Tag Archives: technique

Trust the reader to keep up

“The older I grow, the less important the comma becomes. Let the reader catch his own breath.” —Elizabeth Clarkson Zwart
“The older I grow, the less important the comma becomes. Let the reader catch his own breath.” —Elizabeth Clarkson Zwart
I don’t like expository dumps.

An expository dump (or info dump) is a “a very large amount of information supplied all at once, expecially as background information in a narrative.” That’s a rather academic definition, and like most language definitions, it contains subjective terms. Exposition is simply text that explains something. Narratives need a certain amount of exposition to work. What I object to is large chunks of explanation that stops the action of the story. For example, a few years ago I wrote about a fantasy novel I stopped reading because the third or fourth chapter of the book consisted entirely of one character lecturing another about the history of the world. That’s sloppy writing, at best.

I don’t have anything against exposition, per se. There’s a lot of expository writing in some of my favorite novels. Just earlier this week, for instance, I was reading in Nisi Shawl’s novel, Everfair (which is a non-eurocentric steampunk novel, so far), a description of a small train. The description gave us some hints of how the fictional world’s technology differs from our own history, gave us a sense of not just the look of one of the supporting characters, but his personality, and also had hints about the social strata of the country which the viewpoint character was visiting. But this wasn’t a long passage. It was only two paragraphs. And rather than prattling on for pages about the history of the country, it gave us a few tidbits of information from which we could infer more. And it isn’t just description. Something is happening: a supporting character is arriving to some anticipation of the viewpoint character.

In my own writing you will find very little exposition. To me, the heart of any story are the triumphs, failures, hopes, and fears of the characters moving through it. Yes, I’ve done a lot of world building. If you ask, I can go on an length about all sorts of things in the history of the fictional world where my fantasy novels are set. I have to know all of that stuff to tell stories. But most readers are interested only in a fraction of it.

No one wants to read a scene in which one character prattles on about how ten years ago when the previous emperor died, a group of traitorous nobles assassinated several of the heirs in an attempt to grab the throne for themselves, including the motives of each of the conspirators, who died and who survived. When it was important to the plot I’m writing now, I had one character mention “the succession crisis in the capitol year ago.” There was another point where that history was relevant to the reason one character was hostile to another, and was able to have just a few lines of the argument between those characters give a few more details. But those lines also moved the plot point that was happening right that moment along, and gave the reader some insight into the personalities of the two arguers (as well as a couple of other characters who were trying to get them to stop arguing and deal with the problem at hand).

I do that because I trust that readers are smart enough to put pieces together and build their own picture of the world. I don’t need the reader to visualize exactly how the stitching on a character’s clothing looks, or the precise shape of the filigree on a particular piece of furniture, or to keep track of which pillows are round and which are square in order to follow the story.

If I wanted to tell the story of the succession crisis, I would make the crisis itself the story. I’d pick one of the characters involved as my protagonist and tell the tale. But if it’s backstory, we don’t need all the details. Sure, it’s handy to know that in the present timeline, one particular vampire-like character was one of the failed conspirators who was cursed by someone who loved one of the murdered heirs (hey, it’s a fantasy universe, why can’t we have a good curse every now and then?). That tells you how the character wound up an evil parasitic undead, and gives you some hints as to how trustworthy he is going to be to his alleged allies in the current story. It may also help the reader understand his motives at later points in the tale. But I was able to convey that in a couple of lines of dialog and keep moving on with the current tale.

Not everyone is as comfortable without all the details as I am. I understand that. And there’s a part of me that always worries that I haven’t given readers enough clues. So sometimes I do something like write a whole chapter worth of flashback, which I read and re-read and argue with myself about whether it’s really needed and do I really want pull the reader out of the current story.

And eventually I usually figure out that if I tweaked some dialog over here, and add a small scene where two characters who weren’t aware of the past events find some of the aftermath, and realize that yes, I should trust the reader to figure it out and move those flashbacks over into my big file of background information that the reader is never going to see.

