Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received didn’t come out of a creative writing workshop. No, I learned it at the copy desk of my college newspaper, where I spent each Saturday hunched over pages with a colored pen, making news article polished and shiny and ready for the world. (UPDATE: I’m not bashing workshops here. The creative writing workshops I took as an undergrad and grad student have helped me immensely as a writer.)
We were reading over an article that featured a lot of background information. My college journalism professor—who also spent each Saturday hunched over those pages—told us not to give the background upfront. “Sprinkle it in,” he said.
When writing a first draft, we’re often tempted to put all the details in the first few chapters. This is well-intentioned—we want to ground the reader. But too much detail all at once is overwhelming. In later drafts, we can pare down large sections of exposition. And that’s where sprinkling comes in. What do we sprinkle? A few items immediately spring to mind:
We don’t need to know a character’s tragic past in the first chapter—often times, referencing that tragedy briefly will intrigue readers and keep them reading. There might be a Big Reveal, when a crucial memory/incident is shared, but most character details can be sprinkled.
This is especially true for those of us who write fantasy or science fiction—we need to share how magic or technology works, the rules of our world, geography, history, cultural details, etc. But readers don’t need to know all the ins and outs of our world—the size of the capital city, how a piece of technology works, the political structure of the society, or the rules of magic—all up front. We can share details as they’re needed to ground the reader, but in general, the less exposition in the first few chapters, the better.
We should carefully pick and choose details of the setting to share. The layout of a room might be important, for example, but the details of each oil painting on the walls can probably wait. We can avoid a lot of references to weather unless they’re clearly necessary. As with world-building details, readers need to feel grounded—they need sensory detail to draw them into the world we’ve created on the page—but the setting shouldn’t overwhelm the action. A few well-chosen details can go a long way, especially if they evoke one or more of the five senses.
Each detail should do more than one thing. For example, if we describe a character’s outfit, does her wardrobe reveal something about her character—her socioeconomic status, her personality, her career, how she sees herself, etc.? If we describe a character’s facial features, what do those features say about his personality or how he’s reacting to the events of the plot?
The key is never to overwhelm the reader with details. Instead, like my journalism professor said, we sprinkle those details throughout, interspersed with action and dialogue to create a page-turner.
Lastly, a midweek ROW80 check-in…
- Finish a second draft of my novella “Good Old-Fashioned Magic.” Finished.
- Write a first draft of a novella novelette. Finished—“Called by Magic,” 13K.
- Start work on another novelette. Wrote 2,590 words. I had some problems with the second chapter, so I spent yesterday working those out before adding any new material.
- Read a minimum of four books on the business or craft of writing. Four of four books read. Reading a fifth book, “Manuscript Makeover” by Elizabeth Lyon.
- Check in on Twitter or Facebook daily. On track to meet this goal.
- Blog two times per week. On track.
- Comment on three to five blogs per day, Monday-Thursday. On track.
A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. It’s also a blog hop.