Friday, September 03, 2010

Withholding Information

I'm in a critique group that meets once a week and I enjoy it. I often find it very helpful. Right now I'm submitting chapters of a novel in progress to the group, and a couple of comments I got at our last meeting on that chapter started me to thinking about the power of information in writing.

One group member wanted me to reveal more about a character when we first meet her. Another wanted to know what role the "wind" was playing in the book because I'd featured the breeze in each of the previous chapters we'd looked at.

I appreciated the questions but they're not going to get what they want. Not right now, at least. The wind will be important. The character will be seen again. But for writers, "information" is the currency we buy and spend with. And we dare not give any information away for free. We are buying our readers' attention and emotional involvement, and we have to milk every last bit of purchasing power out of our information.

I don't remember where I heard it, but somewhere along the line I picked up a guideline for writing that I think is very important. "Never give the reader any more information than they absolutely have to have to understand what is happening in the story. Tell them only what they "have" to know and keep every other bit of information under wraps until it, too, has to be revealed.

That's a rule I can live with.
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45 comments:

David Cranmer said...

I'm probably a little off subject here but I don't believe I would do very well in these groups. When I'm done with a rough draft I'll shoot it out to a couple folks whose judgement I trust but a critique group would drive me batty. Different strokes.

jennifer said...

Oh Gosh, I'm like David. I was first struck by the idea of how much trust it would take to be involved in a critique group. My issue would be less about the actual judgement and input from its members, but about the actual TRUST. My ideas are so few and far between, I would fear sharing them. Which is sort of naive since there seems to be nothing new under the sun, just different versions.

Gah! I rambled.

As for the rule, it makes sense to me and I like it.

jennifer said...

"actual" x 2 ... edit edit edit :)

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, you definitely get the good with the bad. I vent sometimes to Lana about things that don't help me. But some things do. And I love the talking about writing anyway.

Jennifer, we have folks who come to our group and never share anything for several months until they feel like they can trust us. It is an important element.

Ron Scheer said...

I think your rule applies well to technical writing, but fiction? Managing the information flow means you get to withhold information, as you say - and I don't know a rule for that. Misleading readers (for example, unreliable narrators) is sometimes part of the deal, and you're toying with readers' expectations and assumptions. Maybe it's like playing cards. You put down one card at a time and never show your hand.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I can live with it, too.

iasa said...

I'll have to give that advice a try, should work well for me, I tend to be a bit terse anyway

Stewart Sternberg said...

I agree with less is more in revealing information about protagonists. By that, I mean I'd rather give information through action and dialogue than info dumps. That being said, I think, too, it depends on genre. If you read "literary" fiction, someone like Richard Ford (and I am not recommending him), you will find an enormous amount of irrelevant information poured on the reader. I think there is a school which poses that since we are bombarded by data in real life, so must we be bombarded by data in fiction if we are to come close to recreating reality.

Of course, I think Hemingway did it best--tip of the iceberg.

Deka Black said...

Information is power, and might. Both in fiction and reality. And in your case, well, i can live also with that.

alister said...

Stewart may be onto something with the genre bit. Although look at Vonnegut’s famous 8 rules for writing fiction. He covered what, 3 or 4 genres? And his 8th rule for fiction in general is ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.’

That’s funny and all, but we’ve got to know a man like that wasn't talking about extraneous information, and that it still comes down to writing long enough to get a feel for doling out just the right amount of info at just the right times, blah, blah, and until then, I say Hear, hear! to today’s Gramlich guideline.

David J. West said...

Lots of good thoughts here.

I have had a love/hate relationship with my groups. Sometimes its all praise for what I'm doing-(What do I learn in that?) and with another group it was all grammar naziness and not a one of em could talk STORY.

Personally I like to dole out enough info to establish setting and that's it-anything more given later will be pertinent (in theory)

good stuff Charles

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron Scheer, I can see what you mean about technical writing, although I hadn't thought of it that way. I guess in fiction it means that the writer first has to decide exactly what the "information" is, then decide how to parcel it out.


Alex J. Cavanaugh, I'm going to hang on to it for sure.

iasa, let me know if it seems to make sense as you work with it. Terse is good. I have a problem with long windedness, although I've occassionally fallen prey to that myself. Thanks for visiting, btw.

