Recently, in a weekly critique group that I belong to, I’ve seen several submissions where in the first few chapters, the author stops the story cold to provide description of a person, surroundings, or both. In one case, in the first chapter, the story stopped to get complete (multi-paragraph) backstories on six characters. Literally, we’re barely into the story, and we’re finding out how a group of six high-school freshmen girls became friends. It went on for pages.
The author is perfectly happy with this. He doesn’t believe that current tastes in fiction apply to him. He wants us to really to know his characters, so when events occur they have meaning, like in the old days. That’s according to him.
I read enough older novels (’50’s and on) that I can see a difference to what’s published today. However, it’s a matter of degree, not a complete change. Take Atlas Shrugged (1957), for instance. The book is over 500,000 words long; contains a multitude of major, secondary, and minor characters; and a slew of sub-plots. At no place does the story stop, so we can learn about a character’s complete backstory. We get backstory information, plenty of it, but it’s presented in the context of events that are happening.
After speaking with a couple of other group members, one pointed out that novels from the 19th century apparently went in for more exposition and description than we’re used to today. I wouldn’t know, I don’t read a lot of works from that era.
Ah, I didn’t go back far enough.
If we should adopt the sensibilities of the 19th century literature because they’re superior to today’s sensibilities, perhaps other 19th century sensibilities are superior. We don’t need to fly to places, we can take trains across the country. We don’t need to drive cars, horses can handle the local trips. And with this, we won’t have any of that nasty car exhaust, only all nature horse manure. Everywhere. We don’t need to make phone calls—no need for those pesky cell phones; telegraphs are good enough. Fast food and delivery pizza are out too. And we certainly don’t need television and movies either.
My point is that all 19thcentury sensibilities aren’t necessarily good or work today. The goal is to convey stories, including ideas, themes, and lessons, to an audience, preferably a large one. I don’t see the point in writing for an audience that has turned to dust long ago. Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers ever, but no one’s writing iambic pentameter for a mass audience these days.
I understand the urge to provide those details, especially if the author has taken the effort to create detailed character studies. But presenting a concentrated infodump isn’t the right way to use a character study. That information can be doled out throughout the entire novel. Perhaps some of it won’t be used at all.
As I see it, the key is to present enough information for the reader to get the meaning from a scene. I don’t need to know who the character’s first grade teacher was unless it has a bearing on the scene. The character details that the author feels are important need to be tied to ongoing events in the story. With details doled out over the course of many chapters, each detail takes on additional importance.
Well, that’s my rant. I’m happy to get it off my chest. Now, back to writing…