Writing Excuses 10.20: How Do I Write a Story, Not an Encyclopedia?
Key Points: Infodumping… Skill levels: 1) description 2) dialogue 3) interwoven 4) transparent worldbuilding, and multiple duty bits. Start by asking what information does the reader need to continue the story? You don’t need to describe everything, just the necessary parts for the plot. Layer information in, either because you are going to use it, because it describes the character, or there is an emotional relationship. Mask information by having the character involved. Giving us the information in a paragraph should be your last resort, but sometimes you do it. Make sure the character has a reason to think about it. Beware “As you know, Bob” (aka maid-and-butler dialogue). Give them a good reason to talk about it. A Watson may help, but don’t introduce them just as a foil for explaining things. Break it! When people fix things, they need to talk about it. To get beyond dialogue to explain something, think about emotional impact. How do people feel about the geewhiz, what emotional attachments do they have? Look at the item in use, with people interacting with it. A key is don’t stop the story for the description. Use interesting scenes with worldbuilding threaded in. Use Watson, what can go wrong, what side effects are there, to do things. But there must be a plot-specific reason for explaining things! Sometimes you just need background color, so mention the Battle of the Red Armies, and move on. Even when something is important to the plot, occasional casual mentions are better than a single in-depth infodump. How does it work, what does it look like, and what is your character’s relationship to the item — those are the key pieces of information we need.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 20.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How Do I Write a Story, Not an Encyclopedia?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we got it right!
[Woo hoo! Barely]
[Brandon] So, this episode, we want to talk about taking all that world building you’ve done already for your story and getting it into your story without boring your reader. This is actually a really hard thing to do. In fact, in writing science fiction and fantasy, I would say of our genre this is the most difficult thing to do specific to us. It’s something we call infodumping.
[Howard] Can I describe what I perceive to be the skill levels here?
[Howard] Skill level number one is, “The plasma cannon is a fusion powered thing that magnetically bottles plasma and shoots it at the enemy.” Skill level number two is, “Son, you’re going to break that plasma cannon. It’s a fusion powered thing…”
[Howard] “And no, that throws the magnets out of whack and the column won’t stay straight.” Skill level number three I can’t come up with off the fly. That’s where over the course of two or three paragraphs, while this plasma cannon is being deployed, the reader is told the things that they need to be told, which are, for the purpose of this story, it’s a magnetic bottle that shoots charged particles. So later on, when we introduce some other charged particle magnet thing, we understand why the plasma cannon failed. Those, for me, are the three skill levels.
[Brandon] End of the podcast. Good job. Well done.
[Howard] I didn’t give you any techniques.
[Dan] Two minutes long.
[Mary] I’m going to take that and start giving you some techniques. So the first thing we look at is what information does my reader need to know in order to continue this story?
[Brandon] In fact, let’s stop and talk about that a little bit.
[Howard] That’s the last piece I gave.
[Howard] But that’s where you need to start.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Because that’s very important to this discussion. Because a lot… It’s what you mentioned in a previous podcast, Mary, where people are like, “Well, I spent all this time on this thing. This thing is cool to me because I’ve spent so much time on it, so I’m going to dedicate an entire chapter or half of chapter to talking about this thing that isn’t relevant to the plot.”
[Mary] Yeah. So… The… We’ve been talking about story questions, and giving the readers the information. It’s totally fine to not describe everything that is going on. Like if you pick up a phone, you know… The thing that is important to know is that it makes telephone calls. I can connect. I do not need to know anything else about that thing.
[Dan] I remember reading on the Internet, someone had put together a… Describing modern technology in the style of silver age science fiction writers.
[Dan] And it was saying things like…
[Howard] Oh, yeah, getting on the airplanes.
[Dan] He picked… Yeah, getting on an airplane or he picked up the phone and dialed some numbers on the touchscreen and the signal flew up to the satellite and then bounced around… You don’t need to know all of that.
[Mary] But, at the same time, if I’m using an old corded telephone and I’m planning on… The fact that it’s corded, that’s not a really big deal…
[Brandon] Unless you’re going to strangle someone with it.
[Mary] Going to strangle someone… Exactly. That’s exactly where I was going to go.
[Brandon] Where you were going to go.
[Dan] That is still the primary use of corded telephones, as far as I’m aware.
[Mary] But that gets into this is someth… This is a piece of information that my reader is going to need to know to understand the story and what I’m doing then is I’m laying the groundwork, I’m laying the geography, but I don’t necessarily need to say, “She picked up the black plastic receiver… Black bakelite receiver with the cord coming down in a spiral pattern to the phone and dialed it.” I can say, “She picked up the phone, she dialed it, she twiddled with the cord as she was talking…” I can layer things in.
[Dan] See, that’s the other case where you’re going to want to describe what kind of phone, is not necessarily because she’s going to strangle someone with it, but because it says something about her level of technology, about her poverty level, she can’t afford a cell phone. She still got an old corded phone. Things like that.