Stewart Sternberg, I agree. I've only read some of Ford's short stories. I do like Hemingway's approach much better. I think the writer needs to act as a filter.

Deka Black, exactly. Information is the greatest currency of all.

alister, there's such a delicate tightrope to walk between too much and too little information. And to make it worse, of course, that differs for different readers. Thanks for visiting.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J. West, you must have posted as I was posting. Yes, groups can definitely be a two edged sword. I have one person who keeps wanting to rewrite my characters. It chaps me, I have to say.

Heff said...

T.M.I., dude, T.M.I., lol .

BStearns said...

I like that rule Charles, it's a great one to live by. Any chances of us seeing a little something of this book at some point? :)

Lana Gramlich said...

It's like a striptease & in that vein, you sure know how to work the pole. ;)

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, that's a rule I like a lot, as well.

Ron, I think your card game analogy is appropriate. The writer can't withhold so much information that the reader will feel cheated later on, but at the same time the writer does need to hold back some info to heighten the reader's interest, to keep them flipping pages. Sometimes this is done through characterization, other times it's done with plot, sometimes both.

Leigh Russell said...

That's given me something very interesting to think about. It's a fine line between patronising your reader by spelling things out and irritating them by being too cryptic.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

I need to work more on that less is more and only revealing your "hand" one card at a time, as someone else said here. A lot of really good writers do that. Agatha Christie did that. And it's a very good storytelling technique to get a handle on I think.

sage said...

Sounds like a rule I often break! :)

Carole said...

Sounds like a high stakes game of poker. You don't show your cards and keep raising the ante. And if they don't finish the hand and call they never get to see what your hole cards are.

Back to the drawing board. (Poker Table)

G said...

I'm not in a critique group (it took me five years to build up enough confidence to trust just one person with critiquing my current project) but I do agree with the advice of withholding info until its required.

Kate Sterling said...

Lots of food for thought here. I've been wondering lately about how much and when to reveal information in my latest WIP. Thanks for giving me more to consider. :)

laughingwolf said...

yup... in cop/journalism jargon: info given on a 'need to know' basis

some wag said: we get experience from making a lot of choices, some of them bad; works in gaining trust, too

Harry Markov said...

I agree with that rule. Though to be honest, I seem unable to give enough to begin with. It's because my world ideas are always somewhat puzzling and guess what, I need exposition and exposition...

JR's Thumbprints said...

I've never done well in a group setting; Too many critics and not enough listeners. My latest venue will be reading in those mom & pop coffee shops. I'll be studying the reactions of my listeners.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

What a fine line that needs to be walked in fiction! I agree, particularly with suspense fiction, the reactions of the people in your critique are exactly what you want. If the reader isn't asking questions in suspense, horror, & mystery, something is wrong. They won't be able to ask questions if they don't have enough information so, indeed, it is a question of just enough.

Great rule, Charles.

BernardL said...

I'm with you. The 'blurt' it all out school of thought doesn't work for me, either as a reader or a writer. You found out from your group how well your story hooks were working. That must have been a satisfying moment.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, that's me. I just let it all hang out. So to speak.

BStearns, I'll post one of the opening chapters later this week. Thanks for the idea.

Lana Gramlich, you have no idea how hard I'm biting my tongue right now, sweetums. I'm coming in the other room to tell you what I'm thinking. :)

Ty Johnston, I think suspense really depends on it.

Ron, definitely a fine line to walk, but an important one to balance on.

Leigh Russell, and unfortunately, different readers will have different lines. can't walk 'em all.

Rachel V. Olivier, I think when I first started I wanted to get everything out first to set things up, but over time I've started to withhold more and more info.

sage, it's one that's very tempting to break.

Carole, maybe like Kenny Rogers sang, you gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

G., I've almost always enjoyed the critique groups I've been in, and over the years have developed a pretty tough skin.

Kate Sterling, hopefully I haven't added too much to the "burden."

laughingwolf, yep, and my critique group doesn't need to know quite a bit of stuff just yet.

