Monday, July 9, 2012

Don't Lecture Your Readers

- by Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor

Have you ever been reading a novel when suddenly the author interrupts the story to give you background or technical information about something, or he/she tries to sneak in some info via a dialogue, only it's really a monologue, with a character going on for a half page or more, uninterrupted, lecturing about something? Fortunately, this rarely happens to this extent anymore. Unlike 100 years ago, today's readers of fiction won't stand for this kind of heavy-handed, clunky imparting of information within a story.

Savvy authors know that readers choose fiction to be entertained and swept away by a compelling story. Stopping to fill them in on a topic as an aside jars them out of the story, slows down the pace, and runs the risk of boring many of them. If readers want to find out more information on a subject, they can do that very easily these days, through internet searches.

So unless you’re writing a historical saga like those of James Michener, or the one I’m reading right now, New York by Edward Rutherfurd, where readers welcome background info on historically relevant times and locations, I don't think fiction is the place to interrupt the story to insert a lot of detail on a particular subject. And of course, if you are writing a saga, it's best to include the info in a natural, character-specific way, so it doesn’t come across like a history textbook. (See below for some hints.)

So be careful not to dump a bunch of factual information willy-nilly into your story. A novel or short story is no place to go into a lot of detail on a technical subject –- or to get on your soapbox about a topic that's dear to your heart or makes your blood boil. Readers will feel annoyed, patronized or manipulated, when what they really want is to be entertained and captivated by your tale.

Here's why most readers of contemporary fiction don't like having their story interrupted by author explanations:

  • It takes them out of the character’s viewpoint, so the illusion of being right there in the story is shattered.
  • It creates a jarring interruption to the story line, which you then have to re-establish, and hook your readers back in.
  • Readers may feel you’re lecturing them or preaching to them, which has no place in fiction.
  • It’s distracting, annoying, and often boring.

What about info that’s essential or relevant to your story? There are ways to slip that in without interrupting the narrative flow or dumping a pile of information on the readers. For example:

  • Your viewpoint character has to recall some critical information she once knew, and works to remember or find it.

  • Your protagonist asks another character (or several) to fill him in on some info he’s fuzzy on –- but be sure it’s in a conversational way, and keep the information-imparting as brief as possible. (more on this below)

  • Your protagonist is researching critical information on the computer or in the library. Show what she learns as thoughts or in dialogue –- but only what is essential for the plotline. And give her emotional reaction to what she’s learned, and to how the new info changes things.

  • Your character is interviewing people to solve a problem. Show some of the interview in real time, with dialogue.

  • She’s reading the newspaper or watching the news or other TV show, where she learns some new information on a subject.

  • For backstory, use flashbacks and play them in real time.

 And of course, don’t let your characters lecture or pontificate in dialogue, either. It’s just not natural, and will bore the readers just as much as an author aside or intrusion. Avoid “info dumps” in the guise of dialogue –- in real life, no one likes to be lectured to in a casual conversation. Replace long monologues of information with questions and answers or a lively discussion, and keep it relevant to the scene question. And, for more interest, insert some tension in the give-and-take –- a little (or a lot of) arguing about facts, or their significance, for example.

So if you need to give your readers some background or essential information, work it in as you go along, in natural, brief, interesting ways, with lots of interaction and some tension or out-and-out conflict. And perhaps rethink whether any more detailed information is really needed in your story. Remember, if any readers want to know more, they can always google the topic. Leave the lectures for the classroom, articles, or nonfiction books –- the goal of fiction is to entertain the readers with a riveting story. Period.
What are your thoughts on this, as a reader or a writer? Agree? Disagree? Why?

Writers - what are some techniques you've used successfully to impart some information to your readers without interrupting the narrative flow?
Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Please check out Jodie’s website and blog, as well as her group blog, Crime Fiction Collective.
Jodie’s craft of fiction articles appear regularly on various blogs, and she has published two popular craft-of-fiction e-books in the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Style that Sizzles and Pacing for Power.

Both are on sale at Amazon, and you don’t need to own a Kindle to buy and read Kindle e-books – you can download them to your PC, Mac, tablet or smartphone. Style that Sizzles will be out in paperback soon.

1 comment:

  1. I like this post but I am in the middle of a WIP where I have had to commit some of this. I can only solve it with lively interaction instead of exposition, because of the setting. The realizations and revelations are directly relevant to the story and move the plot. I have spread out the process of discovery, but I have a couple scenes of dialogue cluster, so that I can blow through a lot of points in a short time, instead of fabricating endless situations to bring about more spread-out dialogue. I have also streamlined/eliminated some of my points. I will revisit some of these clusters and see if I can make sure that they do not take the reader out of the setting.