Walking the Tightrope

Conveying information while storytelling is a tricky balancing act, particularly in fiction with non-realist elements. You want to make sure the reader knows enough of the backstory and setting to understand what’s going on, but you don’t want to end up with long passages full of info dumps that bring the plot to a screeching halt, or awkward exchanges between characters who tell each other things they already know in lieu of directly addressing the ignorant reader. This can be circumvented somewhat if one of the characters is new to the setting or ignorant of the details of the world for some other reason, but it still doesn’t prevent those long, clunky passages.

In most cases, you have to find a way to parcel out information gradually, when it’s organic to the flow of the storyline. I have not, by any means, mastered this technique, but I can certainly offer an example of how to do it wrong. Here’s how I didn’t do it for Silver:

Alinda Joren was the Senior Inspector of the Peacekeeps in the island city-state of Halbrechta, which was actually one big island, one medium island, and a bunch of little islands called the Teardrops because they resembled tears. The Peacekeeps were the people who arrested criminals and investigated crimes, and she was their leader. One morning she was called into the station very early because Venerable Jallaian had been found dead in her bed. The Venerables were the main branch of government in Halbrechta. There were nine of them, but now there were only eight because Jallaian was dead.

Alinda stood in the morgue in the basement of the Peacekeep station that morning, staring at Jallaian’s body. She was worried because Jallaian probably hadn’t died naturally. She was healthy at her last medical exam. But she was very powerful. She had telekinesis, the ability to move objects with her mind, and telepathy, the ability to read minds. She had these powers because she was a Silver, a woman past her childbearing years, and in Halbrechta all women around that age got special abilities. The strongest ones usually became Venerables. It would be very hard to murder one of them. But it seemed like maybe that was what happened to Jallaian. Alinda was worried partly because there might be more Venerable deaths in the future, and partly because she was getting close to becoming a Silver herself. She didn’t like Venerables very much, and she was nervous about becoming a Silver when she was quite happy as she was. She had a husband, Oddo, and two daughters in their twenties, Larice and Clera.

Yikes. It made me twitch even to write that much. Look at how turgid the writing is. Two hefty paragraphs in, and nothing has happened beyond Alinda looking at a body. There’s no forward motion, just a lot of information you’re not really motivated to care about. This is especially problematic if you’re writing with a limited perspective narrator, either 1st person or 3rd, because you’re essentially chronicling the thought process of your protagonist, and people rarely just stand around thinking to themselves for long periods of time, particularly about things they already know. Their minds, and by definition the narration, have to be present in the moment, interacting with the people and events around them. You can have a little more wiggle room if you’re dealing with omniscient narration, but even then it’s crucial that you keep the story moving, without overly coy or heavy-handed asides about what the protagonist doesn’t know.

You have to give the reader a chance to invest in the characters and the storyline. Now, this doesn’t mean that I’d want to go the reverse direction and dive straight into a fast-paced narrative that’s incomprehensible if you don’t know what Halbrechta and Silvers and Venerables are. As I said, it’s a tricky balance, but you can make it work. It’s useful to have readers who know nothing about the story or world-building beforehand, so they can tell you if the information-parceling is effective without being overbearing. It’s also important to recognize what information is necessary and what isn’t. Feel free to create an elaborate, richly-detailed world with backstories for every major and minor character, if that helps you write in it. But don’t feel compelled to include every one of those details in the actual narrative. You’re writing a story, not a history textbook. And hey, save those intricate world-building sagas for when your fantasy series becomes so popular, readers actually want to read your Long Turgid History of the Wars of Netherdark. Who knows? It worked for Tolkien.