Friday, June 26, 2009

The Good Carpenter Versus The Bad Magician

She has since answered to her own question, but Traci from Words, Words, Words... asked us about those long passages that sometimes happen in books when a character speaks for pages to reveal some history that the reader needs to know.

"Hey, Charlie, I always meant to ask how you got that scar on your wrist."

"Funny you should ask, Felix. Back in 1962, I was a victim of a horrendous crime. It was a Thursday, the moon was peeping out from behind a polar bear-shaped cloud. The cold wind pierced through the thin tunic I wore as I rushed across Madson Bridge to get to my fiance's birthday party..."

We can all imagine this type of thing. Usually these long passages sound like anything but natural speech. The voice is the narrator's voice rather than a character's voice. The details usually have nothing to do with what the character would think about when revealing such information.

If we think about why a writer would choose to do such a thing, it's probably because she or he felt the need to get back story out, but didn't want to use the elementary device of going into flashback. Revealing back story through speech seemed like a more clever way of solving a particular problem.

But, what happens from a reader's point of view, in my opinion, is that we get pulled out of the story precisely because we've decided the writer is trying to be too clever. They're behaving like a bad magician who can't quite make us believe that the dove really flew out of a sleeve. We groan. Why did they even bother?

I think readers prefer a good carpenter over a bad magician. Instead of trying to be too clever in an attempt to impress the reader, consider telling the story as plainly and as simply as you can. Let the reader understand the structure, the scaffolding that you are using to build the story. If you need to get some history in there, for instance, you could use a simple transition sentence and then tell the information as you need to:

Charlie had a scar on his wrist because he had been a victim of a crime back in 1962. He had been rushing across Madson Bridge, trying to get to his fiance's birthday party when...

It may appear that you're writing childishly, but many times a reader will appreciate the simple solution. Just lay the story out for the reader to experience. Be sincere. Let the characters and the situation impress the reader, rather than the technique.

Of course, there is such a thing as a good magician. Some writers are excited by the chance to impress their readers by using clever tricks. If you can think of an unusual or ultra-interesting way of using a speech to reveal back story, then go for it!

Note: I just wanted to say that Tara Maya has an excellent post today on character-driven writing. Check it out!


  1. When I read the title, I thought you were going to talk about religion vs. magic. Surprise!

  2. Becoming a really good carpenter and magician is pretty daunting but it's definitely the goal. I'm learning as I work (apprentice via Internet and crit groups). The best I've figured so far is the writer needs to put down the information dump and then remove it. But once that background is known, it can be used more like seasoning within the story, rather than the main course. Well, that was a strange analogy but it's what I've got at the moment. Look forward to hearing what others say.

  3. I've seen both done well (and done poorly). In the Ben Bova sf books on Venus, Jupiter, etc. he gave up any pretense of trying to hide the infodump and just put in a two page section, rather like an encyclopedia entry, which told you the atmospheric density, gravity, surface temperature etc. of the planet which the characters were about to visit. This worked perfectly well, and was much less tedious than having an, "As you know, Bob..." speech about it. Any readers who already knew the surface temperature of Venus could skip the pages, whereas those of us who kept forgetting could easily refer back to the page during the exciting scene when the spaceship was burning up in the atmosphere and someone had to go outside to fix it.

    Later reminders could be added by speech in short drips, i.e., "You'll only have three minutes before the lead fasteners on your suit melt, so if the code doesn't open the hatch, you'll have to blast it."

  4. Hmm, I think normally I would say, "Agreed!" But I recently read East of Eden, and there was tons of characters talking to each other for days about their histories. Also lots of side stories that I sometimes wondered where they were going. Yes, when these things happened I at first felt a bit jarred, but what Steinbeck wrote was always so interesting that I really came to love such passages.

    I think exposition, flashbacks, and tangents are fine if they're well-written and entertaining.

  5. This is a great post. I see where you're going with this, but what about if you have the character tell the story, as long as you're maintaining their personality? I struggle from time to time with this very thing.

  6. Good ideas here, Scott. I've thought of this before, but I like how you explain it here. It makes more sense to me that we try and be more forthright and simple with complicated back story. I've seen flashbacks work well, but it depends on many factors.

  7. Annnnnd, I just realized, Davin, that it was you, not Scott that wrote this. Can you tell my brain is just not here today? Anyway, this really is a great post. Forgive me. :D

  8. I add info and then I delete info. What is the sense? I try to keep my info dumping to a few lines if that much.

    I love your explanation Davin. I agree that we can be pulled out of the story because the writer is a bad magician.

    I wish I was good at using the clever tricks. Alas, I'm of the simple variety. :)

    Great discussion going on here. I'll be interested to know what some others say about this.

  9. Justus, I was slightly worried about that, but then again, I thought it might be fun.

    Tricia, What you said about putting it down and then removing it often works. I agree. Somehow, knowing all of the information makes the writing stronger, even if the majority of it isn't on the page.

    Tara, good point about the short drips. Yes, there are other ways to get back story in besides the large infodumps.

    Annie, I think I'd lump your example into the good magician category. Some people do an excellent job of it!

    Eric, Yes, I'd call this the "right" was to do it. The point is to not be sneaky about what you're trying to do. Don't hide back story in speech just because it doesn't fit anywhere else. Make a feature of it. A character telling a story can be a really beautiful thing.

    Michelle, you're forgiven, although it's kind of nice to be mistaken for Scott. Forthright, it a great word.

    Robyn, I'm of the simple variety too. At least most of the time. I'm trying to fancy up a little bit, just to see what happens. But, I have a feeling I'll be getting back to simple.

  10. Great post! And very helpful. I'm dealing with backstory right now, and I'm definitely going the carpenter route. No cleverness in this noggin.

  11. I love it when back story is interwoven in a novel. Nothing turns me off faster than too much information right at the beginning. And some authors are notorious for it.

  12. Wonderful thoughts!!!

    I love it when people advise telling. As I read, I wll look for the good carpener examples, as well as the good and bad magician examples.

    I can tell you this right off. George R.R. Martin is a prime example of a highly successful author who uses telling. He will often go into great telling description of details releated to crests, swords, and shields. It's character and world history stuff. And, in my opinion, it helps to make the stories. It is also the kind of stuff a writing group or critique group could target for telling.

    I think you are right though. Better to tell it straight out, than to bumble it up through dialogue where they magic trick does not work. Telling can be much more to the point and effecient. I think the key is more in the details than if it is showing or telling, but that's just my opinion and I think that many, many people would disagree. Telling is an easy target.

    And, you are right, Tara has a great post!!!

  13. Most excellent!!! You answered my question exactly!! Does that make sense? I was actually thinking about how good green bean casserole sounds for lunch. You can tell my mind has REALLY left the building! LOL


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