[Howard] Or… It was… She fiddled with the cord nervously, just like she’d seen her grandmother do. She couldn’t bear to part with this phone, because it made her think of grandma.
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Howard] Now it’s an emotional touchstone in the book.
[Mary] Yes. Although again, if you need to know about her relationship to grandma…
[Howard] Right. Well, but see that’s important because when the cord gets used as a murder weapon, there’s an emotional impact.
[Mary] Right, exactly.
[Dan] I strangled him with the cord, just like grandma used to do.
[Howard] No, but the operating principle here is this thing that we’re… Oh, you’re talking about… Oh, sorry. His cord came loose because of grandma.
[Howard] A microphone moment. We’ve talked in the past about making scenes serve multiple purposes. What we’ve just done here with the telephone is it is serving multiple purposes. That, I think, is… For me, I would say that’s actually skill level four. That’s a point at which not only has the world building been transparent, but everything that you put in the world is doing double triple quadruple duty.
[Brandon] Now. I’m going to say that on a previous podcast, we kind of talked about choosing your world building to drive your story. We’re going to assume now you’ve picked the proper things to world build. Mary, you were going in this direction, and I interrupted you and said let’s talk about this some more. Where were you going to go next?
[Mary] So what I was going to go to next is that one of the things, one of the ways you can mask the fact that you’re passing information to people is through the point of view of the character. This gets into what Howard was talking about, about the emotional relationship that the character has to the object. That if you have them… If you have her talking about that she’s nervous… I can make you think that I’m talking about her emotional state, but what I’m really doing is I’m laying the fact that there is a cord there. Because I’m planning to commit murder later.
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Mary] So that when I get into the murder scene, I don’t have to describe the cord because I’ve already explained that it exists.
[Brandon] Yeah. As a writer, I think that just giving us the information in a paragraph should be your last resort. Now, we’re making it sound like you never do that. The truth is that you do. Once in a while, as a writer, you sometimes have to tell… Just give this information across. But that should be your last resort, and it’s kind of lazy. Every time we do it, we know it’s lazy.
[Mary] But frequently that is… That is the only way for clarity. So it’s totally fine to do it. The way you can help the reader not feel like they’ve just wandered into an encyclopedia is by having the character have a reason for thinking about that paragraph. So this is where a lot of times you’ll get into… The danger is when someone is trying to slip it in, you’ll get into the As You Know, Bob, where the character is thinking about or explaining something that they already know. But if you can do that in relation to a conflict or something like that, it will often feel much more organic.
[Dan] I did this in Partials, which is post-apocalyptic, the society has been partially rebuilt. Part of my later on plot depended heavily on what resources they had available to them. So the early set up for that was I put them in a dinner party. They had a chance not only to describe the kinds of food that they were eating, but to be excited that they had a chicken instead of fish, to complain about how they didn’t have this one kind of fruit. That helped to establish they have these things, but they don’t have these other things.
[Brandon] Howard used dialogue in his level two. Which is… I think is the perfect way to say it. Number your last ditch is just a paragraph explaining it. It’s so easy to work into dialogue, but we have to think about the As You Know, Bob… I call it maid and butler dialogue, which is to people discussing something they already both should know about. This is where the effectiveness of a Watson character comes in. Where you can have a character who doesn’t know about the thing, who can be told about the things so that then the reader can be told about the thing.
[Dan] Like Howard on our podcast.
[Howard] I found… Exactly. I… That’s my job. The Watson character’s one way to do it, the other way to do it is to have it break. To have two people working on fixing it, and they are arguing about whatever. The reason I think that that’s often more effective is that if it’s in the book at all as a geewhiz, then exploring it working and it not working or the conflicts…
[Brandon] Or there is likely to be [garbled]
[Howard] Or the conflicts. Those are likely to already be a part of the story. So that organic moment for dialogue is almost certainly already there.
[Dan] Dialogue, while a very useful tool, is not automatically organic. Read The Da Vinci Code, where the character of Sophie is the Watson character, the dumb cabbage head, and she’s obviously just there so other characters can talk philosophy at her.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for the book of the week. Howard, you’re reading something.
[Howard] Oh, oh, my goodness. I got Brian McClellan’s conclusion to his Powder Mage trilogy, The Autumn Republic, prior to it coming out and I loved the first books and his world building and his writing so much. I gushed in my blog. Very excited to read this. He surprised me by not just sticking the landing, but by showing me that pieces of the world that he had introduced me to and then not said much about in the first book, were absolutely critical. He knew the end from the beginning. I felt like the trilogy hung together really well. The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan narrated by… Oh, Christian…
[Howard] Christian Rodska. Get it at audiblepodcast.com/excuse by starting a 30-day trial membership and listening to it for free.