Because part of trusting the story is trusting the reader to not just to follow it. I want the reader caught up in the story I’m telling right now. I want the reader turning the pages as quickly as they can, breathlessly asking, “And then what happens?”

…is just a red herring

Lupo via Wikimedia Commons
Real herrings are never this red.
When a writer (particularly a mystery or detective story author) places details in a story to distract the characters and/or the readers to a false conclusion, that’s called a “red herring.” For many years, dictionaries and other references claimed that the origin of the phrase was a reference to a technique that used to be used to train hunting dogs to stay on the trail and not be distracted. When certain kinds of fish are preserved by being smoked and/or brined, the flesh of the fish turned a brownish red, and they often had a very pungent odor. Such “red herrings” or kippers supposedly could be used to throw a dog off the scent.

That origin is now generally accepted to be apocryphal, with the actual origin being from a political article written in 1807 in which the author said that he once distracted a dog with a red herring, and then accused other journalists of having been deceived in a similar way by a rumor. There is no indication of any actual hunters or dog trainers making it a practice to regularly use such fish in the training of hunting dogs.

But the apocryphal story remains useful in explaining the figurative meaning: distract the reader by placing a hint that appears to lead to something interesting in her path.

For the red herring to work in any type of story in which the characters are trying to solve a puzzle, it isn’t enough for the red herring to be a distraction. The red herring should point the characters (and the reader) toward a plausible alternative solution. When the trail turns out to be a dead end or a wrong solution, the trail itself still has to be something that plausibly would happen in that world.

It’s been annoying me about a lot of series I’ve been watching lately. Characters have a problem to solve, some information is found that points in a particular direction, when suddenly, blam! a supporting character that is loved one of one of the protagonists is attacked mysteriously. For the rest of the episode, everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off accusing people that have absolutely no motive at all for being involved in either problem. Eventually protagonist is confronted by the very person that clues which were seen before the distraction pointed to in the beginning. And here’s the part that’s crazy: either the mysterious attack is never explained, or it was done by some random person completely unrelated to the bad guy who is revealed three episodes later as a new big bad, but no rational explanation for why the new big bad attacked that character three episodes earlier is ever given.

I’m not sure if the problem is that most shows are written by teams where there may not be a clear “coordinator” with a strong artistic vision of what the story line is supposed to do, or if they simply think that throwing random stuff at the reader/viewer is what you’re supposed to do, or if they’re always in a rush without time to think things through. Or maybe they have fallen into that trap of thinking that, since sometimes meaningless things happen in real life, it’s okay for a story teller to do it, too.

It’s not okay. It shows that you are a bad writer. Yes, random things happen in real life. And you can even have some events happen in the story where the explanation in the story is that it was just dumb luck. But you are the story teller, and it’s your story. You have chosen to show this random action happened to your character. You need to have a reason, a reason that furthers the story or reveals something about the characters, for showing the bad luck to the reader/viewer.

It is okay if a red herring occasionally leads to a laugh without furthering the plot. If you have previously established one supporting character as being a bit of a dork or a goofball, for instance, you can one clue that leads to something completely unrelated to the plot that this funny character is doing. But it needs to be something that the readers/viewers will immediately think, “Oh! That’s so like him.”

Let’s say your current puzzle involves someone apparently attempting to kill a teacher by leaving some sort of deadly device for him. While the protagonists are following up clues, they discover that the teacher’s car in the parking lot is sparkling clean, as if someone wiped down the entire exterior. You can have the characters waste time trying to find a bomb of something on the car that never turns out to be there. Eventually, another supporting character finds video showing one obscure supporting character who is a student lurking around the car earlier. Eventually, the protagonists find out that said student, but realize that he’s failing said teacher’s class, and has been trying to curry the teacher’s favor.

It was suspicious behavior, it leads to a dead end, but it also makes sense within the story and is completely believable as something that could happen independently of the real stalker. Good writing.

