I was going to be the only person to know about it. And it was a hard thing to learn.
It’s the same way with writing. mxpw sometimes wants to rip his hair out with me because I’ll write a scene that’s, okay, modesty aside, generally pretty good. And then halfway through, I’ll toss it because it’s not doing what it needs to do. Sometimes I can repurpose, but I’ve left some pretty decent stuff on the cutting room floor. I have an entire file (Bunker Spare.docx) that’s just scenes that didn’t make the cut. Occasionally, I’ll go through and reread it, just for kicks. A lot of it? Exposition I didn’t really need.
3) Let your characters act as exposition.
Sometimes it can be really hard not just sitting down and being like, “Okay, I know you’re confused, but here’s what’s really going on!” I actually ran into a situation like this with Fates awhile back, where I wanted to explain everything, but didn’t want to fall into the trap of having Chuck just sit down and muse, which is the main way I can deliver expository facts in the story since it’s in third person limited voice (aka if Chuck’s not thinking about it, I’m not writing about it). This is why I was so, so relieved when Fates 21 came along. For those of you not named Crumby or Ayefah (both of whom have likely memorized Fates), in this chapter, Ellie demands an explanation of anything and everything having to do with Operation Prometheus. Through Chuck’s words (some lies, some half-truths, some outright honest statements), I could spin a more complete picture for everybody that would explain some of the things that had been falling through the cracks.
And let me tell you, that was nice, even while it was like walking on a tightrope. Because while your characters can be a for exposition, it can also go too far. You could have a character that becomes the sole source of exposition and then tends to stick out like a sore thumb (at points in certain novels, I blink and look at the character. “What’re you doing here?” “I’m here to make sure everybody understands everything!” “So...you really have no purpose but as a translator?” “Yeah, basically.”). So you’ve got to be careful to keep that from happening, to make sure that characters contribute as well.
4) Let the reader be confused.
Seriously, they don’t need to know everything up front. If your writing’s decent enough, people will keep reading, and things can be revealed in time. The slow reveal is often the best one because then you can get momentum behind it. Obviously don’t let it go on too long, but keep a little mystery around. It’ll spice up any boring old scene any day!
There are about ten more tips and tricks I can think of off of the top of my head (“Don’t monologue!”), but this blog post has gone on long enough, I think. mxpw mentioned maybe doing a “Dear Abby” column on the blog, so if anybody has anything they want me to write about, writing wise or Fates wise (no spoilers!), send me a PM or an email and I’ll try to tackle that topic.
Hope this helped!