Do I Really Need to Know That?

Recently, I’ve been fighting a case of writer’s block. Usually, I’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got writer’s block. Stupid Fates!” or “Stupid Greater!” But not this time: this time, it’s a general writer’s block, where I stare at a blank page, or a blank Twitter line, or a blank blog entry box for an hour. Then I think to myself, “Screw it,” and go watch a movie. I’ve no enthusiasm for anything lately. Even worse, I’ll force myself to write halfway through a scene, realize it’s a scene I don’t need, and scrap everything. I’ve done it four times on blog posts alone.

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.
But today, I’m going to stay on topic. And speaking of today’s topic: how much information/exposition is enough?

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!

— Frea


  1. Really interesting addition Frea and I ask the following to be further enlightened - NOT to open up Pandora's Box or kick a hornets nest!!!
    You mentioned somewhere (twitter) that the writers of S3 made sure you would never be without an example for why you should "Show, don't tell."
    What one thing do you wish they would have shown and not told?

  2. Shaw being a good agent. It would have made the season 90% better and easier to swallow.

  3. LOL. For the record, I've tried really hard, still am actually, but I haven't memorized it...yet. Unfortunately. ;)

    I think I've said it in reviews already, if not, I meant to. It's definitely something I really enjoy with your writing Frea. You don't explain things too much. And when you do explain something, it's always through situations/actions. Even if it's a train of thoughts or something, like in Fates 32 when Chuck figured out that Jill was Fulcrum. He was doing something while he was thinking, there wasn't like a 'pause button' so he could think. I really appreciate that. You also do that thing when you show us something before we get to the explanation. That's really great.

    I'm sure it's not easy to do, but as someone who gets bored really easily when I read, it's definitely something that makes all the difference.

    Also, I think you nailed the 4th point. I'm definitely confused. I mean, what the hell happened with that Bunker? ;)

  4. I really want to read that Sallie story, Truth Lies and the CIA was probably my favorite of the Fatesverse oneshots. So...ya know.....feel free to write that if...you know ya want.

  5. Anonymous10.8.11

    Sorry about your writers block. There's only one way out of that...

    Well one way that I know of.

    Good luck with that.

    As for the article, I always sort of hope that people know these things. Then again in 100 level English in college people didn't know how to write an essay, so who knows.

    My favorite are grammar rants! And yet, (ooh ouch) I still misplace the commas. Pity.

  6. Really good advice and certainly got me thinking. Im probably quilty of breaking all of the four rules so hopefully now I'll learn to avoid making the same mistakes again. Any chance you'll give us the name of the AU you couldn't get past the first chapter? It'd be really nice to have an example of what not do.

    If you lack ideas for a blog post, an insight into your writing habits would be great. And what I mean by that is tips on writing, but not the text. Like do you allow yourself to surf around the internet while writing(something I'm guilty of and usually results in me pushing the final read through into middle of the night) etc.

    Off-Topic: Are you planning on updating the eBook section anytime soon? I'd love to read New Car again on my modded ds.

  7. No, anonymous, I'm not going to sacrifice a goat to the porcelain god to cast some juju on my writer's block and clear it up. But thanks for suggesting it.

    Crumby, you have this fantastic habit of making me blush. Stop it, you. :) (Confession time: Chuck figuring out Jill was a difficult section to write, and one of the easiest; Chuck's brain works too much like mine sometimes that I had to tone down the ADD and make him think in a logical Point A to Point B sort of way for that scene)

    JohnClark, I'll keep it in mind. I tend to like writing more Sarah and Carina scenes (NOT Sarah/Carina, just that they're both in the scene. Together. And usually punching each other or something else), but you know, a lot happens at 'Ski/Walker ranch. Maybe someday.

    Anonymous, this is actually not as common sensical as you think it should be, even among "published" and published writers. Just reading any of the free ebooks on Kindle makes me cringe. So it's nice to every once in awhile say, "Hey! Everybody! Knock it off!"

    Speedhoven, out of respect for the author, I'm not going to say which story it was. I don't like calling people out on the blog, so I'd save that sort of thing for PM or IM. But if you're looking for a good "what not to do" sort of example, I suppose I can probably scrounge one up from one of my own stories.

    As far as insight into my writing habits goes...I'm not entirely positive in the long run that that would be helpful. In fact, when people hear about my writing habits, they usually tend to get angry. It's a little frightening, as I'll be blocked for days and then one day sit down and produce ten pages without getting up from my chair. And other times, people will give me a scene idea and I'll just take off running with it. Unfortunately, the one thing it never is...is steady. Seriously, what works one day will be a dismal failure the next and vice versa. Sometimes turning off the Internet works, sometimes it helps if I break every few chapters and tweet about something random.

    And honestly, every writer is so different that hearing about what makes writing work for me probably isn't going to help more than, you know, the one person that's compatible with my way of doing things. But thank you very much for the idea. :) And there should be some new ebooks coming soon, I think.

  8. Well if it's not too much trouble you can mail the name of the story or your own example, address is machinefin@gmail.com

    I've been having a bit of writer's block myself (or maybe it's just indolence) and my writing's been just adding a few words and then getting back to surfing the net, but things seem better now and I've actually made some progress today. Hopefully you won't have to resort to sacrificing a goat to get rid of your block.

    By the way, the Ninja Librarian cover is frakkin amazing! Did you do it all in PS or did you use any other apps?

  9. Anonymous13.8.11

    I've always found writers block morbidly fascinating... I'm an engineering student, and I've been working on machines and factories for most of my life, so I've never written anything other than reports, instructions, and the ocasional MathCad program. Inspiration is rarely, if ever, needed. So the idea of not being able to do what I'm supposed to do? The dread of the blank page? I've read a lot about it, I can imagine it, and maybe empathize with it, but I honestly don't know how it's like, and whatever I write down would be pointless platitudes.
    So... I guess I could say never give up, never surrender, and confess I've already made arrangements to smuggle a goat across a certain border where a pentagram has already been inscribed and a cup that reads 'blood for the blood god! words for the frea!' is waiting...
    And you asked for writing and/or Fates requests. I'm not an English speaker, so I guess I'd be interested on your take on non-English speaking writers, or if you've ever written in an adoptive language.
    And it'd be interesting to get a sneak peek at some parts of the Bunker Spare, and why they were left out (maybe like some kind of DVD 'deleted scenes'). Or a Fates omake-ish post like a rewrite of a scene in the style of someone of the CIA (if mxpw then SWP, if crystal then cheery, happy thoughts), or a mix-up between the Fates and Themselves couples a la Sarah vs Sarah...(with F!chuck's brain subsequent meltdown).
    Though probably you'll be walking down the street, see a little girl with ponytails slip down and a little boy giggle watch a red balloon fly away and hear a bird chirp. Somethin will click. And then you'll go home and immediately write down 25 pages in a single night. (that is, if the ritual works).

  10. Anonymous13.8.11

    There's a quote from a letter(usually attributed to Mark Twain, but not definitively) that this article made me think of: "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one."


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