One of the many pitfalls novice novellists fall into is the up-front info dump.
It brings the story to a screeching halt, and it was death to pace even in the old days of print. These days, with attention spans shortening, it’s certain doom. The book turns into another sort of dump, basically.
The reason it happens is because we think in block-sized concepts filled with simultaneous ideas. Whereas writing is a linear thread, as is reading. Translating one to the other is possibly the greatest single challenge faced by all writers – fiction and non-fiction alike.
There’s no single right answer to this, because the specific solution has to be engineered each time by the writer to suit what they’re doing. But key principles apply – in particular, ‘dribbling’ the necessary detail into the wider story or argument, so that the reader has enough at any given point to understand what’s going on, but not enough to disturb the pacing.
As always there’s a wide gulf between knowing a principle and doing it. My suggestions are:
- Identify the primary idea. In fiction, it’s the character arc – usually defined by a one sentence logline; in non-fiction, it’s the thesis – the underlying point you’re trying to prove.
- This primary idea guides the pace and structure and should also help identify what’s important. It doesn’t emerge by magic – it needs planning, even if the plan consists only of a skeleton and the author then writes ‘seat of the pants’ free-form material to fill the gaps.
- The author also needs some idea of what’s important, and what isn’t, to support that structure. What’s relevant? This, too, might need some planning.
- From this it should be possible to then identify the elements of back-story, character, world-description or – in non-fiction – evidence and sub-arguments needed to let the reader understand the main thrust.
- Just identifying this stuff isn’t enough – the author also has to identify dependencies. What does the reader need to know first, in order to understand the next thing? This gives an order by which the supporting information can be added.
- That, in turn should produce something along the lines of what you need. But the final trick is to be prepared to re-cast it if needed. Some authors call this ‘editing’, but the reality is that draft-revision is part of the writing process.
Does this work for you? What experiences have you had, struggling with structure?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015