Information Flow: An initial blather

Note:  this is not the tightest blog post ever.  

In trying to write about handling information so I can clear up confusion, I keep stumbling over how to explain how to handle information about handling information…etc.  Things got confusing.  So my apologies in advance; this is tricky stuff to catch, and I’m fighting myself.  I’ll probably redo this post later, after I’ve spent more time with with the concept of how to handle information flow.  Take this as an initial brainstorming session, not a finely crafted position.

The bane of my writerly existence has been…

“I like the story but I have no idea what it means.”

Just writing that statement makes me feel like walking away from the computer, it’s so fraught with heartbreak.  And it’s totally on me.  I did it–or rather didn’t do it.  I didn’t present the story in a way that was readable and fair.

There are characters.  And plots.  And settings.  And conflicts.  And some other stuff.  And those things are important.

But there’s another level of what I’m doing, and it’s “how to tell the readers what will happen, what is happening, and what has happened.”

Which is kind of hard to explain to a non-writer.  Let’s say characters, plots, settings, and conflicts are all ingredients for a good story, but a lot of how a story goes over depends on the skills of the cook.  Good ingredients make for a better dish, but a good cook can do great things with whatever comes to hand.

How and when you tell readers things is part of a writer’s cooking skills, as it were.

And I really haven’t been paying attention to it.

I’m making some really great stories but I’m not letting other people really taste the dish.  I’m not dragging them into my imagination.  I’m not setting the stakes.  I’m not making promises the story has to keep.  I’m not clarifying what their questions are before they can ask.  I’m not making sure there is no way to misunderstand my goddamned pronouns.  I’m not describing every setting in such detail that the reader can be inside it.  I’m not reminding people of critical details as they become more vital in the plot.  I’m not wrapping up loose ends, I’m not telling the reader what this all means to the characters, I’m not making sure that I’ve nailed down everything I promised in the beginning, or taken out that which nobody needs.

Personally, I have a way higher tolerance for being utterly confused in a story than most people.  Recently, I went to a Historical Fiction class in Oregon with Kris Rush & Dean Smith.  We had books to read for class; one of them was The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter, an alternate history.

I loved it; everyone else in the class was meh or hated it.

The reason, Kris explained, was that the author hadn’t handled the information flow correctly, and assumed the reader was familiar with the historical time period, the historical figures in the book, and the reason that all of this was so important.

I had no issue with the book, and knew very little of the history.  It’s just that I’m used to extracting that kind of information from the barest hints.  I’m not sure why; maybe it’s just that that’s how I’m used to interacting with the world:  not paying attention when the explanations are being given out, getting bored with repetition, faking like I understand what’s going on later based off some half-remembered clues.  I really do think that I have some sort of girl-version ADD going on.

Doesn’t everyone do that?  No?

Well…okay.  I’m working on being more clear on what I’m writing means.

Here’s my initial checklist of things to look for with information flow, not to be used to plan an opening but to go over if a story is an informational flop:

  • Demonstrate character in the opening (the opening is the first 500 words or so).  The ways I’ve been doing this are to show the character doing something characteristic, or to lay the character voice on pretty thick.
  • Show setting in the opening (and demonstrate it, if it’s going to be a “character” later on).  How does one show why the setting means what it means to the character?  Describe it with love or hate, show it in contrast to something else?
  • Suggest conflict and stakes in the opening, and either demonstrate them or promise that they’ll be demonstrated later (this the part where you can totally bury clues to the ending in the beginning).  If the ending revolves around a death, maybe show a death in the beginning (thrillers do this all the time in the prologue).  If the ending revolves around a swindle, maybe show a swindle in the beginning.  I think romances are particularly good at this, often hinting how the relationship difficulties will be resolved in the meet cute.
  • Make promises about the story, using clues and subtext.  I initially tried to explain what subtext was, but that’s another blog post.  “I want to surprise the reader, so I won’t tell them what’s going to happen!!!” is a common tendency among writers.  It’s no good.  Do the opposite of that.
  • Explain the rules in the opening, or make a promise that the rules will be explained soon (and then do so; I think a 25% mark is a reasonable cutoff point).  For example, if the solution of your story is about magic, then you better explain how the damn magic works and proceed to play fair with it.
  • Explain the necessary backstory in the beginning of the story (the first 25% or so).  The opening of The Mummy is great at this; the voiceover doesn’t sound like a robot speaking, but like a wonderful storyteller telling you the beginning of a dramatic story over a fire.  (Note the bug on the back of Imhotep’s robe, as a hint.)
  • Undo any unwarranted possible assumptions in the beginning of the story by acknowledging them, then showing how your story differs.  Readers aren’t blank slates, who knew?  And so if you’re writing a story about vampires in which they can go out in the sunlight, you better damn reverse that assumption before it comes up in the story itself.
  • Use names carefully.  I recently discovered that not everyone slides between different versions of their names and nicknames as easily as I do.  All the names that a character is going to use have to be directly connected to each other on a regular basis.  “Jennifer (also known as ‘Weasel Killer’) Jones had recently come into a sum of money that no woman with such bad taste should ever see in a lifetime.”
  • Nail down all pronouns and vaguewords (“stuff”) so that there’s only one thing that they could possibly point to.
  • Give explanations and descriptions of new elements of the story before they become important.   If a reader feels anything other than juicy curiosity when they ask a question, then you need to back up and answer the question before it can be asked.  Think like a verbal storyteller:  this is a tactic to get your audience members to keep their damn mouths shut.
  • Remind the readers of important points multiple times.  Good grief you’d think that people would get bored of this, but apparently not.   “But you missed the clue on page 37” is such a horrible thing to have to say, though.
  • Tell us what events mean to the characters.  You have to tell the readers what it all means, either directly (“She would have given her right eye and a parrot’s wing to never have to see Soren the Pirate ever again”) or indirectly (” ‘Did you miss me?’ Soren asked.  After careful consideration, she splashed the pint of beer in Soren’s face, then began beating him with the heavy mug.  If she had had her pistol she would have shot him, once in his twinking eye, and once somewhere else, just for fun”).
  • Tie up all the loose ends from the beginning.  At the end, go back to the beginning and see if you a) fired all the guns that were on the wall at the end, and b) put all fired guns on the wall in the beginning.
  • Resolve the main conflict of the story.  Even if there’s a sequel.  Sometimes overarching fantasy series don’t do this, but it’s almost always better if they do.  Think back to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.  The ending of each book was such a mind@#$% that you started the next book with a completely different, and increased, set of stakes.  The main conflict is resolved…and replaced with something even worse.  Dun dun dunnnnnn…
  • Tell us what the ending means to the characters.  Stoic is a meaning.  Conflicted is a meaning.  Riding off toward the mountains so that a kid doesn’t grow up to be a gunslinger is a meaning…then watching the kid watching the gunslinger ride away is another meaning (Shane).  You don’t have to spell it out–but you can.

