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.

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6 thoughts on “Walking the Tightrope

  1. Hello again! I was wondering where you’d gone to on LJ and looked around — very happy to see that you’re still online.

    The hilarious thing about Tolkien was that by anyone else’s standards he *did* dump a ton of exposition into his books — it just pales in comparison to all of the things he *didn’t* publish, since in those days there was no market for “The World Of Middle-Earth” hardbacks. I don’t personally mind being thrown into a narrative where you’re getting new people and places thrown at you, but I do appreciate it when authors put cast lists at the beginning or end of the book so I’m not using thirty-five bookmarks while trying to remember that Old Hugh is not actually the father of Young Hugh and that Sir Plume of the Pen is a totally different person from Sir Plume of the Flats.

    Happy Valentine’s Day!

    • Hi there! Well, I made this blog so that, hopefully, something useful will come up if a literary agent ever googles my name. The LJ blog is more for personal and fannish blogging. Of course I don’t really update either as often as I could…

      It is amusing that Tolkien broke pretty much all the rules and somehow pulled it off, though the truth is that you could get away with a lot more when you were an esteemed Oxford professor. And generally speaking, the rules are always more bendable when you’re a veteran in the publishing industry. Sigh…if only….

      Happy Valentine’s Day to you! Hope you had a good one.

  2. He didn’t start getting really into the information overload until he was a few books in, though. “The Hobbit” has a lot of Oxford Professor-ish in-jokes (the dwarves’ names, Beorn etc) but nobody could accuse it of being turgid; it moves along at a pretty good pace and without much in the way of backstory. Fellowship is rather like that as well, if much darker. It’s only Two Towers that time really starts dilating so that three days take about 90 pages to pass while we learn all about Gondorian politics. (I remember that when I was eleven or twelve, reading LOTR for the first time, I eventually became so anxious to find out what was going on with the Ring that I just bailed out halfway through Book 3 and skipped straight to Book 4. I didn’t get back to it until I’d finished the whole series, so I was somewhat confused at parts of the ending).

    • It’s interesting, because The Hobbit is definitely a children’s story, but it’s something like a twelfth grade reading level. My dad read it to us as kids, but I was never quite able to get through it on my own until I was older. I admit I didn’t even try LOTR until college. But that’s not really an info-dump issue so much as style and diction, I guess.

      With Tolkien there’s also the fact of posthumous publishing, where you have to wonder how much of his writing he never intended for mass publication and just wrote for his own personal amusement. Not, by any means, that his family seems interested in exploiting his legacy for money, but I think he might chuckle to see how eager people are to buy every little thing with his name attached to it.

      • I have “The War Of The Ring” and watching the way the story evolved is pretty fascinating. Who knows how he would have felt about it seeing the light of day, though. Maybe one day we’ll see his shopping lists :). He’s hardly the only one, though — I know a lot of T.S. Eliot’s unpublished stuff has been scraped up and published, including a lot of heavily scatological stuff he wrote for his friends, and I’ll bet James Joyce never intended those letters to his wife to see the light of day.

        Speaking of Tolkien, I’m watching the three-hour cut of “The Hobbit” tomorrow and am really looking forward to it. This is a really weird recent evolution of fanfic — usually it’s been about adding missing scenes and continuing a story, but now with recent movies it’s about taking things out.

  3. This makes me think of this recent kerfuffle over publishing the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird, and the question of whether Harper Lee is really of sound mind enough to approve it or not. Because the truth is….if it didn’t happen now, it would probably happen after she died anyway, approved or not.

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