Ruth E. Walker
We come to our final installment of some of the most common forms of overwriting. Two weeks ago, we looked at sentimentality and over-the-top emotional writing. Last week, we explored hammers (are you getting it, reader?) And this week, it’s time to recall the times in your reading life when you thought the writer was giving you more than you needed.
Nobody likes a know-it-all
The know-it-all form of overwriting comes when a writer has done considerable research on a topic or they have life experience to share in their story. The author intends to create an immersion in a particular time and/or place by seeding the work with reality.
But what starts out as interesting elements soon become a piling on of images, places, names, distances, amounts and so on that readers must wade through. Keep that image of wading through, waist deep in details that are “true.” So often, writers defend these details by offering “I’m just setting the scene with realistic detail.”
Sure. Be real. But also be realistic. How much detail is necessary? Are you giving your reader breathing room to use their brains, to fill in any gaps with their imaginations?
He was gagged with a rough woolen cloth woven by the executioner’s wife so he could say nothing as he stood on the 12 by 14 wooden scaffolding, eyeing the crowd of more than 250 townspeople and foreigners from across the channel gathered below in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners as many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the permanent constructions of wood upon which corpses of others were decomposing. Soon, his body would join the others to be were exhibited after the execution, until he also decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto upright poles near the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid.
So let’s find the know-it-all material and revise this to give just enough detail for readers to see the scene.
He was Gagged with a rough woolen cloth woven by the executioner’s wife so he could say nothing as he stood on the 12 by 14 wooden scaffolding, eyeing the crowd of more than 250 townspeople and foreigners from across the channel gathered below in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners. as Many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the permanent constructions of upright wood poles supporting the wagon wheels upon which where the corpses of others were decomposing. Soon, his headless body would join them others to be were exhibited after the execution, until he, too, decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto poles near the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid.
The fix is in
Tidying up to see how it looks with commas and tweaks made, we have a tighter finished paragraph. Readers of historical fiction love to make discoveries, so the reference to the out-of-towners showing up in off-limits garb is a fun fact from early medieval days: certain finery was restricted to Lords and Ladies.
But it’s medieval times so that scaffolding would be wood, not steel or aluminium. And who needs to know the size of the scaffold? In particular, that last line sounds like it came out of a textbook. But if we take snippets of detail and work them into the paragraph as through the narrator’s eyes, we get enough to set the stage without it feeling like a history lesson.
Gagged with a rough woolen cloth, he stood on the scaffolding, eyeing the crowd gathered in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners. Many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the upright poles supporting the wagon wheels where the corpses were decomposing. Soon, his headless body would join them until he, too, rotted away.
Two other frequent offenders in the Know-it-all category, are info dumps and the As You Know, Bob dialogue trick, each designed to tell readers important information.
An info dump is fairly straightforward — like the overload of details in the previous example. But they also happen when an author adds details a character can’t possibly know.
For example, it’s important that readers know setting details but consider our main character, Tyson, a bored teenager:
Tyson followed his parents into the late-12th century cathedral. It was a Gothic style building with chevron vault ribs that crossed the high ceiling and echoed as he sang his favourite song, the echo bouncing off the walls peppered with secular and sacred themed stained glass windows and beautiful frescoes painted between the windows.
Chevron vault ribs? Secular and sacred? No way is Tyson going to know — or admit to knowing — the terminology of medieval architecture. The author is intruding here, dumping information into the story. Maybe it’s necessary information but this is Tyson’s story and that information needs to be filtered through his eyes and his brain.
Tyson dragged behind his parents and into another old building full of thousand-year-old knick knacks. He had to admit the acoustics were amazing when he belted a totally lit tune and it echoed like crazy in the super high ceilings. But his dad was totally awks about it, like his song was going to crack one of the fancy coloured glass windows. As if.
If the specific details are crucial to the plot, you can have Dad or a tour guide give Tyson the necessary information.
Similarly, As you know, Bob informs the reader but in a way that is clearly the author informing the reader. One character turns to the other and says: Sir, if we take that route it will lead us directly into the heart of enemy territory where, no doubt, the secret weapon is hidden and where we’re open to ambush.
Um. Can you see the flashing sign: Know-it-all Provides Important Detail? Yes, you can introduce information through dialogue. But for heaven’s sake, be subtle. If unsure whether you dialogue is off, imagine it starting with As you know, Bob. If it fits, you have a problem.
Fix the dialogue by being more subtle and more natural.
“That route is tricky, sir. If they have anything to hide, they’ll be on high alert.”
If readers really need to know the secret weapon is hidden there, find another moment to hint at it.
Info dumps and As you know, Bob moments often come when a writer is impatient to get necessary details injected into a story and then move on. Learn to have patience. You can find ways to introduce specific details without rushing to get it all into one moment. Layer it in and add only what is necessary. Recognize what your character(s) could possibly know and stay within that boundary.
Finally, always remember to leave room for your reader to imagine. It’s a sign of trust. So trust that your reader is smart enough to connect the dots and fill in the blank spaces between the details you provide.
Trust your reader and you’ll get even better at trusting yourself.