Deciding how much to tell

An otter holding a bottle of beer.
Now how is he going to carry the hot dogs back from the concession stand?
A few days ago my second blog post about the meaning of persecution included an anecdote about a figure of speech. The explanation I gave for the figure of speech, “caught in a suicide squeeze,” was intentionally truncated and simplified. I didn’t explain that a suicide squeeze specifically begins with having a runner on third base with less than two outs and the runner leaving the base at the same time (or milliseconds before) the pitcher releases the ball…

The reason I didn’t explain that part is because it doesn’t really make sense unless you understand the squeeze play. And the squeeze play requires explaining what a sacrifice bunt is and why someone would do it. And that requires explaining a whole lot more about baseball.

The essence of the full phrase from my professor’s example, “he was caught in a suicide squeeze,” is that point where the squeeze play has not gone as hoped and the runner has been caught between third base and home.

And for purposes of the story, the point of explaining the phrase is that every language has figures of speech which make perfect sense to people who understand the cultural context, but seem nonsensical to a person unfamiliar with the context. And not merely nonsensical, but nonsensical in a way which appears as if it ought to make sense.

It’s difficult to decide, sometimes, how much to tell and how much to leave out. My blog post about a family from Siberia who experienced very real persecution decades ago, and my brief acquaintance with one member of that family, doesn’t really require a long, thorough thesis about the rules and strategies of the game of baseball. Which I wouldn’t really want to do anyway, because I’m not a big baseball fan. I played it a bit as a kid. When I was the sports editor of my college newspaper I covered the sport. But the truth is, baseball bores me unless I’m physically present at the game and have had a few beers.

That probably means I’m prone to leave out more than I ought. Certainly friends who are baseball fans and read my post think I should have explained a bit more than I did. On the other hand, sometimes when I have told the story, I’ve wondered if I should have just left it at, “a suicide squeeze is a baseball term.” Because I’ve had people (you would be surprised how many) ask me why it mattered that the basemen have the ball. I’ve even had one person ask if I was trying to say that the ancient Isrealites invented baseball.

The question of how much detail to include in any story can get tricky. There is always more information that a writer can give about what the characters are doing, and why they are doing it. But if the reader is able to infer the information, or infer enough to keep up, all the extra explanation can be more than a bit tedious.

Enough writers struggle with this that literary critics, movie reviewers, et al, have their own figure of speech for the situation where a writer has one of the characters or the narrator explain all the background information the writer or viewer needs to understand stuff that will happen later: the expository dump.

Usually in my writer group, the complaint is that I don’t include quite enough exposition. I expect the reader to infer things from smaller pieces of information. Where I have the tendency to write too much is in dialog, particularly humorous dialog. When a scene is going really well, the characters in my head will start bantering, and till will just go on and on, each character trying to get the last joke in.

Fortunately, I have my writers’ group who are not shy about telling me that a scene has gone on too long. Though I can usually tell before they say it, because as I’m reading it aloud, I often find myself wanting to get to the end sooner. Or I can just notice the audience getting a bit restless.

When the audience is more interested in wandering into the other room for more refreshments, it’s time to give that scene more than just a trim.

1 thought on “Deciding how much to tell

  1. I didn’t know what a suicide squeeze was but I know what baseball is so I found your explanation in the previous essay sufficient. I understand the problem. It is hard to know just how much you need to explain. I watch TV with a friend of mine who is hard of thinking and I have to stop the shows, a lot, to explain things to her. It’s very hard for me because I like shows that are clever and expect the viewer to figure things out.

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