Friday, July 15, 2011

Does Your Reader Really Need to Know This?

Image via Microsoft Office
As writers, we are often bursting with ideas we want to share with readers.  If you have a particular specialty or skill, or you find ancient history fascinating, you might be tempted to tell the reader everything you know about the subject. Even if you’re writing a story drawn from your own personal experiences, there’s a temptation to put in every detail, whether it advances the story or not.

And, on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with educating the reader as well as entertaining her.

But before you launch into your dissertation on the proper way to load a hunting rifle, ask yourself one very important question: Is it necessary?

Just because the information is fascinating to you does not mean it will be fascinating to your reader.  And information that does not advance the story in some way is dead weight, dragging the story down and giving the reader an excuse to nod off.

Back in the ‘90s, when I was in grad school, I wrote a screenplay about a rock band that had been around since the ‘60s.  I took as inspiration bands like Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Fleetwood Mac—groups whose real-life stories make fascinating soap operas.  I fictionalized a lot of things, of course, but my story had all the elements of classic rock groups: band members coming and going, romantic entanglements, drug overdoses, clashes between people who had once been friends and were now enemies.  A surefire formula for success, I thought.

But, after reading several scenes, my professor told me the only people who would care would be fans of this particular group.

The group, of course, did not exist—except in my head.

The lesson I learned was to read my own story as a reader—someone who knows nothing about the subject matter and has no reason to care, a reader who is interested in the story and not in the minutiae.

This is not to say that all information is extraneous.  Sometimes, the reader needs a detailed background to fully understand the context of the story or the actions of the characters.  Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin, is loaded with details of pre-Roman culture, spiritual beliefs, and politics, all of which are necessary to understand the setting, character motivations, and events of the story.

How do you know if the reader really needs to know this information?  Here are five questions and suggestions:

1.  Would your main character(s) know or care about it?  

The reader is always with your character, caring about what happens to him and following him along this course of adventure.  Therefore, if the character isn't likely to know or care about events that happened before his birth, neither will the reader.  Unless your main character is a scholar who just happens to know this stuff, let him discover it instead of telling it to the reader.

2. Is the information relevant to what’s at stake for your main character? 

An unoccupied, creepy room may make your character feel scared, but unless something happens in that room, it does not need to be in the story.

3.  Are you able to sustain tension while giving the reader this information?

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has another character give his two main characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, a lot of historical and rumored information.  But while all this is going on, we never lose sight of the fact that the French police are chasing Langdon because they suspect him of murdering Sophie’s grandfather!

4. Does the information move the story forward?

If your main character cannot proceed to the next step in the story without the information, then, rest assured, it’s vital.

5. Can you show the information instead of telling it?

Many writers struggle with the concept of showing versus telling.  Sometimes this is because we’re anxious to get to the “meat” of the story, so we gloss over scenes or ideas we deem to be less important.  But readers do not experience the story the same way you did while you wrote it.  They only know what’s important by what you choose to focus on, and they will remember vivid details and actions better than a summary of information.  Therefore, if the information is vital to the story, find a way to dramatize it.

As fun as it is to write about information we’ve learned or that is personally relevant to us, remember that we are not writing strictly for ourselves.  Always keep a reader in mind and ask yourself, does she really need to know this information?  If not, get rid of it.

What do you think?  How do you determine whether or not information is necessary to your story?


Miss Good on Paper said...

I couldn't agree more! Your example of the screenplay you wrote works well here, too. Even in composition classes, my students have trouble knowing what to include from their research and what to leave out. Do you think the writer sometimes gets so excited about the research that they forget that others may not care quite as much as they do?


-Miss GOP

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Absolutely, Miss GOP. Not only do writers get excited, they sometimes have trouble deciding what the story (or essay) is really *about*. Committing to a point means excluding a lot of stuff, and writers sometimes aren't ready to let go of infinite possibilities.

Kristi's Book Nook said...

This is an excellent post with valid questions. I am certainly guilty of adding too much information. I try to look at how the overload helps the character and the story. Lots to ponder with these questions. But at least we can stop and ponder and then rewrite or rework the story. Thanks.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

I think most writers add too much information in the first draft, Kristi. I know I do. While revising my novel, I've cut out bits, details, and even whole scenes that lead nowhere. Sometimes we don't know where a part of the story is going until we step back and take a look at the whole.

Dave Whitaker said...

SHOW, DON'T TELL. I think I'm going to get that tattooed on the back of my hands so that I'll see it every time I sit down to the computer to write.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

LOL, Dave. We could all use reminders to show instead of tell.

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