Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Ever read a short story and realize about five paragraphs in that nothing has actually happened yet? Ever find that after a few pages you are still in the midst of the most painstakingly dull description of a room and all its contents, of the MC's morning routine (because every story should start when the character wakes up...), and her every thought while she eats a hearty and well-described breakfast?

You are not alone. Everyday, countless readers fall prey to these dreary passages, often written by overzealous writers eager to display their exceptional descriptive skills and world-building abilities. Thankfully, there is hope.

"...and next to the large, imposing screwdriver was yet another, smaller in stature yet similar in look, sitting underneath the most precariously hanging pair of red-handled pliers, which themselves were next to..."

Similar to the debilitating disease known as "mirror lists", filling the opening scene of a story, especially a shorter piece, with Too Much Information is one of the surest ways to kill the action on arrival. Plot, setting, history (back story), and character are all  very lovely things to have in your story (and every good story should have at least some of these elements) but simply having these things and then regurgitating all that raw information back at the reader does not a story make.

Consider the following example:

John woke up as he always did in his big comfy bed with the blue-striped sheets and the off-white pillows. He would stare at his ceiling for a very long time before getting up, looking at all the cracks that had built up over the years as the house was very old and he was too lazy to ever do anything to fix anything in the house. When he got up, he took note of all of his superhero action figures he had lined up along the shelves, noting each of their names and making sure they were all in their correct order. When he was happy with the way they were arranged, he made his way down the short hallway to the bathroom to begin his normal routine of brushing his teeth...

Okay, so as you can see, there's a bunch of information here in these opening lines. Some of it is pretty important - we know that John is something of a slacker and we know that he collects action figures and is very particular about them. We know that his house has seen better days and yet John takes pride in having a comfortable place to sleep. We can perhaps reasonably assume that he is a somewhat eccentric adult living on his own (though that is not yet explicit).

Does this open up possibilities for a story to unfold? Sure, of course.

Is it interesting in and of itself as a dramatic opening? Not one bit.

It's a list, a list of stuff and of circumstances that begins to set up a story in a very lazy way. Anyone can report the facts of an event, where it took place, and who was involved. But, the art of storytelling is not simply getting all the working parts out in the open - it is arranging the plot, the character, the setting, the back story, in such a way that a unique experience is created for the reader.

It is very much the difference between handing someone a plate of raw cake ingredients (I know this is a tired metaphor, but it works) and serving up a fully baked and decorated cake in which the ingredients were carefully mixed and heated at just the right temperature. So many stories I have read by young or otherwise inexperienced writers have been simply a rush to lay out every bit of information important to the story onto the page without any regard for dramatic unfolding (I believe I made this term up).

It's good to know all the little details about the story. In fact, you should know everything there is to know about the world you create, you should be the #1 expert and historian. But don't be a show-off. Don't use every other line to display your intricate knowledge of the setting, or to talk about what happened fifty years ago when it has little to do with the present action. Instead, treat this raw data like a precious commodity, deftly sprinkling gems of information where they can have the most impact, where they can set-up a dramatic occurrence or add punch to a reveal or simply give definition to an already vivid scene.

The problem is, this isn't really anything you can teach. And you can't teach it specifically because every writer needs to come up with their own personal brand of storytelling.

And the only way I know for a writer to teach his or her self this write. Write a lot, and every time you do, try something different. Emulate someone else if you must, but even then, make it your own, incorporate new technique into your own bag of writerly tools.

Next up on my "ranting about bad writing" series: Action, Action, Action!