Thursday, February 25, 2010

Experience versus Information

I’ve been on a ‘reading-about-writing’ kick lately. I just started Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I’m enjoying it, finding both food-for-thought and some points I feel the need to debate. Here’s an example of the latter, and I hope you’ll weigh in with your thoughts on the issue.

On page 16, Browne and King write: “You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”

My first reaction to that was: “perfect!” That’s exactly what fiction writers want to do.

Except! It doesn’t appear to be what readers always want fiction writers to do.

Have you read The Da Vinci Code? The biggest blockbuster novel of our age is full of mini-lectures, and I’ve heard plenty of readers say that they loved having the chance to learn some stuff along with being entertained. (Whether what they learned was accurate or not is a different issue.) Those readers were saying they wanted the “information” that Browne and King are saying not to give them, and they were perfectly happy getting it in info-dump form without having it dramatized.

If it were just Dan Brown writing like this, we might put the readers’ reactions down to a fluke. But I’ve seen the same kind of “information-heavy” prose in a lot of popular novels, from modern thrillers to historicals. The readers aren’t always on the same “page” with the writers on show versus tell, and it’s starting to make me rethink that whole debate.

I’ll post more on this topic as I give it some more thought, but what do you think? As readers, what do you feel is the right mix? Is that mix different for readers than for writers?


AvDB said...

Good question. It seems from my limited feedback experience that readers don't necessarily want to wait for information to unfold, they'd rather be beaten over the head with it.

I prefer letting things slowly come into the light, using characters and events to relay information naturally and not interrupt the story's flow by hopping up on a podium. Although, I have done it--very recently, in fact--and it still doesn't sit well with me.

Charles Gramlich said...

avery, I'm seeing this in my writing group. The group members ask me a dozen questions each time about what is 'going' to happen. Maybe that's a good thing, though

writtenwyrdd said...

I love this book. It's an excellent refresher and if you follow it's suggestions for edits as a means for getting past any stubbornness that you can disregard certain 'rules' of writing when you shouldn't.

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh, and re the variances in readers' preferences, so true. Some like cake, some like pie. You cannot please 'em all.

ArtSparker said...

The words "unholy marriage" come to mind, but I'm really old school. The thing is, as you point out, if it is standing in contrast to the fictional story, it is readily absorbed by those who are will to be spoonfed as knowledge, when it may be no such thing.

Cloudia said...

The information, or "truth" is the soul of fiction...of all writing, I think. Not "podium" moments, but integrated so that the info dances. Anything less is non-fiction. A painting is not a lesson in technique (except perhaps to a student artist) but an experience. That's what I tried to do in my novel: conversation and story wrapped around some truths about life, myself, and Hawaii.

Aloha from Waikiki Charles

Comfort Spiral

jodi said...

Charles, altho I do prefer to 'learn' something from a story, when it becomes too information heavy, I tend to skip over it.. A bit of each suit me the best. P.S.-Da Vinci code annoyed me.

Steve Malley said...

My anthro professor actually gave me a good rule of thumb: the more exotic the material, the more of an overview you need.

Hence, "Parker, what can you tell us about this new zombie gas?" would make for an acceptable infodump. (At least, *I* certainly want the nerd to explain how zombie gas works!)

I guess if it'd be natural for the characters to dump the info on each other, they should? No, that still doesn't explain TDVC.

Anonymous said...

That is a great book. It covers the very basic aspects of writing up to more complicated concepts like voice.

As for your question, I don't mind a little exposition as long as it doesn't feel like an information dump. But, I prefer to get my facts sprinkled throughout a story, just when I need it.

Voidwalker said...

I believe that there is a place for both. Also, depending on the writer, and the story itself, sometimes it's better to provide information rather than experience, assuming it isn't overwhelming.

Leigh Russell said...

The golden rule in writing fiction - 'Show, don't tell' - is what separates writers from people who write. Anyone can write down information. The trick is to transport your reader into another world. This is what I try to achieve in my writing, and what I expect as a reader.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

There is an article about what readers want in the most recent Salon, you might check out. I think readers want to lose themselves. I think if they think about the writing, then maybe there might be an issue. It's sort of the old film critic's addage..if I notice the editing, then there's a problem.

Stacey J. Warner said...

OMG! I've been going over and over this with my writing teacher, the debate of "show don't tell"...I'm writing a humorous memoir and she doesn't allow us to say anything but if you read successful books like EAT, PRAY, LOVE...all she does is TELL, TELL, TELL....

maybe once you are publish you get to tell more...

Scott said...


I prefer my reading to be a blend of the two, I think...too much info-dumping, and you may as well be reading a non-fiction book on the subject.

Richard Prosch said...

Charles, this fits in with what I'm reading now: THE ASCENT OF WONDER, an anthology of hard SF from David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. There are three excellent introductions to the book exploring the issue of "science" in SF and all that goes with it (technical explanations, etc.) I'm not sure they came to a conclusion.

RK Sterling said...

For me, it depends on the skill of the writer. I very much enjoy learning new things, but in fiction, it needs to come out naturally, and not, "As you know, Bob". THAT really annoys me. But when it grows organically from the material, then it's great.

