In my post last week asking if we can have too much voice, some great questions came up in the comments. I decided to turn them into “Ask Jami” blog posts rather than bury the answers in the comment string.
Earlier, I shared ideas on how to use color-coding to check if we’re “overusing” a writing element. Today, I’ll share suggestions for how to tighten sections that are “too long.” (That is, sections that break the two-paragraph guideline to the point of negatively affecting pacing.)
As we discussed last week, the two-paragraph guideline suggests that we should mix up action, exposition, dialogue, internalization, etc. every two paragraphs (or so) to prevent reader boredom, pacing issues, and choppiness. Note that the two-paragraph guideline is just that—a guideline.
Sections that go “too long” aren’t bad simply because they’re longer than two paragraphs. A section longer than two paragraphs might work perfectly well for various reasons: voice, tension, unique information, etc.
However, when we come across a problem area, and our check shows a “too long” section, we want to know how to fix the issue.
Tightening “Too Long” Sections
We’re not talking about the micro type of tightening we do: cutting modifiers, repeated ideas, overwriting of details, etc. This refers more to the macro kind of tightening—paragraphs or more—when we’re trying to fix overall pacing in a scene. We usually see issues like this come up during information dumps of a character’s background or a setting description.
For example, in the comments of the post about voice, Amanda Byrne asked:
“I’m hoping maybe you can help me with the whole “two paragraph” idea. I’m in the middle of editing a WIP, and I’ve just hit a section that’s about six paragraphs long, and it’s all memory. … Any suggestions?
Amanda and I moved our discussion of her story to email, but I thought some of the general suggestions might be helpful to everyone.
When the Author Knows—and Shares—Too Much
When we come up with great backstory or world-building elements, we often want to include it all for the reader. However, those sections are prime candidates for those “darlings” that need to be killed.
I once heard that when we research (or make up) details for our book, we should use only 5% of what we have. 5% is probably an exaggeration, but the point is that we shouldn’t be including most of what we know.
So how do we know what should be included?
- Give details that are relevant to this story.
No matter how touching, how well-thought-out, how beautifully written the other details are, if they don’t play into the current story, they don’t belong.
Determining what needs to stay and what can go is a good first step to tightening sections that are too long. If we hate the thought of killing those darlings, we can save them in another document for the “Extras” or “Deleted Scenes” section of our blog. *smile*
When Dumping Is Easier than Weaving
But what if the reader needs to know this information? If the information is relevant to the story, we have to introduce it to the reader without calling attention to it. This takes more work on our part, however, which is why information dumps are the easy—and lazy—way to go.
Think of the kid who won’t eat vegetables. How does the parent sneak the healthy stuff into the child’s diet? By chopping them into little pieces and hiding them among the other yummy ingredients. We have to do the same thing with information.
- Turn info dump paragraphs into phrases woven among other elements.
As a simplistic example, we shouldn’t say, “They were in the bathroom. The knife fell.” Those are passive/boring sentences that tell.
Instead, we’d say something like, “The knife fell to the linoleum, and the impact echoed off the shower tile.” Then we have active, showing sentences that let the reader know they’re in the bathroom, all without coming out and saying it in a direct, boring way.
However, that technique of interweaving information and action can go only so far when we’re staring at paragraphs’ worth of backstory. Turning all those telling sentences into active sentences within one section of a scene could result in clunky, forced action.
When We Forget that Patience Is a Virtue
The real cause of info dumps is that it takes work to weave backstory and other description with active sentences. We’re impatient. We want to get all that necessary stuff out of the way so we can get on with the story.
That’s a legitimate approach when we’re writing a first draft. First drafts are all about discovery, discovering the story and the flow of scenes. But when we begin revisions, we have to take a hard look at those info dumps.
The best way to interweave those details with other elements and keep the natural flow of a scene is to spread them out.
- Give details when they’re relevant and not before.
We might think we’ve done okay with our backstory because we avoided dumping it anywhere near those important first couple of pages. But then when a situation in our story requires some background information, we might think, “Woo hoo! Now I’m allowed to share all this stuff.” And we info dump to our heart’s content, believing the story demanded it.
Well, yes and no. The story might have demanded some background information at that point, but not all of it. So much of writing is about creating layers, and this is no exception.
In chapter one, we might mention that the hero has a bad relationship with his father. In chapter three, we might reveal the detail about how long it’s been since they’ve spoken. In chapter eight, we might share the words of their last fight. Etc., etc.
It’s easier to write all that at once, but adding one layer of understanding to the story at a time helps the pacing. And as a bonus, holding back those other details keeps the reader involved in the story because they have questions they want the answers to.
How we fix those too-long sections doesn’t matter. What matters is that readers shouldn’t realize when we’ve included backstory or world-building details. If they notice our spoon-feeding of information, the story isn’t moving forward anymore. That’s bad not only for pacing, but also for the biggest reason of all: storytelling. If we’re not telling good stories, then there’s not much point to anything we’re writing.
(Standard “Ask Jami” disclaimer: I am not agented or published, so take all my “advice” in the spirit of me offering information to get people to think, and not in a “I think I know everything” way. *smile*)
Do you use information dumps when you’re drafting? How do you clean them up during revisions: deleting, interweaving, spreading them out, something else, or all of the above? Is there one technique you feel more skilled with? Or one you struggle with?Pin It