Thinking about withholding information


I’ve been cracking away, almost half-heartedly, on at least one blog for the week to no avail. There were several long days at work and a traffic-jam this week, which combined with pi-day party preparations, have conspired against my ability to focus. It’s not just the blog I’m struggling to write-up, it’s also the chapter I’m working on. After having gotten a first version drafted last Sunday, I really thought that it would make the re-write easier. So far, no luck. Last night, I got down about 700 words to open, which is the 3rd or 4th time this week that I’ve re-written that part. I think it works okay, but I’m still not satisfied. The only way to get through this is likely to be a bit of rubber-ducking, and so here it goes.

Here’s the situation: The chapter opens up after the main character has managed to seize a small fleet of ships by boarding the lead ship which happens to have the rival lord aboard. After some ‘negotiation’ the other lord has agreed to join forces the main character. Whether or not the defection is a true change of allegiance is an open question. So, the main character, unable to sleep, is standing on the poop deck*, considering the next steps in his plan, which is to first re-claim his own lands, before pushing south, and taking over other islands, eventually leading to the capture of the entire kingdom. He’s essentially doing this on a shoe-string. To this point, the reader has been led to believe one thing about how he’s going to do it, but it’s really only part of the picture. This chapter contains the big reveal about the way he’s really going to achieve his goals with apparently so few resources. I want this to be a shock, and also become a major point of contention between the main character and the rival.

The questions from the stumped writer (me):
I can’t work out why this isn’t sitting well with me. Do you think I’m being overly critical of myself? Can I just go with the intro I’ve written? What do you think is wrong with it?

The answer from the reviewer (me):
It’s possible you’re being somewhat overly critical, but it’s true the voice of this chapter doesn’t match the previous chapters, and as a result it doesn’t read quite as well. The sub-plot you’re working on now is arguably the best written part of the book, even this early on in the revision process. This is largely the result of strong characters, backed by clearly defined goals, solid dialogue and setting to tie it together. You don’t have that going for you at the beginning of this chapter. The objective of the chapter isn’t clear at the outset, you only have a single character involved and he’s not doing much. It also happens that the chapter follows a reasonably intense fight scene. Given that the strength of the sub-plot comes from it’s solid characters, you need to try and stick to that, it works well. If you could bring another character into the opening scene, you could use those character dynamics found in previous chapters to improve the flow of the story. Keep in mind as you open this chapter that you want to establish the goal of the characters as quickly as possible, it should help things remain focused as the plot progresses. This doesn’t mean that the end of the chapter needs to be obvious at the beginning, just that your character has a goal. Whether or not he reaches it depends on where you’re headed. The other piece of the problem, and this requires more in-depth discussion, is that your holding back essential information. It’s one of the things that weakens your characters in the main plot of the story.

The problem of holding back is what happens at the far end of the information dump spectrum. At one end, you’re supplying too much information up front at the cost of good story telling. Holding back falls at the other end, where you’ve held back too much information at the cost of good story telling. If you’re holding back too much information from the reader, you’re likely to have a Scooby-Doo** moment somewhere in the end. This, I think, is true even for a mystery novel. There is an art to knowing when and how much information to give. The only viable general advice is that you do what works for your story, however it’s not always clear what makes for plausible situations and good reading. Before making those very specific decisions though, the starting point should be that you only hold back information that isn’t or can’t be known by the character***. I’m not talking about information that isn’t relevant to a scene, would come out better later on, could be left out altogether, or needs to be explained to the perspective character, but a piece of information that is a key driving force in character motivation or plot. There are more circumstances than you could count on how this bit of advice is wrong, but thinking about the situation in question, this is a matter of holding back information in a way that makes natural and plausible character actions difficult. It’s too central to character motivation and plot. Looking backward at the sub-plot it’s clear you haven’t done enough to set this chapter up, and so it doesn’t flow from the previous one. Yes, the outcome of the previous chapter is an unexpected twist, but that works. It may seem like a difficult task to set up unexpected circumstances ahead of time, but in this case it’s a matter of character motivation. They should be acting in a manner consistent with their previous actions and motivation. Very little will need to be done in order to make it right, a few strategic sentences here and there. It doesn’t have to fully give away the bit of information you wanted to hold back. In fact, if done carefully, and kept to a minimum, you can keep this key bit of information obscure. The reason to do this is, in part, to prevent out of place information dumping and ensure that early scenes remained focused. If this is the right direction for the story, the way to achieve the desired effect is through the use of creative dialogue, and slight mis-direction. The context might lead the reader to either gloss over the hint, or assume it relates to something else. Then, later in the story, as that little bit of held-back information comes to light for the reader, the context for those little hints should come into focus. To make it work, a lot of subtlety is involved, and not all readers are likely to catch it, which is probably fine.

