I have started another story (that makes 10 pieces of unfinished work, hoorah! If only success was measured in halves)and I have found a running problem in this story and many before.
I find a lot of the time when I write I will go off on a wild tangent from the main story to give back up detailing the character and their past. I find it is essential information as far as building the character, but the way I put it into the story seems abrupt. Something will trigger the need for the info, so i will simply dump it in. When I reread it I find this info disrupts the story flow. When the info section is done it can be confusing to start the story again.
Is there any good info out there or references about the fine art of putting these details into a story? I am mulling the option of doing a large conversation part where the character tells it to someone, but when i think of that it just seems like another dump (my character wouldn't burden someone with his past).
Share your wisdom folks! It's frustrating the fraggle out of me..
What helps me is asking myself what is relevant and why. I need to know much more about my characters than you do. I need to know for a wide variety of reasons: to know what their capabilities are; to know their mental and physical limitations; the quirks and habits that make them unique. You only need to know enough to understand skills and motivations, as it becomes relevant--or in a scene that foreshadows it's relevancy.
Think what you need to say, why you need to say it, then say it as simply as you can.
Hope this helps.
Another question that may help is: Am I starting in the right place?
Many times that I need a lot of info-dumped it's because I'm starting too late in the story. Starting too late or early is a big reason stories are given up on.
[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited March 14, 2008).]
Just write the story, and edit later. If you find you need to add all this info dumping to finish a story, then do it. No writing is wasted, especially if it helps finish a story. After you are through, and have a story that has a real beginning, middle, and end, then cut out what you don't need to make the story work. If you are unsure what you need to keep, and cut, then get with a critique group where readers who aren't your friends will give you an idea. There are a lot out there including the one here, critters.org, and many others.
The best advice for determining what to leave in and what to cut, is what IB said. Determine what is really relevant to move the story along, and cut the rest. Another thing that helps give an author a new look on a story so they can determine this, is to set it aside for a few weeks once completed. Yes, I said weeks. Four is a good number, but the author has to find what works for them if they decide to do so.
The most important thing above all, is to finish what you start. Sometimes that's the hardest thing to learn how to do. If you do that, and then set the work aside, I think you'll find the writing and story isn't as bad as you first thought.
Following up on the previous posts: The reader doesn't need to know the character's backstory. You do. So write it, and then cut it. ALL of it. Pick up the story where you left off. If something comes along which will only make sense given knowledge of some piece of that past history, then you put that piece back in. If no such thing comes along, then the reader doesn't need any of it; don't inflict it on them.
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Alas, there is no easy answer. What you've described is one of the major challenges of story crafting. What to include when? How to present it?
The other posters are right. By the end of the story, there will be a ton of info that gets cut, or that you decide not to include. You need to know it as the writer; the reader does not. So how to decide what needs to be in there?
Give the reader credit. I think most readers have an amazing capacity to empathize with a character. It might be enough, for instance, for us to know a man lost his wife because he took her for granted and now regrets it. We don't need to know all the details of how they met, what they argued about, how many times he stayed late working and didn't come home even though she asked him to. You can slip in little details, but I think most readers can sympathize because they might see themselves going into a similar situation.
A little bit goes a long way. A salient, fresh, and direct detail will do much more than a load of not-to-poignant details. For instance, say the MC above is thinking about his wife. You feel the need to describe their first night together and how much it meant to him. You start talking about how her soft hair falls across her face, her laughter, her deep brown eyes... all lovely stuff, but all stuff we've encountered before, and ultimately, a lot of fluff. Go for one hard hitting detail. How specific can you be about the character, and what detail will tell the most about him and her?
And I guess that's the other thing. Make all your scenes and dialogue work as much as possible. Often you can combine scenes or slip details into existing scenes without creating a whole new scene to lay something out (in the case of a conversation specifically designed to tell character back story). Pack the stuff in, make every word and detail count toward something.
All of this could and should probably be done after you've finished the first draft of the story. One hopes at some point much of this becomes instinctual. As for references, I believe OSC's book "Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy" has some advice (can't remember for sure).
The other thing I've started to do is take notes while reading other people's books. For instance I'll write down precisely what info the author has given us, especially for the first few critical chapters. Then I'll think about why the author has told us that at that moment. This exercise works particularly well for an author who has a lot of info to convey, like GRR Martin's Ice and Fire series.
Additional thoughts: In a short story, I think focus is key. Say only enough to tell your story. Period.
[This message has been edited by annepin (edited March 15, 2008).]
Whatever details you choose to include -- make them interesting details. Look for unique views on the mundane subjects you feel compelled to include.
I really, really don't care what color someone's hair is unless I'm reading a Darkover novel where it IS usually necessary to know if they have red hair, or how red their red hair is.
If X's eyes are purple because she's a chlem addict, okay, tell me. But if they're blue because he's Norwegian, I don't really want to know.
What's the deal now? It used to be the heroine or hero was always the character with the blue eyes. Now suddenly they've all gotten green eyes? Blue too trite?
Back on the subject of flow --
I was thinking...it seems to me that what I do is ask myself about each story event/scene, "How does this advance the plot (story) or deepen the characterization of someone?" If it doesn't do either one (or, hopefully, both) then it needs to be cut. This goes double for backstory. As for worldbuilding details, those need to be laid in carefully using short paragraphs. No lectures. And it's even better if, instead of telling the reader about how your space drive works or who were the invaders of twenty years ago, you find a way to work it into a conversation or part of the action going on.
[This message has been edited by arriki (edited March 15, 2008).]