You’ve got a story set in a fascinating world loaded with intriguing characters. Naturally, you want readers to get as much out of the story as possible. That means you need to give them context. Determining how much to share and when to share it is a balancing act. George Lucas can get away with an information dump at the beginning of his stories (Star Wars, for the non-geek among you). You can do that too, when you’ve reached his level, but until you have an empire built around your brand, your audience isn’t likely to be as forgiving. Of course, it doesn’t help any of us that George practically trademarked this technique, so any attempt to copy it, even subtly, will swiftly be called out. Now, I could be bias as a writer of fantasy and science fiction, mostly fantasy, but I think avoiding that is harder for those genres. Especially if, like me, you’re trying to make your story approachable and enjoyable to those who don’t normally read that genre. You have to give them enough context to understand how the story’s world works, but you can’t stop the story to do it. So, how do you walk the line between offering dissertations with every scene, and leaving your reader completely lost? The key is to remember to reveal only what is absolutely necessary at that very moment. This seems obvious, but it’s harder than it sounds. Here are a few things I’ve learned that you might find useful.
- Always ask if the reader REALLY needs to know this now.
In my story The Stolen Child, one of the main characters is Caitlin Brady, a single mother of a young girl, Fiona. In my early drafts, readers learned rather early in the story about Caitlin’s family history and Fiona’s father. This slowed down the story, so I spread out the information. You don’t need to know right away that Caitlin’s parents both died when she was young and that she was raised by her grandparents, who died shortly before Fiona was born. All the reader needed to know was: Caitlin’s a mother, Fiona’s father is absent, and she never mentions any family. Learning about her family history does become important when readers start to see how obsessed Caitlin is with keeping Fiona safe; the history provides context. So when you find yourself giving backstory, or information that serves for context (not moving the story forward), always ask yourself, “Does the reader need to know this right now?” and if so, “How much do they need to know right this very moment?” Like so much in life, timing is everything!
- Show, don’t tell.
I know, as writers we’ve all had this phrase drilled into our heads, but there’s a reason for it. Do you prefer to watch a movie, or have someone tell you about it? It’s the same with stories. Readers much prefer to “watch” your book’s story than have you tell them what happens. Suppose, for instance, an antagonist in your story is a multi-national, faceless corporation. They’re hording information vital to the public solely to increase profits. You could give a lengthy history of the company’s misdeeds, or you could do something like this:
Joseph went over his gear, then looked up at the monolith of glass and steel that was the headquarters of Eviltech Inc. He couldn’t help but think how fitting it was. The sanitized, faceless façade fit perfectly with the philosophy of the company that made everything from baby food to cruise missiles. Its only overriding interest was its share prices. He pulled on his mask and smiled. It was time for the shares to take a big hit.
Of course I could’ve also just said it was a multi-national, faceless corporation that was hording information vital to the public in order to increase profits, but that would’ve been dry and boring. Instead of describing a painting to the reader, I showed them a piece of the actual painting. I gave them just enough to give them needed information, establish some biases, and start asking questions. . The reader doesn’t need to know right now why our character is outside, or even that our character is a good or bad guy. We’ve clearly labeled the company as a bad entity, but we don’t know yet if the character’s motives make him any better. That uncertainty is what keeps readers turning pages.
Now, obviously there’ll be times when your readers just needs to know something and there’s no other way to get it across but to tell them. Again, in fantasy and science fiction you’ll need to get the rules of your world across at some point. While you can demonstrate those rules in well written scenes, sometimes that can be a bigger obstruction to the flow of the story than just telling them and some things just don’t make sense without explanation. In those cases, I give the reader a surrogate; a character who’s in the same situation as the reader (totally clueless about the world). I can reveal the information to the character, as part of normal story development, and as a consequence, the reader learns the same thing.
Again, using The Stolen Child as an example, Caitlin fills this role. That story takes place in a world exactly like ours, except that faeries are real. They exist just below the surface of the world we know. Caitlin is a normal person who doesn’t have any idea they exist, so when the reader needs to know something, she does too. I also have options with her. I can have her ask the question the reader is asking, and have another character answer. Or, I can put her in a situation where she comes to a conclusion herself that answers the question.
