Being a Better Writer: Too Much Information

Have you ever been trapped in a conversation where someone is explaining something really simple, in great detail? Worse yet, it isn’t something that really needed to be explained, because you already know how to, say, use a cell phone? Or unlock a door? Yet the person you’re talking to just keeps going on about it?

Often readers can find themselves in this same scenario when reading a fresh writers work. And for the most part, the young writers themselves aren’t unfamiliar with it. They often know that they’re caught in a loop, describing in great amounts of detail that which isn’t actually that intriguing. More often than not, if they don’t recognize it, or even when they do, it’s because they’re caught up in the skill of being able to tell, the ability to fire word after word at a mind and bring a construct to life.

One way or another though, a lot of young writers get caught up in the thrill of explaining everything only then to discover that not everyone is as thrilled with it as they are. And then they spout the question that most every author has heard at one point or another: how to I keep myself from writing too much information?

The truth is, as always a bit tricky. It would probably only take me all of twenty seconds worth of searching to find a “critic” (self-ascribed) who would argue that everything should be kept as straightforward and direct as possible. Crud, I’ve seen “critics” speak out against foreshadowing, arguing that stories that use it are “boring” and “waste time for the reader.”

Bear in mind that this is an opinion, though in that case, opinion is all I (or any other serious author) would give it. But it does raise a point, especially when you consider that there are other critics who would say that the same work is not nearly long enough and needs more to it. So, who do you trust? The reader that says there is too much information or the reader who says that there is too little?

In a way, both are right … and both are wrong. Because here’s the thing that you, as a writer, will have to discover: Exactly how much detail do you want to go into? Setting aside the question of “too much detail” (we will get back to it), one thing that you will need to realize is that each author has a different level of detail that they go into, and about different things. For example, let’s compare some authors. For starters, R.A. Salvatore and Brandon Sanderson. Both write fantasy, yes, and both are New York Times bestsellers, but both write different amounts of detail into their work. Sanderson tends to put a larger emphasis on inter-personal relations and politics/political maneuvering and fallout, while R.A. Salvatore tends to gloss over these areas and focus more on just the characters getting from point A to point B. As a resuly, even if they sat down and wrote the same book, it’d be safe to assume that Sanderson’s version would be at least twice as long, and if you opened both up, you’d find that both would go into different detail in different places.

We can find the same in Science Fiction. Greg Bear and Timothy Zahn are both acclaimed writers of sci-fi, but you’re going to find that if they both set out to write an identical story, what was presented and what they detailed would be very different, even if the central characters, concept, etc, were all the same.

This is because every author develops a unique style, a voice as they write. And that voice also determines what sort of details they’re going to let slip into their writing. This is, on a side note, why good creative writing education courses push their wards so hard to write outside their comfort zone writing all sorts of things they’d never tried: so they can learn new things and experience writing styles that will help them grow into their own style.

Right, so, now we move into too much detail, just coming from this explanation of the differences between writers, and for this we’re going to use an analogy: writing detail is like cooking.

It really is. A good story is like a complete meal. And everything that makes up the meal needs to be there in the proper quantities. This is where the differing voices come in. Sanderson’s exploration of political detail that infuses each of his works (naturally, as they are epics) is a bit like peanuts in Thai noodles: They compliment the whole of the meal. Unless you hate peanuts, in which case if you’re really determined to enjoy the rest of the meal, you might be wondering exactly how many peanuts there are, and how much they’ve flavored the rest of the work. Meanwhile, Salvatore’s noodles won’t have peanuts (except maybe a hint of the flavor here and there where it is unavoidable), but instead will have spicy hot peppers worth of action scenes.

Now, I promised that this was going to relate back into helping young writers avoid the problem of too much information, so with all this preamble now sitting out on the cutting board (keeping that theme rolling), when you write a scene or a story, the details, the information that you put into everything become the ingredients that make up the final meal. And like any final meal, it’s a mix of ingredients that make up the finished product, be it boneless BBQ wings or a delicate chocolate eclair.

Now, the first thing that’s important about this? All of the ingredients are needed. And this is your first step to figuring out where and how you may be presenting too much information: Is the information needed? Is it important somehow to the work? Or is it like sriracha sauce in a pecan pie, something that doesn’t mix well with the finished product unless you really know what you’re doing?

One reason I chose the food analogy here is because those who cook know that some recipes often request surprising ingredients, all of them in different quantities, and presenting a story requires mixing a similar amount of information. For example, many sweet things require and benefit from salt in order to make the sweet flavor more apparent, and likewise in our story, loading up on one detail (such as a description of a city) can bring about even greater effect by complimenting it with another (such as a character reacting or providing their own views on the detail).  However, load up on either of those details alone and the story can suffer.

Are you seeing the connection yet? Information that you offer the reader is like a portion of a meal. Some portions need to be larger, others smaller. And the ingredients, the details that make up each portion, need to compliment one another in the right amounts for the portion to work.

So, if we take this analogy all the way, when you sit down to write, to present information, consider the “portion size” of each chunk of information. Make sure that it’s vital to the story, that it fits in with everything else—all portions of the meal should be important to the meal as a whole—and then make sure that you’re presenting the right amount of that portion. Again, this can vary based on your audience and your particular style. In the spirit of the analogy, for example, my books tend to be large portions (Colony weighing in at around 1400 pages means there is some serious worldbuilding between its covers) while another author who goes for offering a short story is providing another meal, but this one light. And even then, the distribution of detail in each story is going to vary, just as ingredients would even if we made the same course.

