Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Too Much Information !!!

Details are prickly things.

I prattled on about them a bit in characters, about how some writers will spend paragraphs on shoes, jewelry, spoken languages, or what have you. Details also came up a bit under the suspension of disbelief, and how getting them right or wrong can save or kill your story.

As it happens, both of these can be symptoms of a problem. This problem is a lot more common in prose than in screenplays, but I’ve seen it both places. It goes by the self-explanatory term overwriting, but I’m going to explain it anyway just in case. After all, if I didn’t, I’d have to go do the dishes and then nobody wins.

Overwriting is when a story gets bogged down with details. It’s when the author starts describing every aspect of a character or a set of actions. Each step of a walk down a hall, every single garment while getting dressed, each hand gesture in an active conversation. Some people may look at such overwritten passages and argue art or depth or beauty of language or some such. My rebuttal is those are all wonderful things when actually present, and there’s also a reason the phrase “starving artist” has stayed in the English language for so many, many decades.

The overwhelming majority of the time, overwriting slows your pacing and pushes the reader inch by inch out of your story. It’s information they don’t need or can figure out for themselves, and the other word for that sort of information, as you may remember, is noise. For example, while I’ve started writing this little rant I checked my email, switched to a different playlist in iTunes, had several sips of Diet Pepsi, talked to the missus, and scratched myself once or thrice. None of it was important to what I’m writing here, so none of it came up here. It’s all just useless details that do nothing to advance the information I’m trying to put forth and you’re trying to read. The same holds true for fiction, be it prose or screenplays. If it doesn’t need to be there, why put it there?

Let’s take a look at two interpretations of a scene and get a feel for which one conveys the required information.

* * *

“We’ve confirmed it,” said the voice on the phone. “It’s Mendoza”

“I’ll be right there,” said MacLeod. He hung up the phone and picked up his keys from the phonestand. He walked across the living room and reached for the doorknob. He opened the door, stepped outside, and closed the door behind him before locking the main lock and the deadbolt.

MacLeod walked around his house to the parking slot in the alley. He unlocked the heavy padlock and unwrapped the chain that held the gate shut. He pushed the gate open, got into his car and twisted the key in the ignition. The car backed out with a squeal of tires and a faint scrape from the front driver’s side brake pad that needed replacing. Then he got back out, pulled the gate closed, and re-wrapped the chain. The padlock went on with a snap, he sat back down in the car, closed the door, and shifted into first, switching smoothly into second as he rumbled down towards the main street.

At the end of the alley MacLeod downshifted as the car lunged out into traffic. He turned right onto Alpine, then flipped his directional and took a left onto Beech. He made another right, upshifting as he did, and roared up the Carver on-ramp onto the freeway, accelerating into the leftward-arcing curve with a gradual increase of pressure on his foot.

* * *


“We’ve confirmed it,” said the voice on the phone. “It’s Mendoza”

“I’ll be right there,” said MacLeod.

He hung up and left the apartment. Less than three minutes later his car was roaring down the freeway.

* * *

That’s a bit extreme, I admit, but it gets the idea across. They both tell you the facts you need to know, but the first one's massively overwritten. There comes a point when a writer is just spewing out excess information, be it in their dialogue or in their prose (action blocks for all you screenwriters).

I was looking over an acquaintance’s manuscript a while back and came up with an interesting way of looking at it which may be clearer. “It’s the difference between a cooking show ,” I explained to him, “and a show someone cooks on.” If you flip on the television, on one hand you’ve got folks like Emerill, Martha Stewart, or Bobby Flay. On the other hand there’s Luke and Sooky from Gilmore Girls. They’re all cooks. They all usually have food with them when they’re on screen.

However, you don’t expect Emerill to spend half his show talking about how his date went last night with the woman he met during an open house at his daughter’s school. Likewise, something’s wrong if Luke spends fifteen minutes in the middle of each episode explaining how to make a perfect grilled ham and cheese or why you should always cook french fries in vegetable oil with a few shakes of salt in it. In one case, being a cook is the sole point of the show. In the other, it’s just one small element of the show.

As you’re writing out chapters and scenes, be aware of what they’re actually about. If it’s about an obsessive-compulsive, maybe you do need the list of every dry cleaner bag in his or her closet and the shapes of all seventeen Tupperware containers in the fridge. If it isn’t, well... maybe things would move along a little without all that stuff.

Go look at your writing and see.

2 comments:

  1. out of interest, where do you reckon Douglas Adams fits into this theory? Just wondering, because i'm reading one of the Dirk Gently books - a main character has just rushed out to get to an urgent appointment, and then spent three pages wandering around Camden looking at furniture shops. Is Mr Adams an exception to prove the rule, or does it just get away with it because he's a genius and all? :)

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  2. Oh, he was a genius, no questions asked. ;)

    One thing I firmly believe is that none of my little rants are absolute rules, because there's always going to be a writer who can pull off that thing 99% of us should never, ever even think about attempting. I think for beginning writers, though, a common mistake is to look at the well-known exception and then insist that's the rule. :(

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