In fact, one item in my list of "Things I like most about my favorite books" is learning some neat piece of obscure information that I might be able to use later. Like Steve's Zombie Gas.

G. B. Miller said...

I'm not sure about enjoying the "beaten about the head" aspect of writing.

I think my comfort level, for both reading and writing, is a decent mixture of both. I think that's why I really got away from reading the sci-fi/fantasy genre for so many years and probably why I don't do crime/hard-boiled that much either.

I read a book for the simple enjoyment of it, not to experience information overload to the point of being turned off (Robert Jordan is a notable example). If I want that, I'll read non-fiction.

I write pretty much the same way. It's taken me quite a few years just to find my way into writing descriptive scenes without turning myself off and by extension, my readers off as well.

I just can't see myself writing in a way that bludgeons a reader while they read.

I do enough of that at work, with the business correspondence I'm forced to write. I certainly don't need to have my work writing bleed into what I do during my down time.

And, one final note: I can safely say that you haven't bludgeoned me with information overload with any of your books that I've read.

Charles Gramlich said...

writtenwyrdd, I’m finding the book pretty stimulating. I’ve already thought of several blog posts that could come out of my reading. I like the fact that they say there’s nothing that one should “always” take as a rule.

ArtSparker, I think part of the issue is that the line between fiction and nonfiction continues to become more and more blurred.

Cloudia, the truth that lies at the heart of fiction is often a deeper truth than you mind in nonfiction, simply because at its best it IS experience.

jodi, The “Code” annoyed me too. Enough so that I’ve not picked up any other Dan Brown books.
Steve Malley, The book talks about that a bit too, about how you need to give more information in some types of writing. SF for sure.

Christine Purcell, that certainly is what I’ve always appreciated as good writing, getting the info in sprinkles just when you need it, or having it sprinkled in in such a way that it’s there when you need it.

Voidwalker, They do talk about the judicious use of telling, which I appreciate because every writer knows you sometimes have to tell. You couldn’t show everything.

Leigh Russell, I think it’s important, though, to realize that sometimes telling things that aren’t of great importance can move a story along better. For example, you want to get your character across town from his apartment to the crime scene. It’s probably best just to tell “how” he got there. Then get on with dramatizing the crime scene situation.

Stewart Sternberg, that’s one of the differences between writers and readers. We think about the writing excessively. They don’t. And I don’t when I’m just reading for fun.

staceyjwarner, there are many successful books that break the supposed ‘rules.’ Which means they aren’t really rules but more guidelines for how to try and accomplish various things on the page. Every writer knows that sometimes you need to “tell.” What you want to show is those scenes that have the most dramatic and emotional power. Success breeds success for sure.

Scott, that’s my opinion too. I really don’t read most books because I want to ‘learn’ about particular bits of data. I read nonfic for that.

Richard Prosch, The writers of this book mention that there are certainly different levels of blend for different genres. Hard SF probably often calls for more telling, or for thinly veiled telling.

Kate S, hey, good to see you around. I’ve always liked learning new “words” from books, which means getting the information on what they mean. Like different types of armor or weapons.

G, I don’t read fiction for information either really. I don’t mind picking up tidbits as long as it enhances the experience of the book. But I don’t like to get bogged down in facts that mostly show how much research the writer did. And thanks for the kind comment on my books! :)

Spy Scribbler said...

I think it depends how exotic the information is, you know? Like, I just started a book that opens with an execution in 500-something AD. Fascinating. I mean, sorta. As fascinating as someone dying can be. *shudder*

the walking man said...

I like historically accurate information presented in the context of the story. But it has to be well researched because I do tend to back check the conclusions. And if they are not noted as being skewered then I tend to not want to go further with the book.

Greg said...

that's an interesting question. I guess it depends on the genre and story, and also on the author's writing ability. Info dumps in SF novels don't bother me much, because it's usually necessary to the story, and I think I don't mind them as much when I'm enjoying the book so far anyway. In the hands of lesser writers, they usually just seem awkward and unnecessary.

Bernita said...

That is one damned good question.
I suppose the answer is more in how the information is provided.

Charles Gramlich said...

Natasha Fondren, good point. I'd think the more exotic the location often the more info you need to give the reader.

Mark, I like the writer to be honest with me. If they made changes in history to accomadate the story, I don't mind that, as long as they let me know.

Greg Schwartz, yes, I think genre is a very important issue. And how well they are handled certainly. Some writers are so talented they can make their info dumps shine.

Bernita, one thing the book authors point out is that narrative summary used to be much more common than it is now. I do know writers who can make info dumps read beautifully, though, and I'll forgive them for using one in the first place.

ivan said...

When I was working for the Canadian Magazine some zippy writers would be termed "all style or no content." And where the content was heavy, as in maybe a historical approach to a piece--"all content and no style."

A PhD editor we had on hand to copyedit,had said the best style was no style. I showed this "Diana" a novel by Norman Mailer, all five-foot- four of him.
"The man' all right," she said. "All he needs is a little height."
I did not doubt her credentials for critical analysis. Rather like her, in fact, even though sometimes she was hard on my copy, especially my facts.

j said...