With my question to myself answered, here’s my solution: I’m going to start again, bring in a character who would be interested in the ‘what next’ of the plan, and write it as though the held-back information had not been not held back. It means I’ll need to go back to previous chapters and work it in, but I don’t think that’s going to be a huge challenge, just a bit of work.

*The level above and behind the quarter-deck. The quarter deck is the place where the ships wheel is and operations are generally commanded from.
** Scooby-doo moment is the moment where the villain is finally captured and unmasked, and it’s a complete surprise that no one expected Mister ….. they all exclaim, and insert the scooby version of wha?.
*** This is true for first person, and third person limited, but I think it’s a bit more flexible in third-person omniscient, where some of the suspense is going to come from the reader seeing what’s coming, but the characters do not.

photo credit: Proof reading the thesis – this IS gonna take long via photopin (license)


Thinking about the information dump #4


This post was actually a comment on a different thinking about the information dump, but I like it and it deserves it’s own post. So, to give proper credit, this post comes from Pontius Cominius. Visit Pontius’ site (if you don’t, I’ll know!):

This is an angle I hadn’t considered, but should have. It is an elementary kind of problem that gets at the root of other problems. This comment is also one of the reasons I blog on writing. Thank you, Pontius’, for sharing this thought.


Lemme throw in the fourth alternative. It’s sort of like Fog of War, which isn’t just a setting on many different war games that allows you to look at the enemy troop dispositions. Fog of War, or rather, Fog of Life, is that there are no pat explanations for most things that happen to you. If I’m driving on a freeway and then there’s a traffic jam, and I finally get to the end of the jam and there’s NOTHING THERE, it annoys me greatly. I want to know why we were slowing when there’s no apparent reason. It could be that there was a phantom accident there from 2 hours ago, and the traffic is still clearing, or a dog ran across the freeway 3 minutes ago and now is gone or squished, but regardless, as a normal enough human my curiosity has not been sated.

In the infodump world, I’d turn on the radio and they’d announce there had been an accident there and there was still slowing even though the accident cleared, or the know-it-all character in the passenger seat would announce, “I saw that accident there two hours ago, I should have warned you.” In real life, that very rarely happens. I go on with driving to my destination and I don’t know why I was in that traffic, but I can guess.

Likewise, in your fantasy story, to drive your narrative on, skip the infodumps and the know-it-all character. The KIAC is a pain in the keester, because the reader will say, “if KIAC knows it all, why doesn’t HE do the quest?” And the author mumbles something about KIAC not being suitable, not wanting to take it on, and so on.

Further, human nature leads most of us to avoid embarrassment by asking obvious questions. If I hear a conversation where some writers are talking about Kee-ack, if I have no skin in the game I may ask “what’s a Kee-ack?” And they’d say “Know-it-all character.” If I was worried about losing face or respect, I’d keep my mouth shut because I’m afraid the authors will mock me later or even right now for not knowing.

My seven year old frequently doesn’t know words I use. I have to prompt him to find out – “do you know what _________ means?” “No.” Explanation then follows. I know that his level of understanding isn’t high, he’s seven. Your character who is thrust into this old war with rules he does not understand is going to either have to be an extraordinary person who will ask the questions, or he will go through being ignorant and suffering for it. Which kind of character is he? People don’t usually volunteer helpful information to new people. You gotta be proactive.

There’s more conflict in the ignorance, if you think about it. Your characters only know what they each know, and it’s compartmentalized, and they don’t share important information with each other, they don’t always realize that something important is important, and you end up with confusion and ignorance and conflict.