Harry Markov, I think in order to withhold info you need to have a pretty clear idea of what is important and not so important yourself. Sometimes I'm not clear on that in my stories and have to go back and whittle away excess info in the final draft.

JR. I have to fight with myself not to pay attention just to the few who I know get it and support me. we learn more from those who don't get it.

Issa's Untidy Hut, it makes me feel good when the group members are thinking ahead, trying to figure things out. It means you've caught 'em.

BernardL, it was and is. It's a good sign, I think.

Steve Malley said...

Excellent post on withholding. It's a great technique for pulling the reader in and ratcheting up suspense, but readers do generally hate it. Fortunately, very few of the actually have the author in the room to ask 'who's that guy?' 'what's he going to do?' 'but they get back together, right?'

ivan said...

Charles,

Interesting about conveying just enough information... Leave information to the bean counters in words.

I opine you've got to think of writing as writin'

You can't just perigrinate, pass on information and shoot the shit like you do across the neighbour's clotheline--if anybody still has clothlines.
There is composition, and there is writin'--two different things.

For example, a friend and I are working on his novel. He gives me a paragraph which is pretty well a statement of fact about a character..

I tell him to try to achieve the magic, to turn a montage of words into something almost emulating poetry. breathe life, first into the words, and thereby into the character.

How do you do that? I think it starts with George Orwell's famous essay on writiing, the difference between a sociological tract, say, on a person's prospects in life --to the profundity of something like Ecclesiastes in the Bible.

Heh. I still have to smile at Joan Rivers' joke where she says every time she reads the Bible, she has to mark "true" in the margin every few chapters. :)

I am intrigued by your use of the word "wind" in your book before the critique group.

One group member wanted me to reveal more about a character when we first meet her. Another wanted to know what role the "wind" was playing in the book because I'd featured the breeze in each of the previous chapters we'd looked at.

You were right in withholding your reasons for holding back the role the wind was playing.

Better to go the classic New Yorker way. Detail, detail, detail--a little climax here--and more detail detail, detail. Finally, Big Climax!, both in the story's natural deonouement and all the details in the writing that led to the big climax.
If you give it away too soon, it's be in the convention of realism all right, but too much realism, a "climax" right at the get go.

Heh. In fact one of our famous Canadian writers may have written an essay on the word wind when he penned his famous "Who Has Seen the Wind?" It is, in fact, a Canadian classic by W.O. Mitchell.
Mitchell was a farm boy.
You were once a farm boy

Hey, greatness. :)

Cloudia said...

Another important lesson, Charles. You never waste our time, you give practical "gems." You are not stingy at ALL!



Thank you


http://cutand-dry.blogspot.com/2010/09/have-fun-long-weekend.html

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, readers both hate it and love it. They hate it if you don't answer the questions eventually. That's for sure.

ivan, growing up on a farm I think you naturally inculcate alot of things about the weather. it becomes part of you, and thus into the writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, thanks for the kind words.

Deka Black said...

I always be amaed by how many comments ypou have in your entries, Charles. This is the best part of them, talking about the stuff you write.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, I am too. We've got a real community going here of folks coming and talking and even returning to continue the conversation. I'm amazed and humbled by it, and appreciative.

Middle Ditch said...

Less is always more. Withhold, withhold, withhold. Not easy therefore re-writes are of the upmost essential. Great post Charles.

Middle Ditch said...

Oh and someone once said "The easier the read, the more painstaking the writing was". SO true!!!

ivan said...

Oh, an Amen on that one, Monique!

Dayana Stockdale said...

Thank you for that guideline. I ALWAYS wonder about information. is it too much too soon, not enough? It is the biggest thing I freak out about when writing. I'm going to come back and read this post over and over til I've got in in my brain!

Charles Gramlich said...

Middle Ditch, I agree. I heard the quote as something like "easy writing is curst hard reading."

ivan, yep.

Dayana Stockdale, thanks for visiting. Glad you found something worthwhile.

Travis Cody said...

I like that rule. I struggle with it all the time.

Charles Gramlich said...

travis Cody, it can definitely be tough to keep too.

Merisi said...

I could not agree more!

Charles Gramlich said...

Merisi, yup. for sure.