This is not, I’m sure, a complete list.

I mean, if nothing else, there has to be something that says when you’ve given too much information and are blathering on a bit (I’m always saying things twice, once to say the thing, and then to say the thing more poetically).  I’m not really sure how to say that yet, though, because I feel there’s something deeper going on there that I haven’t identified yet.

And paragraphing, I haven’t said anything about paragraphing, and that’s vital.

Hiding clues versus not hiding clues, ugh, didn’t even touch that…

Ehhhh…this subject is probably a book, when all is said and done.  But here it is for now, the incomplete and initial list.  The big uglies of information flow…as I understand them so far.

“I like the story but I have no idea what it means.”

If nothing else, let me apologize for all the times that I didn’t let readers fully in on all the fun & games I’ve had.  From here on out, I am to rectify that.

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2 Comments

  1. Matching up the most receptive reader to a book’s a constant challenge! Sounds like you were the ideal reader for the Lincoln story, and many others in the group were not.

    How much can any writer assume is “common knowledge”? Whether the story’s historical fiction or high fantasy, the challenges of world-building rest on determining the sweet spot of immersing a reader vs. confusing/alienating one.

    One example: I’ve found many YA fantasy stories go much further into details about ordinary objects or architecture than I find palatable (or necessary)–but the authors are (hopefully) making this choice assuming their ideal readers don’t know as much, yet.

    The “if you liked-you might also like” approach helps. I’ve had a lot of fun reading reviews from books, five-stars and one-stars, to help build a profile of the kind of reader who appears to most enjoy certain stories. Among friends, one who loves Horatio Hornblower hates Master and Commander… and another holds the opposite opinion, even though both series emerge from the same genre.

    Historical fiction has an additional challenge in identifying itself to ideal readers. History buffs may feel insulted by what they’d consider “basic” (“everyone knows that”) info —the very same information that would help make someone less familiar comfortable. One reader might be bored by a high degree of technical accuracy, while another would be delighted to enjoy expert-level details.

    AH, you are so right…the OPENING carries so much weight re: the entire story.

    As far as how much to reveal “HEY HERE IS AN IMPORTANT CLUE”—yikes! Enough so that at the end, the ideal reader feels it made sense, if they didn’t guess at least they see it all now, etc. No “out of nowhere” endings for me! But then, I get bored if I can guess everything and it all plays out entirely according to expectation…love it when I’m set up for a cliché and it gets turned on its head! But that’s me.

    A writer-friend of mine loves for everything to be spelled out, so she can be walked through from start to finish with only a few minor misdirections. We have some fun arm-wrestling over how much needs to go on the page vs. what’s left to the imagination. She loves single-pov, straightforward-plotlines, I love complex multi-plots, multi-pov with asides and curveballs. You can rarely find a book that we both love.

    And I realize this is a meandering comment. But you brought up a lot of good stuff!

    🙂

    • DeAnna Knippling

      I was a more than ideal reader for the Lincoln story; it could have been written for my tastes specifically.

      How much can a writer assume is “common” knowledge? Ironically, I had a much easier time writing good middle-grade stuff, because I *knew* what they would know, the average developmental skills, etc. But adults?!? BAHHHH.

      Hey, if you think of a YA story that over explains, let me know so I can check it out. I agree with you in theory, but now I can’t think of a specific, so I wonder if I’m just being agreeable.

      Agreed on clues/endings.

      And…it may just be that your core audience determines what you can get away with, and you hide a few extra details to help along the people who are just on the borderland of core. Like – a one-plotline reader is never going to be, “Yay! I love The Name of the Rose now that you simplified things just slightly, Umberto Eco!” It just ain’t worth it.

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