An example is Pearl Harbor. There was a radar station set up on Oahu and it was manned when the Japanese air attack first came in. We know that it was a massive air attack. The radar operators thought it was a glitch of the new machinery. The higher ups either disregarded it or didn’t get the message. What if they’d scrambled the air assets to get armed and up in the air, and gotten the ships ready with ammo and men to man the AA guns and fought? Was there even time enough for that? It’s the hindsight we have to see the clumsy ignorance of people having pieces of the puzzle but not knowing there was a puzzle or that their piece was key.

Finally, your KIAC is flesh and blood and has opinions and thoughts and fuzzy, incomplete or just wrong information. He’s biased. And that bias is going to come out in the information he gives your protagonist. He may be well-meaning, or he may be envious of your protagonist and set him up with dangerous or bad information. That gives you more conflict and if you can’t trust the KIAC, it introduces a level of paranoia to things. Nothing is black or white.

Thinking about the information dump (#1)

As I started writing this blog, and going in one particular direction, I realized the ‘problem’ of the information dump is actually kind of big and has a lot of facets. Depending on how you’re looking at it, an info dump could be a matter of explaining how a bit of magic or technology works. Another type of information dump involves an explanation of events in the story. A cliché example is the villain monologue, but there are a lot of other examples executed in a similar manner that serve the same purpose. The real problem though is that the information dump must happen. (Insert little text frowny face here -I refuse do to it, so just pretend). Damn. How does one info-dump in a way that doesn’t make the reader sigh and close the book, because ‘a moron wrote it’? I haven’t the foggiest. As a reader though I know what I don’t like. This is the perspective that I try to keep in mind as I write. To keep things simple, I thought I’d break up my thoughts on the topic into more than one post. The first (this one), is going to cover the villain monologue type information dump.

My fourth chapter started out it’s life as almost entirely a nighttime stroll/information dump. Still is. It’s the part in the story where the main character finds himself under attack, and being thrust into a world of magic and a very old war that he is totally unfamiliar with. This is solved by adding a character who is intimately familiar with all of this stuff (fantasy cliché, I know). It’s the perfect set-up for an information dump. Something along the lines of

“Well, the reason that … is because … Oh, yes, and also … happened because ….” Which would get the response of, “What about …?”, followed up with “Well, the explanation for that is simple, it’s …”

Unfortunately, that’s an easy thing to write, but not very fun to read. Not that you can’t get away with that, because you totally can. A great example is the king’s cross scene of Book 7 of the Harry Potter series. Setting aside any bias you might have against the series, that scene is a great example of a totally unabashed info-dump that totally works. I frikin’ love that scene. She sets it up so well, by the end you want more.

In my case, it wasn’t working. So, I concluded I needed to look at all of the information I was presenting, and start peeling bits away. The first thing I tackled was the motivation of the bad-guy. In the early drafts, he did not explain himself, nor was there any explanation of what he was up to (I despise the idea of a villain monologue, and I didn’t want to fall into that trap). Turns out, you can villain monologue. I mean, after all, when you get into an argument, the first thing you want to do is establish how right you are. For this to work though, I think you need to write it so that both characters are talking in context, using flash-backs or something to conjure up enough context for the reader to follow. With all that in mind, a few well-placed sentences in earlier chapters, and the bad-guy’s motivation was not only not force-fed, it seemed a lot more natural.

The revision was good, except, it was still an unruly bit of writing with too much information, so I the next thing I did was look for any information that I could share more effectively elsewhere. There were three main approaches here. The first was to explain some of it earlier in the story. In my case I wasn’t far enough in to make that one work for me. Another approach was to simply avoid the information altogether and bring it up later. I did, in fact, have one piece in there that seemed totally relevant, but after consideration I decided that the main character wouldn’t have even thought about it, and the know-it-all character wouldn’t necessarily know about it either. So, I dropped the explanation with the decision to give it far better treatment in a later chapter (turned into a whole sub-plot in this case, but it really is that important). The third approach is a situation where the main character must to ask the question, it would be weird not to. As it turns out, the know-it-all doesn’t have to know it all, and so some of the explanation could be pushed off a later point, making the information available for discussion very limited.

Once I had addressed these two things, I was better able to deal with the information dump that I had no choice but to deal with. The real benefit of this series of revisions was it left me more space, which I’m using for the development of setting, characters, and elements of foreshadowing. Anyhow, those are my thoughts on the topic. This is a far longer post than I usually like to do, but there it is. If you have anything to offer on the topic, I’d be glad to hear it.