TMI (How much story information is too much?)

It’s an interesting issue to me – how much information should you include in a novel? Do readers really need to understand the whole world to enjoy the story?  And how obvious do you have to be about describing things?

I just ran across a great blog post by Elizabeth Bear that talks about this: The problem of balance…

A few choice quotes:

“There’s this tremendous tension for me as a writer between making things too easy and  making them too hard.”

“The fact of the matter is that I can write a scene which one reader will find tiresomely blatant and on-the-nose, another will find shallow and themeless, a third will be utterly confused by, and which will make the fourth one cry with its pathos and cleverness. And moreover, I can write a scene that one reader will, over the course of a lifetime and four rereads, have all four of those reactions to.”

“Stories mean something to the reader in direct proportion to how much she invests in them, and she invests in them in direct proportion to how much she figures out–or feels like she has figured out–on her own. This is the deep root behind show, don’t tell, which might as easily be phrased demonstrate, don’t narrate.”

It’s a good post, well worth the read.

Whenever I start to think too much about this, I think about a friend I had in high school.  (I may have mentioned this before – if so, sorry for the repeat.)  Anyway, we read a story where a woman stabs herself in the chest and the next scene is her funeral.  I thought the woman killed herself.  My friend said, not necessarily, but never did explain why.

To me, you can’t write to the level of detail that would’ve convinced my friend, or others like my friend, that the woman killed herself.  I think we each have a vision in our heads of what something looks like and we want to share it, but there is no way to make every single reader see and feel exactly what you want them to.  It’s just not possible.

And by trying to force them into such a limited view of your story, you probably hurt yourself and your readers’ experience of your story more than you help.  Bear makes an excellent point (one that I’ve seen elsewhere as well), that the more you let the reader invest in the story, the more they’ll remember/enjoy/like the story.

It’s kind of the difference between taking a class that’s a large lecture that just requires passive listening and taking that same class as a small interactive seminar. I can tell you that the small classes where I interacted with my teachers and had an active role in what I learned are the ones that have stuck with me the most.  (I tended to read books in the back row of the large lecture classes and just listen with half an ear…)

It helps to know who your target audience is, so you can provide the right level of hints and details. In my professional life, I’ve had to give trainings or talks on certain issues.  If I’m giving a talk to a “fresh out of college, no background knowledge” audience I present the material in a very different way than if I’m lecturing to experienced practitioners.  With the newbies I stay away from acronyms or explain them each time I use them.  With the experienced people, I’ll likely explain an acronym once, just in case, and then continue on assuming everyone in the room knows it already.

I have no idea if I’ve personally found the balance in my fiction writing yet – I guess my betas will let me know.  And, interestingly, I think I know the audience I wrote for, but if I’m wrong about that and it gets marketed differently, then I’ll probably need to revisit the whole issue (or the edits I receive will reflect that).

(On a completely unrelated note – I’m traveling for the next week.  I’ll try to make posts daily, but may miss a day or two.  I know, I know.  Devastating.  But I am highly confident that there is plenty of content on the Internet that is better than this little blog.  Including about 10,000 cat or dog videos for those so inclined.  A kitten with a ball of string probably beats this blog for entertainment value 99 times out 100. And the 100th time is likely a tie.  So, if I miss a day or two, my apologies.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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