On the other hand, having two supporting characters shot by a mysterious person off screen, who leaves them huddled together, holding each others wounds while waiting for an ambulance, and then never showing who shot the characters? Not so plausible. Or, showing who shot the characters three episodes later, but the person who did it is someone the audience would expect to want to kill the characters who were shot, and there was absolutely no reason for her not to have finished the job three episodes earlier? Bad writing.

It’s your story, yes. But you need to tell it the best it can be told.

Misdirect, don’t lie or withhold

The are times, as a writer, when you want to surprise your readers or give them a puzzle to solve. That’s clearly a major part of a murder mystery, of course, but you do it in other stories as well.

Anyone who has ever aspired to write mysteries has read about the rule of not cheating the reader. Cheating is when you completely withhold information required to solve the mystery. All information has to be available to the reader. It is okay to obfuscate it, but leaving it out entirely is a no-no.

The classic example of the wrong way is describing your detective, perhaps despondent, looking down at his feet and seeing something. He bends down, picks the something up, and then smiles as he slips it in his pocket and the narration informs the reader that this thing is the vital clue that makes everything fall into place. But the writer doesn’t tell the reader what the something is.

The proper way to hide a clue is in plain sight. I remember one mystery once had three characters talking about something, when the father comments on his daughter’s dress the night before, saying it was a nice shade of green. One of the other characters tells him the dress was red. The father goes, “Oh, well, I guess it is.” The way the scene is written it seems that the father is simply not very attentive or perhaps distracted. Later in the story, it is revealed that he suffers from a form of color blindness, and that is an important clue about an aspect of one of the murders.

I’m currently wrestling with a version of this issue in a non-mystery. My current novel in progress (which is a light fantasy) includes a mysterious masked person who has appeared a couple of times, thwarting an assassination attempt directed at a princess, preventing a sorceress from getting some information, and a few other things. In the very first scene his mask is commented upon, and an explanation for why he is hiding his identity is provided.

So I wrote a scene last week where he confronts the man behind the assassination plot. I realized midway through that I could make the scene far more creepy than it already is, but I think I would be cheating if I did.

It occured to me that I could have the masked man reveal his face to the conspirator just before killing him, and show the conspirator reacting with shock at the identity… But withholding the identity from the reader. Certainly movies, television shows, and comics have used that particular cliche many times, so one could argue it’s acceptable. But even then, usually the reaction of the character to the revealed face provides an extra clue about some aspect of the story other than the identity of the mysterious person.

Besides thinking the technique is overused in those media, I’m not sure it makes any sense for the masked man to do it. The most obvious reason, “I want you to know who defeated you,” simply doesn’t apply to this character and his relationship to the conspirators. Besides being out of character, it would also be a bit too self-consciously coy. By this point the theoretical reader is either curious about the identity of the masked man or already has a theory. A melodramatic nonrevealing reveal is more likely to annoy than fascinate, I think.

And this little mystery isn’t the main plot. If I’ve done the rest of my job correctly, what I hope the reader is more worried about by this point in the book is: whether one grief-stricken character will go through with killing some innocents to bring another character back from the dead, whether one protagonist will clear his name and rescue his nieces, whether other characters will prevent a war, and whether one villain will be redeemed.

My mystery man is important to the plot, and why he’s attempting to act incognito is totally in keeping with his personality while moving the plot along, but it isn’t the main concern.

A puzzle as a subplot can be fun for the reader. Keeping the reader guessing about a few things without annoying them is a tricky balancing act. You want to provide enough information so that your reader can guess, while leaving some doubt. You want the reader to feel almost as if he is your accomplice–as if both of you are exploring this thing together.

Doing something such as having the detective find something which you blatantly label a clue which you withhold from the reader, or the unmasking without showing the reader, is the equivalent of a stage magician declaring, “Ha! Ha! I know something you don’t know! I know something you don’t know!”

And that’s just annoying beyond belief!