By T.K. Thorne
“Don’t give too much information” is one of the tenets of “good” fiction writing, i.e., writing that avoids the slush pile. A positive way to phrase this is—write subtly.
According to Noah Lakeman, author of The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile:
• An unsubtle MS will have an inflated feel—inflated with superfluous words, phrases, dialogue, and scenes that are far too long.
• Less is more; Leave some things unsaid; be a minimalist.
• If you underestimate your reader, you alienate him/her.
• Discipline yourself to withhold information.
• Embrace confusion; leave a little mystery.
But now we are back to the dilemma—how much is too much and how do you know when to stop? For some people, that skill comes naturally, but others struggle with it. Recently, I was reading over my latest novel manuscript and decided I wanted to drop some back story in the first chapter of book three. Backstory is always risky because too much can pull the reader out of the story world. They “hear” the author “filling them in.”
Setup: Rose, a police detective, responds to a homicide scene where a construction worker has fallen seven stories to his death. She looks at the body and hopes she isn’t going to get sick. Insert: “The only time I’ve been sick at the sight of a dead body was the night I had my first vision, a glimpse of the future that made me fire two bullets into a man’s back.”
1. It’s relevant and fits the context. It’s a natural thought proceeding from her hope that she won’t get sick.
2. It doesn’t give too much information. It leaves the reader with questions—Why did she shoot a man in the back? Why wasn’t she fired or convicted of murder?
3. It adds to plot or character. We now know that Rose had a traumatic incident in her past and that bodies don’t usually make her nauseous. Important stuff.
What if Rose looked at the body and thought instead: “This reminds me of the time when I had a few drinks with Harry and got sick all over the floor.”
It’s shorter, so “too much” is not really a question of how many words you use. This version also flows from her thinking about getting sick, but it is too much information, because–who cares if she got sick drinking with Henry? It is not important to the story and adds nothing to the plot or character development. Unless it is an important part of her character that her mind wanders willy-nilly, it pulls the reader out of the story narrative.
Not every piece of narrative has to do all three of these things, but if you have a suspicious piece of writing, analyze it to make sure it is (1) relevant and in context, (2) leaves questions open, and/or (3) adds to the plot and character.
T.K.Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” When she retired as a captain, she took on Birmingham’s business improvement district as the executive director before retiring again to write full time. T.K. speaks on life lessons--how she accidentally became a police officer, didn't end up in a space capsule, and tackled historical novels about unnamed women in two of the oldest and most famous stories on earth, as well as writing a book from the case investigators' perspectives about solving the most infamous church bombing in Civil Rights history. Her writing has garnered several awards, including ForeWord Review Magazine's 2009 "Book of the Year" for Historical Fiction for her debut novel, NOAH'S WIFE. The New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list featured her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE which details the investigation of the 1963 Sixteenth Street church bombing case. Rave reviews have followed her newest novel about the unnamed wife of Lot, ANGELS AT THE GATE, which won the IBPA's Benjamin Franklin Award for historical fiction and an IPPY award. Her screenplay in the film "Six Blocks Wide" was a semi-finalist at the international "A Film for Peace Festival" in Italy. Her website is TKThorne.com, where you can read more about her books and sign up for a Newsletter with inside info on her research and adventures. She blogs there, as well, and loves to hear from readers. T.K. writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap.