Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How Much Is Too Much?

This article is by Elaine White. All opinions are her own.
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Back in the day, when I was writing, I would put in the bare minimum to get the story out of my head. So, I’d have all the notes and know where the story was going, but when it came to writing, less was more. I put more emphasis on how characters looked, if they were popular, how they dressed and interacted than others, than I did on their real personality and useful descriptions. So places were just a nam, and an event was just a few words. There were no long paragraphs, no descriptions of buildings, areas, events etc. There was more speech and just a few lines in between about anything that was going on. Less of a thought process behind the characters as well. If they thought something, they said it.
Nowadays, I write differently. My styles have probably always been influenced by what I’m reading and how those books are written. Before, it was simple book, that didn’t take too long to read. I was a teenager after all, what did I care about deep backgrounds and the history of places or people? Growing up, my reading styles changed and so did my writing style.
Now, I describe everything in detail in the first draft. I care less about how people look, unless it’s important or relevant at the time, and more about how the characters feel and experience and think and move. So if I’m focusing on someone’s head for any reason, I’ll mention the hair colour etc, if I’ve got folk exchanging eye contact, colour can be mentioned. But I no longer introduce each character as - a five foot ten hottie with green eyes and full lips, a rip in his jeans, a clean white t-shirt and a baseball cap. Who cares, right? So now that hottie would get a quick description of something along the lines of - gorgeous hottie with height enough to match her own, green eyes that shot right through her. And his dress sense said casual, not fussy but not lazy either. Etc etc etc.
I also really love history or background. If I’ve got two characters that hate each other, I want people to know why. It can’t just be for no reason. Even when it’s hate at first sight, like in my story Addicted to You, there is a reason behind it, even though they’ve never met before. When people have hated each other for centuries, like in Runaway Girl, there is a reason. I hate when books don’t give me a history, or they keep it back until like book 3 and then you’re left wondering that whole time what the tension is about. There is a way to create tension, suspense etc and not leave your readers hanging for books on end. I love a good series and I love a good conflict in stories, but don’t leave us hanging.
I don’t want you to give the goods up front either. What is the point in a story about hate and revenge and conflict between two people, if you have their entire history explained in the first chapter, needlessly, and the conflict resolved by chapter 3? That’s not what I’m saying, but this is where I start wondering how much is too much?
I was asked for advice on writing, how to turn a story into a book etc the other day and so I answered giving my own ideas, and tricks I use -
  • To create tension - give a little at a time. Less is more. Hint at the final result, but make sure there’s enough mystery and chance of alternate endings to keep the reader hooked.
  • Giving background - start off slow. Only put it in where it’s relevant. For example, I explain Damian’s past with Amelia through other characters. So at first, it’s Lucius thinking about it, then Kurt asks about it, then Matthew tells Kasey about it. It trickles into the story a little at a time, so that you never quite know what happened, but you sure want to find out.
  • Characters - never have a character that everyone loves! It’s so boring because that character can’t go anywhere in your book, if everyone loves them. There has to be one person, anyone, who doesn’t like them for some reason. It might be nice to have a goody-two-shoes, but it doesn’t help the story, unless you can turn it around somewhere.
  • General advice - don’t put all your eggs in one basket! If you conclude your first book so well that everyone thinks the story is over, then your series is screwed. If you stop your story mid-action then you’re even more screwed. Readers will not be happy. I still remember going to see Pirates 2 and having it end on this dramatic climax. And I thought - what the heck?! They’re stopping it there? After two hours? It ruins the greatness of what comes before.
    I read the Caster Chronicles recently and I loved it, for the most part.

HERE BE SPOILERS TO THE CASTER CHRONICLES !!!!

This is what I thought was wrong with it. It gave too much too soon. By the time you got to Book 4, you knew the pattern. Person 1 dies, Person 2 tries to bring them back, they have to pay a price so that means when Person 1 comes back from the dead, Person 2 suffers because suddenly Person 3 has died in their place. That was how it went, in every single book. I never got annoyed or bored with it until Book 4. I saw it was a pattern, I appreciated that it was a lesson that no-one was learning, but by Book 4, when everyone should have known better, they didn’t. And that just makes them stupid!
In the Caster Chronicles, you knew the system and it was predictable. Books 1-2 made me cry, book 2.5 was fun and intriguing, Book 3 broke my heart…Book 4 - predictable, boring and it upset me that I didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to like it, I enjoyed most of it, but the predictability of it all ruined it.
This was an instant where it was better to STEP OUT OF THE BOX, than to keep to the same plot running through each book. At least through books 1-3 there was a surprise about who and when and how, not in Book 4. I think I would have enjoyed it better, had it not been entirely obvious.
So what is too much and what is not enough?
I guess that’s up to the individual reader. Everyone’s different, right? For me, I like a little bit at a time, not too much, not too little, and not placed randomly into the story. I want things where they make sense, so no reckless, needless history lessons, or background explanations for no reason. No interrupting the flow with masses of information, or slowing down an action scene with flashbacks, only to resume action afterwards. I like my flow.
The lesson for today - don't mess with the flow! You will always know, as a writer, when it's too much, if the story doesn't flow.  And if it doesn't flow because there is not enough, you can always add.  Just remember - you can always add, it's harder to subtract in a story.  Especially if you put in a character that ends up useless or boring, or irrelevant to the story, but you've mentioned them everywhere.  Think how tedious it's going to be to remove every mention of that character, when if you miss them out and find you need them, it's so much easier to write them into the story.

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