I couldn’t think of a pertinent picture to go with this post so you get this.
Everybody’s got different approaches to writing, but no matter how you do it, your final draft is not going to magically come out in one piece and in the right order the first time through. A good story is always going to take some rewriting (probably lots).
As Terry Pratchett said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” When you’re acquainting yourself with your character, his or her background, the setting, and what’s going on, you’re probably going to plop it down any way you can to get it all out of your head, and that’s normal. You’ve got to flesh the character and world out for yourself so you can make your reader believe it. However, that means you’ll have a lot of throat-clearing, which can result in two problems:
- The story might not be starting in the right place. Usually how this ends up is that you have a scene, or several scenes, that are unnecessary for the actual story you want to tell. Sometimes it means that you’re telling too much in hindsight and your story would benefit starting earlier in time so that you’re progressing instead of stopping to reminisce.
- You’ll probably end up with a lot of stuff that the reader doesn’t need to know, at least not explicitly and probably not all at once. And you’re probably telling it all in a big piece of exposition instead of showing it.
Because both of these things are likely right there at the beginning of your story (or even each time you introduce a new character or place), all that excess information might bore your readers right off the bat. That’s not good. You want to engage them immediately. They’re here to meet your amazing character for sure, but they don’t need to know everything about them right away. Readers want to see what happens to characters and what they do. You need to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling, and a big chunk of character backstory or setting description (an info-dump) will stop your narrative in its tracks.
So the trick is to give the readers enough to make the world and the characters feel real without putting them to sleep. Sometimes you’ve just got to tell stuff, and that’s fine. Too much of that will be boring, though. “This happened, and it happened in a place that looked like this.” So it’s good to also work in details organically, and there are lots of ways to do that.
Description: What does the POV character notice and pick up on? Personality, background, skills, mood, and what’s going on will all affect how someone perceives their surroundings. For example, instead of telling the reader that your character was tired and annoyed, and that she works at night, you could say:
Carol rubbed the corner of her eye with a finger. After years of working at night, anything above sixty watts was irritating, and the hall was cheerfully bright. Robert’s prattle was irritating, too, and his shirt was missing a button. She wanted to stab him in the back of the neck.
Actions: What your characters do can reveal stuff about their personality. For example, instead of telling the reader that Carol’s not a people person, you could say:
He extended his hand, obviously attempting to get on her good side. Carol rolled her eyes and shook it. Her ring of silver crosses burned into his palm and he shrieked.
Thoughts: You can work hints into the character’s internal monologue. For example, instead of telling the reader that Carol has just moved from the city to the country, you could say:
She missed New York. At least the vampires there had half a brain.
Dialogue: You can stick all kinds of information about both speakers into a conversation.
“Hey Carol!” Darlene’s voice was an octave too high and about twenty decibels too loud. She waved with an empty cocktail glass and moved in. Carol grimaced, but there was no escape. She gave a little wave back.
“I haven’t seen you in ages! How’s that boyfriend of yours doing?”
Carol shrugged. “Had to kill him.”
You can also use flashbacks, but be careful! They can easily become problems of their own. Flashbacks usually work best when they’re very short, like this:
There he was, standing on the other side of the room, as if nothing out of the ordinary had even happened. As if she hadn’t cut his head off and buried it in the yard last night. As if she hadn’t put his body in the furnace and cleaned out his bank account. Carol sighed. This kind of thing was starting to get old.
If you’ve got three pages of a flashback that spells out a whole scene, stop and think about whether the reader needs this information at all, and if so, if it can be pruned down, or if the scene can be moved around so that part of the story can be told on its own without framing it as a past occurrence. Your reader wants to get on with the story, so it’s usually best not to stop the forward momentum to tell about what’s happened before.
Having said that, don’t feel like you have to box yourself into a linear progression…just be aware of how moving forward and backward in time will make your readers feel and make sure that how you’re doing it will engage them more, not less.
So the takeaway from all this is that usually, some of what you’ve written (maybe a lot) is going to have to be moved around or cut. All the research you did on every aspect of what your main character does for a living or where she lives may have been necessary for you to get the story on the page and create an immersive world, but your reader probably just doesn’t need to know all of it. Some of it, sure, but the little details you work in during the course of the story are going to be far more effective than a lecture on the ins and outs of electrical work or an exhaustive description of the Welsh countryside. Your readers have good imaginations, and you can trust them to fill in details from their own experience.
If you can think of any other ways of tackling this issue, please post your ideas on the group page!