Spending from the age of 15 until the age of 19 writing one book means that I have basically a record of my emotional maturity. Looking back through previous drafts allows me to see how I have grown up, and one of the things I always noted is how overtly everything was stated. Histories, character’s thoughts, backstory and context were all hammered home with paragraphs of detail.
Perhaps this constant reviewing of my work has helped me to tone down the way in which I deliver information now. One of the things I enjoy the most about writing is setting myself the challenge of conveying important information to the reader without ever saying it explicitly. It’s a great way to sharpen your storytelling.
As it’s something I’ve focussed on a bit, I think I’ve picked up a few tips. So here are my own humble opinions on the matter.
Show don’t tell
I may have written a post about why I think Show don’t Tell is bad advice, but in truth the principles are sound. The easiest way to avoid the dreaded infodump is to remind yourself that you’re not allowed to just tell people stuff all the time. Not being able to say things such as ‘He always hated Alan’, or going into a detailed explanation of why he always hated Alan forces you to look for the better ways of doing things. To quote Fray, my leading lady in Politics in Blood, ‘You will never become the best if you always take the easy route’.
If you think about how you act in the company of someone you hate, you’ll notice there are things you do differently than with people you love, such as punching them in the face, slipping scorpions down their trousers, and pouring cyanide into their soup. What we don’t usually do is say ‘I hate you, Alan’ (especially when their name isn’t Alan), and yet people often pick up on our distaste.
Deep down, most of us are incredibly neurotic, so we are well-trained at picking up on body language, tone of voice, and choice of words and reading meaning into them. Describe your character’s use of these, and your audience will pick up on what they feel without you having to state it.
These may often be considered ‘the enemy’, but I think they’re very useful at helping you imply information. Like any writing rule, nothing is ‘bad’ (except Twilight and Ian McEwan novels), it is simply a matter of using things effectively, and not overusing them. While every piece of dialogue should not be tagged with an adverb, they are a great way to convey emotion, therefore meaning:
“Alan’s coming,” Jim said.
“Great,” he said.
“I quite like Alan,” Mildred said.
“Everybody loves Alan,” Edgar said bitterly.
That is by no means a masterclass in using adverbs to imply information, but the principles are what are important to pay attention to, and in that example, one adverb easily does the work of several paragraphs.
Half the problem is that, as writers, we worry about our readers. We often accidentally write to them as though they are stupid. So we keep talking long after we should stop. Remember what your bare facts that need to be conveyed are, and then stop writing about that particular plot point, emotion or setting. It would be ironic if this section was any longer, so it isn’t.
Remember why people read stories
People don’t want to know everything straight away (some people do read the last page of a book first. These people should be hunted down with razor sharp attack pandas). If we couldn’t wait for answers, books wouldn’t exist. Films would be seconds long. Paintings would all have to be very straight forward.
Not giving your audience all the information about things straight away actually makes the story better. It gives them more reasons to keep reading. Why Edgar hates Alan becomes a point of interest. It doesn’t have to be only the main plot that keeps people reading. Backstory and the relationships between characters can be mini plots in their own right, and make your novel a much richer experience for your reader.
Of course, the other option is just ignore all the writing advice in the world and put some whips in your book. Currently it seems the easiest way to get published and become a bestseller is to write a book with ‘[Insert number] [insert time frame/object/colour/concept] of [insert another time/object/colour/concept]’. Also, if you self-publish, don’t, whatever you do, do what lots of people seem to be doing currently and rename your novel to include 50 Shades of Grey in the title. It’s pathetic, and will just annoy a hell of a lot of people.
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