I don't like feeling lost when I read. The assumption that I will just know or figure out a vague concept can be frustrating. I'm willing to follow as the writer leads me to his point, but I want it to be pretty clear when he gets there.

I don't mind a "lecture" within a story, I just don't want to read a reference book within a story.

I hope you have a great weekend!

BernardL said...

Tom Clancy critics trounce his mega info novels each time they become bestsellers. :) I think it's all in how you do it just like everything else in writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

ivan, I like a mix of style and substance myself, although the all style no substance stuff chaps me the most.

jennifer, I think that is really what a lot of readers want. I think you captured it pretty well.

BernardL, a good example of the information heavy work. I've basically liked the two clancy novels I've read but generally don't feel a strong urge to read more.

laughingwolf said...

depends on the type of story, they all need their own ways of dispensing information... go with what works for you

Lisa said...

I like fiction with real background like the classic example of Gone With The Wind. I can learn a lot about history and facts while I enjoy the epic.

Da Vinci Code was really entertaining where information and story blend.

However, Dan Brown's latest the Lost Symbol was really heavy with just like you described as information heavy prose, in fact I felt being preached at.

Yes, readers want experiences, they do not want a lecture.

X. Dell said...

I think there's more than one way to skin a reader.

It's funny you should mention this, because lately I've been doing a lot of reading on genre theory (yes, it exists in my corner of academia). Part of the "experience" argument belongs to the conventions of some narratives. Obviously, those narratives are most popular (e.g., romance, sci-fi--genres in which the reader/viewer really casts himself/herself as the protagonist).

In conspiracy and historical fiction, docudrama and documentary narratives, I think the information is the titilating factor--as action and sex is for other dramas. For example, if you watch people watching the movie JFK, which is an information-heavy narrative, they tend to sit on the edge of their seats during the long scenes of data dump, culminating in Costner's (Garrison's) fourteen-page summation monologue at the end.

I really think it depends on the story, and what the writer wishes to project. I wouldn't say one over the other.

SQT said...

As much as it depends on the book, the sheer volume of info makes a huge difference. I'm reading a book right now that has a lot of modern-day action segue into events from the past and that's when the exposition begins. I like it a lot because it finally reveals bit of history that hadn't been brought up in the story yet. But the author is smart enough to keep the info-dumps small and move on.

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, there will definitely be variety across genres. I wonder if there's some formula for readers, though. Probably it varies too.

Ocean Girl, I believe Gone with the Wind would be an example of the older style where often a lot of information was given. Moby Dick shows that too. I like a lot of older books myself.

X. Dell, I'm glad you weighed in on that because it makes perfect sense. That's well worth a post in itself. I've got to give that some thought but I can see that in action through various comments I've gotten over time from readers.

SQT, I think that's important. anyone can tolerate a sentence or two of info but a whole paragraph or paragraqph"S" can become a problem.

Travis Cody said...

I think it can go either way, and I've tried to write both ways.

On the one hand, if there is critical information that I want to make sure the reader gets right for a future scene in the story, I'll first try to write it into the action or dialogue.

But if I can't manage it, then I try to make my info dump as entertaining as I can so it doesn't bog down the story.

LoveRundle said...

I'd like to read that book, but that's not much of a surprise, is it?

I'm with Avery, I'd like to slowly let the story unfold with some good scenes and dialogue and well placed events. It does seem that lately, readers in my genre want the "now" not "later" story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis, it's sometimes very hard to get that stuff into dialogue without it sounding stilted. It can be less intrusive in dump form.

Christina, I've noticed that too, the now readers versus the later. but sometimes I think you have to NOT give the reader what they want to maximize their enjoyment.

Lana Gramlich said...

I don't know if there really are solid "should"s or "shouldn't"s when it comes to the creative process (whether it's painting, writing, etc.) For every book you see saying "do this," you'll find just as many saying "don't do this." I know it doesn't apply to most people, but I've just given up on analyzing the whys & wherefores & am just trying to create because I enjoy it.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I always like reading about writing -- it's something I would rather do than almost anything else, weirdly enough. Recently I bought a book called, Thanks, This Isn't For Us that helped a lot with basic stuff (conflict, structure) that I always struggle with. Sixteen dollars well spent, I think!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have a ton of books about writing. It's making the time to read them that's the problem.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana Gramlich, I do think it's fun to analyze and figure, though. But you're right, there are only approximations really.

Michelle, I really like that title. I've got to check it out.

pattinase, I know. Sometimes books like that will hang around my office for months before I ever sit down to read them. Sometimes longer.

Unknown said...

I think it entirely depends on the topic. I loved all the explanations in the Di Vinci Code, but would hate it in a really good thriller like Shutter Island.

Charles Gramlich said...

Gaston studios. Yes, it seems hard to even draw generalizations. So much depends on the dyanmic of the reader and the text, and the time in which they are reading.

Tyhitia Green said...

Ah, cool. You got the book! :-D I prefer a mix--but if I had to choose, it would be showing! ;-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Demon hunter, yes, and I'm glad I did.