By Mark Newhouse
I don’t usually write about writing skills because I’m still learning. I enjoy recognizing our friends and neighbors who create an amazing variety of stories, poems, books, etc. But today, I want to talk about my pet peeve. I think of it as one of the top ten Writing Bug Public Enemies I’ve confronted in my battle as a ‘struggling’ author.
IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT…
A frequent question I receive from writers is how to handle background information (BS) without it becoming a ‘weather report’ or ‘info-dump.’ How much is too much BS?
My answer: When BS delays ‘unnecessarily’ the plot into which readers are eager to dive.
It is useful to know it was a dark and stormy night, but do we need a detailed ‘weather report? Does the reader need all the elements of a character’s past and environment at this point in the story? Too much BS, or BS in the wrong places, may lose the reader. (When was the last time you bought a weather report?)
BACKSTORY HAS PURPOSE
I admire authors who can create imaginative and evocative descriptions. But I sometimes feel some authors are so in love with their descriptions that they ‘outweigh’ the plot. Think of a balance scale: BS on one side; Plot on the other. Which should tilt the scale the most?
Too much BS may indicate that the author may be ‘insecure’ that readers will ‘believe’ in their expertise/knowledge. For example, overuse of technical terminology. The reader gets lost in technical terms and acronyms because the author wants to convince them of his/her credentials. Even after the author established credibility, they continue to bombard us with details that may be more appropriate in a technical manual.
Authors need to provide the BS (facts) necessary for the reader to:
1) understand the plot and characters’ thoughts and actions at any point.
2) believe in the ‘authenticity’ and plausibility of the plot.
3) accept the knowledge of the author.
Once you reach these goals, you may not need to ‘add’ more information.
Creating authentic settings is important to affirm credibility. I crashed into this head-on in writing my novels about the Lodz Holocaust ghetto. It was essential readers believed in the environmental attributes that played a significant role in the characters’ lives. Since the ghetto no longer exists, I studied hundreds of photographs shot through holes in coat pockets by men risking their lives if they were caught by the Nazis. From these precious photos, I was able to answer such basic questions as what streets were like: were they composed of asphalt, concrete, cobblestone, mud, dirt, seashells, etc. I also was able to describe clothing, utensils, tools, and many other things to make the story believable. Convincing readers that I was authentically depicting life conditions was a challenge requiring research.
Even in writing fiction, I learned the hard way that research is vital. In an unpublished mystery, fingerprints on a plastic water bottle were a clue. Luckily, someone in a writing club pointed out that plastic water bottles did not exist in the 1950s, the setting for the plot. Imagine the flak that mistake might have gotten.
Is there a better way to deliver BS than in a paragraph or pages solely devoted to providing background information?
Let’s see how much BS you need to understand the action in a short excerpt from a soon-to-be-published sequel to Welcome to Monstrovia.
I race to the courtroom with Button flying ahead of me.
District Attorney, Felix A. Squash, is at his table. “You’re back? I gave you a chance to avoid a terrible squooshing. It’s not too late. The door is there.” He smiles, a squash eyeing prey. “Although I do love the sound of an opponent being squashed.”
I’m about to answer when the gavel bangs and Bob the bailiff announces, “Court is in session.”
Felix hisses at me, “Let the squashing of Kara’s case continue.” He lets out an evil laugh.
Judge Ghouly sits down, a drink in her gnarly hand.
“I thought there was a water shortage,” I whisper to Button.
A ghostly moan fills the chamber.
“Is that the ghost?” I ask her.
“She must have been asleep,” Button says. “Kara, the judge is staring at you.”
Judge Ghouly puts down her lemonade. “Now, where were we? Ah, yes, our human kid ‘non-lawyer’ was going to present her evidence. Bring in the defendant. I want him present to hear me pronounce his sentence.”
I should object that she is ready to sentence Joe the Giant before I have a chance to defend him, but Button warned me not to annoy this judge. She’s already angry enough that my uncle, the famous lawyer, Jasper Doofinch, isn’t here. “Button, do you really think he was kidnapped?”
How much of this excerpt is solely BS? Try this: Put a D after each bit of dialogue. Put a B after any sentence that is only Backstory. Count the Ds and Bs. Now do the same with your writing.
Generally, dialogue is an effective, unobtrusive way to ‘weave’ in BS. When you feel readers need more background information, try ‘short bursts’ rather than whole paragraphs or pages solely dedicated to background facts, details, and descriptions. Did you need much more BS to get the gist of what was happening in the above out-of-context scene?
Note how ‘hooks,’ anything that may raise a question in the reader’s mind, are ‘set’ in the above excerpt. It may be helpful to place an H after the hooks. It is the hooks that hook readers to want more and more.
She wore a black trench coat on this most oppressive day in The Villages, Florida. “Help,” she whispered. “I was bitten.”
“You poor thing.”
“What can I do?”
Her name was Emily Bordenschlocker. She was five feet tall with red hair, blazing hazel eyes, and a mouth begging to be kissed. She was born in Flushing, Queens, attended Flushing High School, graduated with a degree in journalism from the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University. Married with six children, she had been abused by her husband, Fred, who had also gone to Queens but had lackluster success…
Does the BS aid or distract the reader is the consideration. Let’s return to the scene.
“Where can I get help with my writing?” Emily held up a manuscript.
“Visit writersleagueofthevillages.com for a list of our clubs eager to help you,” I replied. “You can also view a directory of our authors, books, and presenters for your clubs and organizations.”
“Oh, thank you, sir. I depend on the kindness of strangers.”
Tune in for the next exciting adventure…
Reprinted with permission from the Writing Bug monthly column, “Village Neighbors Magazine.”