- Trust in your reader, but more importantly, trust in yourself.
I explained in “Your Baby is Ugly,” that one of the editors I’ve worked with kept telling me not to beat my readers over the head. He was implying that by doing so, I was assuming my readers weren’t smart enough to “get it.” It took me some time to realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t trust the reader. I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t have enough confidence in my writing ability to believe I could adequately get my thoughts and intentions across with just subtext and subtly. Sure, I’d use subtext, but then I’d also explain it. You have to trust in yourself to get your idea across. Say you’re writing a science fiction story and the faster-than-light drive on your ship fails. When the crew can’t figure out the problem, but your character steps forward and explains it in a way most don’t understand, and those who do refuse to believe it, you’ve just shown us that character is a genius in that field. We get it. You don’t need to then also tell us he’s a genius.
Will there be times when you’re too subtle? Absolutely. That’s when you need someone to look it over who’ll give you real feedback, not just say “it was good.” If you’re worried, ask about a specific section. Did they understand what you were trying to convey? If they did, great! If not, make some adjustments so it’s a little more obvious. Fight the urge to go too far the other way and insert an information dump. Hopefully, said reader (or even better, an editor if you can afford one), will point out if you need to back off and make it more subtle. Give your readers license to fill in some blanks for themselves. Part of the fun of a story is painting the picture in our mind.
However, there is one caveat to the above:
- Never assume your reader knows something you do.
If you haven’t told, showed, or implied it, your reader doesn’t know it. Assuming it’s vital to the story, you’ll need to tell them somehow. Perhaps your main character has a crippling fear of open water because he/she almost drowned as a child. If it’s relevant to the story—it’s set on the coast, for example—your readers will eventually need to learn why your character goes into a fetal ball when he/she steps foot on the beach. The keyword being “eventually.” Again, timing is everything, but if they feel for the character, the reader will want to know at some point.
That being said…
- Never assume the reader has to know everything.
Don’t look at me that way. I know what I just told you. Take the character above, but move the story to the Midwest. Now the fear of open water takes a much less significant role. Sure, it adds depth to the character, but it might not be relevant to the story. Or if you’re writing a series, maybe it isn’t relevant to this particular story. This goes back to letting your reader fill in the blanks. The best example of how readers fill in blanks is in character descriptions. Ask most people what the character Harry Potter looks like and odds are you’ll get a description of Daniel Radcliffe. If you had asked those same people before the first movie was released, you’d get a VERY wide range of different ideas. When you introduce your character, and it should be only when you introduce him/her, don’t give your readers a police sketch. Just hit the important parts. Now you can have revelations later, but you should avoid them unless they serves the story. Here are two examples, you decided which is better.
Joseph walked into the room. He’s six feet tall with shaggy brown hair that covers his left eye. As a dedicated body builder, his massive biceps stretch the sleeves of his green T-shirt with the faded logo of the Blind Melon’s self-titled album on it. His brown eyes, flecked with gold, scanned the room. His face was unshaven with three days of growth on his angular jaw and dimpled chin. He didn’t see Diane anywhere. He was sure she’d stood him up again. She’d already done it twice. She always had a good reason, but he couldn’t help but wonder if she actually had any interest in him at all.
Now let’s try that again.
A man stepped into the room and glanced around. He was a little above average height, but he was covered in slabs of muscle that stretched his green T-shirt. He ran his fingers through his shaggy brown hair. Where was she? He was certain she’d stood him up again.
“Joseph!” a woman called out.
He turned and he smiled to see Diane waving at him.
Which do you think works better? I’m sure that like me, you have a clear vision in your head what your characters look like. Don’t force that on your reader. You should let them cast the role themselves. Give them some guidelines, but then let it go.
As with all my suggestions, there are oodles of books available about this topic. Ultimately, though, I think most of us will learn best by doing. It might take a while, and you might have to break into the same evil corporate headquarters a few times, but, when you finally get the story where you want it, and you see the high sheen coming from the polish you’ve given it (yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors), you’ll know it was a labor of love.