[Brandon] That’s Howard trying to read my terrible writing. I’m not sure how I landed…
[Howard] It wasn’t that I couldn’t read it, it was that I couldn’t tell which line was which.
[Brandon] Oh. Well, there’s only like 50 on this page.
[Mary] And it’s a nice do, too.
[Brandon] It is a nice doodle. Brian is one of my students. He took my class three times and…
[Mary] He’s a super nice guy.
[Brandon] He’s a super nice guy.
[Howard] He’s also a Schlock Mercenary fan. So how can I not love his work?
[Brandon] He’s a really good writer. I can’t take much credit, because he was really good when he started, but I’m going to do it anyway.
[Brandon] So read my student, Brian McClellan. Great writer.
[Brandon] So. More methods that we’re going to do? Like, how do we approach these levels three and four that Howard has said, where we’re getting beyond just kind of like introducing a dialogue scene specifically to explain the thing?
[Howard] I start by asking that question about the emotional impact. I start by saying, “Okay. I know how this is going to get used. How do people feel about it? How are they going to feel about the action? What emotional attachments do they already have to the what’s-it?”
[Mary] What we’re also talking about, though, is seeing the item in use. Whether it’s an item, whether it’s a cultural practice, whether it’s a… Part of the landscape, but seeing it in use and seeing people interact with it. That this is a good way to get description of it across. You can say, “ran her hand across the smooth wood of the sailing ship.” Then, okay, so I’ve just told you that this is a wooden ship. So it’s having the character interact with it instead of saying there was a wooden ship sitting in the harbor.
[Brandon] Right. Well, the other thing is to just not stop the story for it. That’s the really important part. Like, not just running your hand over the smooth sailing ship…
[Brandon] But it’s like the storm is coming, the boat starts creaking, and we have to keep the boat going in the storm. Come up with an exciting, interesting scene full of motion and conflict and power and emotion. Then interject these world building descriptions to help cement us in the scene.
[Dan] It occurs to me that one of the best places I have seen this done is actually the pilot episode of Breaking Bad in the description of how meth is manufactured.
[Mary] Oh, interesting.
[Dan] Because not only do they use the Watson character, because there is a scientist describing it to a student, but we also get to see the process go wrong. We get to see all the precautions that they have to take in order to manufacture this and not get caught, which informs the process itself. Then, at the end, they use the side effects of that process in order to kill some bad guys. So you’re getting all of this stuff wrapped up in one… It’s like a master class in how to do this properly.
[Mary] But I do want to point out that this is something that you… This fullness that we’re showing all of the different aspects of it, is something that you’re doing when it is a plot-specific…
[Dan] Exactly. If that was not a show about manufacturing meth, that would be way too much world building information.
[Mary] Right. So again, this gets into the making sure you understand what function this is serving in your story. If it’s just background color, then you can just mention it in passing and move on. Like I have a story in which I say, “Well, this was in the year before The Battle of the Red Armies. The Battle of the Red Armies is completely unimportant. I have actually no idea what it is. But what I’ve said is that this is something that happened in the past before a dramatic and cataclysmic event. That is the important thing.
[Brandon] Even if you know a lot about The Battle of the Red Armies, or whatever it was…
[Mary] Yeah, I have no idea.
[Brandon] Then you still can just drop it in like that. That’s the best way to go about it. In fact, even if it’s important to the plot, mention it occasionally as relevant information. In the Way of Kings, women don’t expose their left-hand. People ask me all the time, “When are you going to explain why they don’t expose their left-hand?” The answer is, it’s immodest to them. That’s all you need to know. Yes, there’s like historical events that led up to that. But do we talk about the historical events that… Why it’s improper for us to… To wear our bathing suit to the store in the winter? It’s just not something we do.
[Mary] That’s cold.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s cold.
[Mary] But yeah, I mean, it’s like why do I have to keep my chest covered and you don’t? We don’t talk about that. Everybody just accepts it.
[Brandon] We are running out of time. We do have a lot of podcasts on world building and show versus tell, so the archives once again can be very useful to you if you want a little bit more on this topic. Mary, you have a writing exercise for our students to do?
[Mary] Yes. So what I want you to do is I want you to pick a specific geewhiz item, some specific item to your world, something that you have created, and I want you to have something go wrong with it. I mean, again, this can be culture, this can be an object. Whatever it is, but something goes wrong and your main character has to deal with it going wrong. So, these are the three pieces of information that I want you to get across while it is going wrong. I want you to get across how it works, what it looks like, and again, physical or cultural, and your character’s relationship to it. So if this is something, and I’m going to use an object as an example, if it is an object that is something that she cannot afford, then I need to know she can’t afford it. If it’s something that she covets, I need to know what. If it’s something that she disdains, I need to know what and why. So what I want to know is… You’re showing me a scene in which something goes wrong with your geewhiz item. How it works, what it looks like, and your character’s relationship to it.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.