So, the clear and simple answer to “Am I presenting to much information,” without actually seeing the work itself isn’t yes or no, it’s “Are you?” Because only you and your readers are going to know if you’ve used too much salt (given way to much detail), added an ingredient that wasn’t needed (extra description that has no bearing or purpose on the story), or mis-sized a portion (developing or underdeveloping one aspect of information). While there are clearly wrong approaches to each one (after all, swap salt for sugar in a batch of cookies and see what happens), figuring out the right approach takes practice—plenty of it!

Now, when you’re starting out, it’s probably best if you work with more basic, simple approaches (just like in cooking one usually starts with a simple recipe). Learn the value of different ways of presenting information. Look for those ingredients in other authors works and identify them and then, when you think you’ve found the proper way to “flavor” your presentation of information with those details, try it and see if it works. See if it leaves a good taste in your readers mouth. If it’s palatable. Master the basics and then start experimenting.

Now, one last thing: A literal example. One thing that I’ve heard from some who’ve watching The Lord of Rings is the criticism of Legolas’s never-ending quiver of arrows. He never runs out, he simply has more arrows. Now, if you’ve read the books, Tolkien doestackle this—in fact a quick search shows that on two occasions the information is presented to the reader that he has had to acquire more arrows. But, for our example how is it presented.

A novice writer might sit down and have an entire discussion of where Legolas gets his arrows, how he manufactures them, etc. A little bit of detail that enhances the world (salt) being overdone to be the primary ingredient. Such a section would be of interest to those who enjoy the discussion of battlefield logistics, arrow-crafting, or other such information (or for this example, like salt-heavy flavors), but for those who didn’t like the flavor, it becomes superfluous info that removes them from the story.

So, how did Tolkien do it? Well, his strategy was to address it in two places. First, he has Legolas comment on needing to scavenge replacement arrows during a battle—a single line which addresses and rectifies the question. And then, much later, he inserts a quick line referencing the same act into dialogue between Gimli and Legolas concerning their challenge—Legolas just points out that he’s already emptied his quiver and will need to find more arrows to continue the challenge.

See? Salted.

Me personally, were I writing the series in my style, I would have done something a little different. My approach to the subject would be similar to Tolkien’s (blend the “salt” with another, more important moment), except that I probably would have given it to Legolas as something to do with his hands—refletching arrows, for instance—while holding a discussion with other characters. A little bit more information than Tolkien’s version, but both are viable. Mine approach would just be my style. A little more salt, but blended with a conversation of larger scope.

So, are you worried about offering too much information? Well, you should be. No one wants a meal where one flavor or portion outshines everything else. As a writer, your job is to sit back and look at the whole story, or the whole meal as it were. You need to pick the information that’s going to be important, the stuff that your reader needs to know for the story at large to deliver the proper “taste.” All stories, regardless of genre, type, or style, need to go through this process.

So as you write, pay attention to what you’re doing. Are you including too much sugar? Too many potatoes? Whatever your story is, make sure that the information you’ve presented is not only important to the reader’s understanding and entertainment, but also that you mete it out in the proper portions.

Again, like almost all other facets of being a writer, it’s going to take practice to find the right “blend” of detail and information that both flows well for your writing and “tastes” good to your audience. You’ll have flubs. You’ll produce stories that are too dry, or too full of conflicting elements. But, just like preparing a meal can become second nature, you’ll find that over time, as you practice again and again, such things will become second nature, and you’ll find that you know what ingredients will make a perfectly serviceable action scene, or romantic story … or whatever! And you’ll find that you’re producing them with ease and that—that, ladies and gentlemen—will be the point where you’ll sit down to put together a scene or a story and your well-trained mind will say “Hey? What about thisingredient that we’ve not tried before?” And you’ll find yourself trying something new, but with the experience that lets a star chef put hot sauce on a lasagna. Or parsley on a pizza. You’ll have the experience to know “Okay, presenting this information like this will … Oh yeah, that works!”

So, what have we learned? Details and information are like ingredients and portions in a meal: You need to combine the right portions and right amounts of the right things (ie, things that you need above all else) in order to produce a satisfying product that your reader can dig into, enjoy, and digest. Like any real-world recipe, too much of an ingredient can detract from the finished product, overwhelm the reader, while too little (or none at all) can leave the reader feeling that something is missing. Each author will be different with their style and voice, which means that each author must write in order to develop their own list of “ingredients” and understanding of their “portion size.” Crud, even to know what meals they like to serve. Romance chicken? Romance salad? High-fantasy lasagna? Science Fiction ice cream?

Each writer will make mistakes along the way. Too much salt. Too little. No salt. But as we watch what we write, look at the feedback from our “tasters” we will find what works for both us and our audience. And we’ll catch ourselves when we began preparing a portion that isn’t going to be eaten, or when we spot ourselves preparing to add too much information that isn’t vital.

But in the end, with practice, an eye for detail, and patience, we can find ourselves serving up meals that everyone loves. And as a writer, be we of “fast food,” “five-star dining,” or “Peanut-butter and jelly,” serving up that meal to a satisfied audience is what we strive to do.

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