For me, as a reader, the skill with which the delivery of background information was handled in a given work is what makes a great story. Yet as a writer, I must continually battle the foes of Bloated Dialogue and Too Much Information. Fortunately, I have a large contingent of writing friends who keep me on my toes in that regard and editors who show no mercy.
In my previous post, we spent a great deal of time on world building. We created a mountain of information, the details we, as the authors, needed so we would know what we are writing about.
Now I’m telling you to keep the details to yourself. We’re weeding through that field of dreams and constructing the skeleton of the world for the reader to flesh out in their imagination.
The trick to walking the fine line between too much and not enough is to consider what the characters must know to advance the story. In some ways, writing in the first person makes controlling the dispensing of important details easier for me. When writing in this voice, the story unfolds for both the character and the reader as they go. For this reason, many of my short stories are written in the first person.
Background information should be delivered as the characters require it, no matter what voice we write in. Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those become info dumps laced with useless fluff, sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.
When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.
“Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. Here you are, my second in command.”
“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the United Earth Space Fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the most awesome gig ever.”
Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition in dialogue works is when both the reader and the character being spoken to don’t know the information being dispensed, but need it to move on to the next event.
In the second draft, we seek out and remove
- Nonessential dialogue that does not advance the story
- Nonessential historical information
We check to make sure the story
- is cohesive,
- only has events that flow logically,
- has dialogue that contains information the reader must know.
If I were to tell you my story and place myself in my setting, I would say
It’s three in the morning. A woman sits at a broken desk, surrounded by dusty boxes. Bowed shelves filled with books loom above her, worn volumes, some more abused than others. The flickering glow of the computer screen illuminates the woman, the boxes, and books. A train rumbling in the distance and the clicking noise of her keyboard are the only sounds to be heard in the night-silent house.
I’m not going to go into details you don’t need because you don’t care what is in the boxes, who our mortgage lender is, or that the furnace filter was just changed. The boxes, the books, and the keyboard are important—I write in our storeroom, also known as the Room of Shame. Right away, you know I’m not much of a housekeeper, I write at odd hours of the night, and you may suspect that trains symbolize an important thread in my life.
In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.
Including nonessential socializing “just to show who the characters are” is where many first-time writers lose the reader. Your characters must socialize, but their conversations must revolve around the matter at hand.
Consider a private phone conversation you receive while you’re at work. Perhaps a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions, but you don’t have time to get into the details. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if the other driver had insurance or if your friend will sue.
If writing a concise, cohesive narrative that readers will enjoy is not enough of a reason to keep your background information to just what is needed, I have another thought for you to consider.
In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. The length of the book determines these costs. In the eBook format, costs are minimal, and length doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author priced at more than $12.99 may not sell well.
Remember, with a longer book, external circumstances can also increase your out-of-pocket costs. Until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and book-signings. Traditionally published authors also pay these costs, although they may not have to pay upfront as these costs will be taken out of their royalties.
Whether you are traditionally published or Indie, you’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.
To do that, choose your words so they express what you want to say. Use them creatively to show the story, and employ every trick you can think of to keep the word count down to your target length without gutting the narrative.