Saturday, October 30, 2010

Coal in the Pudding

As writers, we know far more than we tell, but there’s always a temptation to use everything you’ve researched. When we succumb, it’s like finding lump of coal in the pudding—the big action scene is at hand, our pulse is racing, and whoa! We stop to watch the heroine prepare her hot air balloon for the escape from the rooftop, and we’re treated to every detail. Ah, yes, you think. The writer spent an afternoon researching with a balloonist and made note of every tuck and fold. And here it all is—every tuck and fold. The story comes to a dead halt, or maybe there’s a brief mention of something important—which you’ll probably miss because by then you’re skimming past this fascinating scene. If you’re still reading at all.

Think before you let the research take over. Make sure the information is something the reader needs to know. Bring it in when it’s pertinent to what is happening in the plot. Mix it with action. If it doesn’t move the story forward, sit on your hands until the urge to tell all has passed.

And then there’s necessary information and how to present it. Although you can let a character explain what the reader needs to know through dialogue or thought, this too can be heavy-handed. There must be a valid reason for the character to explain.

Dave answered the door. “Hello, my daughter. How’s the architect business today?” 

A little obvious, don’t you think? But it did tell us their relationship and that she’s an architect.
Information should pertain to the story or reveal character. Maybe the daughter has a roll of blueprints with her and forgets them when she leaves—they should have some significance other than being a device to tell the reader what she does.

Dave answered the door. “Hi, Brenda.” The roll of blueprints in her hand bumped his chest, blocking his welcome hug.

“Sorry, Dad.” She propped the drawings beside the door. “The Richardson’s house plans. I forgot them this afternoon. I’ll have to drop them off tonight.”

This lets us know their relationship, that’s it’s a warm one, her occupation, and that she’s going to arrive at the Richardson’s unexpectedly.

Then later, when she stops by the Richardson’s, she finds something important to the story. If her being an architect isn’t important to anything, maybe it should be left out.
Just something to think about.


Donnell said...

Ellis, this post really resonates with me. Research like anything else is a tool, and if done correctly should be seamless. I once had a critique partner say to me, "Your research is showing." That was not a good thing.

OTOH, I just finished reading Daniel Silva's The Defector, where his research shows through the book. I consider him such a learning resource I didn't mind it. Without his research showing or the political ramifications he addresses, I think I would have been lost.

Perhaps the point is, I'm not an expert and he is???

Great and timely post, at least for me!

Polly said...

Best thing about me and info dumps is I'm starting to see when I do it. I take that as a giant leap forward. But I still don't see it every time. :-(

VR Barkowski said...

One of my many weaknesses. I'm a research junkie. If I included all the superfluous minutiae I collect, no one would be able to lift my ms, so I give myself credit for separating the chaff. But I confess to adding "experts" (professors, art experts, etc.) as characters to communicate essential info via dialogue. It's a cheap trick, but given my settings, thus far it's worked.

E. B. Davis said...

This topic strikes a chord with me as well. In my last manuscript, I found a very interesting fact that had nothing to do with my plot. But, damn it all, I wanted to include it because I personally found it interesting--so much so that I did more research, which wasted time. In the end, I cut the whole thing because I knew no matter how fascinating, it just didn't belong.

The topic also brings to mind James Mitchener. Now no one would dare criticize, but I for one had no need to go to the source of the Susquehanna River, even though I, until then, had no idea where the source was located, when it had little to do with the plot of "Chesapeake." It made for an interesting if frustrating first 100 pages...but I guess he had to get his money's worth. Sorry, my attitude is showing today.

Ellis Vidler said...

I have a struggle to include or leave out something I find fascinating sometimes too. It usually comes out on the second read, but sometimes it takes until the third. I do get carried away with the research and forget the writing. I hadn't thought of an expert as a way to include some of it, but now I have the idea .
Still, there are some books that are almost like research texts, but more interesting. Silva is like that, I agree. Another was Brandenburg by Glenn Meade. I still have it and refer to it.