Author Overreach: How to Lose a Reader in Ten Pages or Less

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It isn’t enough for some authors to tell us about their characters or the setting when they’re working on a story. They can’t limit themselves to just a bit of background information. No. In order for them to tell you about this world that they have created, they need to tell you about each of its Kings and Queens. From the beginning of the monarchy. In order. And in excruciating detail. Also, how the monarchy was formed. And the attempted revolution three hundred years before the current story takes place. But don’t worry about that revolution, because it didn’t work. You know what else didn’t work? When notable citizen Mark Lingtree thought it would be a good idea to try to bring metal carriage wheels to market fifty years before the story began. It wasn’t that they were designed poorly, you understand– they worked quite well, but they were hard to manufacture, and delivery times were too long. Speaking of things that were too long, did you…

I think you get it. This is an author who needs an intervention, because it is entirely possible to give too much detail when you’re writing a story.

There is a lot to be said for descriptive writing. It can provoke emotional responses in the reader, really pull them into a scene, or shock them in creative ways. Some writers, however, go a little overboard with it.

Sometimes, it’s a case of Extreme Research. For example, in my next story (which will come out tomorrow), I spent way too much time researching bear attacks. I read eyewitness accounts, watched video clips, reviewed photos, and read field guides for forest rangers. I’m pretty confident that I know what to do in the event of a black bear attack. But, in the context of the story, I needed specific information for a specific purpose. So I described the bear encounter.

What I didn’t do was describe the bear encounter in terms of how this one was different from other bear encounters. I didn’t go on about how Robert Marco lost a foot when he attempted to play dead, and so my character chose not to do that. I also didn’t discuss all of the other options he didn’t take.

It can be tempting to dump all of the information you dig up on a topic into your story. Resist that urge. Remember that just because information exists on a topic that is tangentially related to your story doesn’t mean that it must be shared with the reader. As long as the information you provide is accurate, your research stops serving a purpose. Let it go.

In other cases, Extreme Worldbuilding can sing its siren song. But you must resist.

Seriously. For my next book, Specter (which I might have to rename thanks to the next Bond movie being announced), I have spent so much time and effort building the lore of the world I’m creating that it’s almost sickening. I know history and backstory for every character— and there is a massive cast (upwards of thirty perspective characters as of right now). I know things about the setting going back hundreds of years. I’ve created a history for it. I know this world’s texture, its timbre, its story.

I can fill a couple of books just on the backstory of the setting for Specter, an island called Cooper’s Rest. Hell, my last short story, Loving Son, takes place there. I’ll likely write some more short stories that do the same.

But Specter will hardly mention any of it. I’ll pick up things that are relevant to the plot, and place the other things to the side. And I’ll move on, even though a lot of those things I made up are really clever and people will probably like them. Because the patience of readers is not something you want to mess with.

Other cases don’t have an excuse. They’re really just cases of bad writing. Yes, I said it. It is, in fact, possible for things to be poorly written! Imagine that! You know how I know? Because I went to school, and I also wrote a lot of bad fiction.

Some writers take what their English teachers told them in high school a little too seriously and wind up dumping so much detail into every scene that there is no room for the scene. They have the wrong idea about descriptive writing, and they think that more details means more descriptive. This is not true.

Let me repeat this for emphasis: details and descriptive writing are not mutually inclusive.

You can spend four pages discussing the content of your main character’s file cabinets. That does not interest me.

At all.

I mean, maybe it’ll interest file cabinet enthusiasts? That’s probably a thing somewhere. I bet there’s an online community where they discuss files and the cabinets in which they are stored. But I doubt that that page gets many hits.

Here is the point: don’t give details that neither serve the plot nor add flavor to the story.

It can be great to describe your Leading Lady’s evening gown in great detail. This can add color and flavor to your story, because, honestly, without details stories can be whittled down to a couple of sentences. But I would draw the line at telling the reader where the dress was made– unless that can become important to the plot (for instance, the dress was switched accidentally with a professional assassin, who needed it to pass security at a charity auction).

You can probably guess why this is bad: it asks too much of the reader. I’m not one to talk down to readers or encourage others to do so, but there is a difference between using SAT words and bombarding them with information about the dangers of attending timeshare meetings.

As consumers of stories, we have tendencies to accept that the information given is going to be relevant. This carries across all media, too. If a scene takes place in which a character references their uncanny ability to throw knives at moving targets, you’d better believe that I’m expecting that character to throw a knife at a moving target later. And if they don’t, I’m going to be extremely disappointed.

We all have this tendency, because of the level of trust that exists between creator and consumer. The relationship between the two is codependent; the creator accepts responsibility for providing some type of entertainment, and the consumer rewards the creator’s efforts with attention and (hopefully) money. The consumer trusts that the creator isn’t going to waste time needlessly, and that all of the information provided needs to be there. If they find that too much of the information is totally pointless, they’re going to either be disappointed or angry. (Or, possibly the worst reaction: apathetic).

Thankfully, avoiding this is easy. All you have to do is not be a crazy person.

Seriously, though, take these steps:

1. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Imagine yourself reading the scene in question. Think about what information people will tend to retain from that scene; will they pick up on Madam LeFoix’s stilettos that are disguised as lacquered chopsticks, or will they be distracted by the three paragraphs you spent describing the door to the room they’re in? If the answer is the latter, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do. Or less ‘splaining, actually.

2. Ask yourself what the purpose of the scene is, then remove everything that isn’t that purpose. If the purpose is to show that Joe Carpenter is struggling with his tenuous grasp on reality after he was attacked by an Eldritch Abomination from The Great Beyond, then show him doing that. Then go back and add flavor text, like how a fly was buzzing in the background, but Joe didn’t notice it because he was so crazy at the time.

3. Ask yourself if the information given is necessary to understand something. If the reader can get by without it, it’s probably best to leave it out. I don’t need to know all about Joe’s first job after high school to understand that he’s going crazy. I just need you to tell me that he’s going crazy, and demonstrate it.

4. Finally, trust your reader! Seriously, people are smarter than you might think. Most of them can figure things through subtext. You don’t need to beat them over the head with information in an effort to make your work more easily understandable. In fact, it usually has the reverse effect.

Remember that writing, as with most things, is all about balance. It’s good to add details, but it’s bad to bury people alive in them.


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