Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing When You Know Too Much
We've been talking a lot – often way too much, in my opinion – about writing fiction. What comes up, over and over, is the problem of writing when we don't know enough. What do the characters do? What are they thinking? That's a matter for imaginative exploration. And then there's background, which can involve the dreaded research. Which nobody likes to do except me. All fine and dandy.
But a lot of the time, you're faced with writing factual stories. Things that happened. That's journalism. Things that happened to you. That's memoir, or anecdote, or just plain sharing. When you write from personal experience, you have a whole 'nother set of writing issues. Instead of knowing too little, you know far too much.
You may be acutely aware of subjective states in your story. How did I feel about that? How annoyed was I? How drunk were we? You may have a lot of background information on the players. How much of it do you need/want to tell? How relevant is it? Will including this fact or that colour the narrative in an undesirable way? What are you saying about these people, and yourself? What message are you sending? Most of all, how do you avoid chasing away the readers by boring them to death with unnecessary detail, or overloading their comprehension with too much background?
Recently, I put together some notes for a woman who's trying to write a very worthy book about her charitable work in another country. She hasn't done anything like this before, although she's very well-organised and super-talented. Here's a quote from the advice I gave her:
When you tell a story about yourself, the first thing you need to know is: it isn't about you. Now, this is counter-intuitive. Of course it's about me: I'm telling my story. This is true. But, for the reader, it isn't about you. It's about what you saw, and experienced, and learned. You're just the tour guide. The most important thing you can do is to get out of the way of the story you're telling. They'll get to know you, but first, they need to get into the story. You'll be amazed at how much easier the story is to tell once you and the reader are focused on the action, rather than on your situation or motivation. Make yourself a character in your own story, and it will be much easier to write.
If you look at the longish anecdote of mine elsewhere in this issue, you'll see that I haven't completely followed my own advice. In the story I tell there, I play rather too big a role in the action, I confess. It was necessary to step out of the background in order to tell the tale. After all, my actions caused some of the reactions in the plot. But I did my best to keep the focus off me: the story's really about the other people at the lunch counter – the situation they were in, and how they reacted to it. If you start by trying to keep yourself in the background, you won't go far wrong. Yes, you'll tell things about yourself. Some of them may be unflattering. But try not to be Marcel Proust about it.
The other, truly monumental task of writing from experience is figuring out how much background the reader needs. Too much, and they'll run away screaming. You'll come across as one of those party bores who corners you with far more than you ever wanted to know about their favourite subject. (Just mention 'bicycle sprockets' to Elektra, and see what she does….) A university friend once spent several hours telling me the plots of all of the 'Planet of the Apes' movies. He was a very good friend. I put up with it. Readers will not.
Give them too little information, and they'll get mad at you. 'Where was this? Why didn't they….? What made people do that? What was it like?' Don't frustrate readers like that. It isn't fair to them, or to you, or to your story. Let them in on the good bits. Do you remember those travel tales we've run in the Post over the years? Were there ever any that made you want to yell, 'Okay, you hated the catering aboard ship. But what did you see? You were in bleeding Hong Kong, for pity's sake!'
Here's a quick checklist:
- Start with something action-y, to grab the attention. Make it intriguing. Then immediately fill in some of the background. If you have to start with background, as I did in 'Adventures in Retailing', make it as interesting as you can. Meaning funny, or shocking, or newsworthy – anything but all about you. Whatever you do, don't make a fetish of your personal preferences. 'I always like….' is a terrible opening. Unless, of course, you're aiming to get the audience to laugh at you or regard you as an unreliable narrator. Then it can work….
- Set all scenes with just enough detail to help the reader to 'be there'. The more exotic the locale, the more information you need. A lunch counter needs the info that it's part of a variety store, and that it includes a grill, a coffee machine, milkshake mixers, and barstools. It does not require a minute description of the steam table, the booths, what a napkin dispenser was and how it worked, the shape of the salt and pepper shakers, or an architectural sketch.
- The same goes for motivations. That's where work is involved. How many adjectives and adverbs do I need? The answer is: fewer. You just need the right ones.
- Be careful with details about the other people in your personal story. Remember that you're not writing this for yourself, but for someone else. While I may have found Audrey's little moustache endearing (and I did), mentioning it in a 21st-century tale might be misinterpreted. It might distract from the story I want to tell. Details are good. Just make them the right ones.
- Every time you need background, ask yourself:
- How much?
- Can I make it funny or interesting?
- How can I work it in so that it serves the narrative?
- When do I tell it? Hopefully early enough that the reader can use the information to appreciate the tale better. The better that works, the cleverer the readers feel about themselves.
There. That should hold you till I get a rope. The main things to keep in mind when telling a personal story are: it isn't all about you, and you're not talking to yourself. Have a point in mind, but don't belabour it. Above all, always keep your audience in view, and tailor the how of telling to the why of telling. You may be a great raconteur – I believe most of you who are reading this are. All of us could get better, though, with practice. These are just some tips to help us polish our skills.