Podcast: Avoid rear-view mirror descriptions in stories
Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. – William Wordsworth

Always avoid writing 'encyclopedia fiction'

One of Library-g5fd1045ee_1280the traps of writing fiction requiring a lot of research is that those notes sometimes replace the actual story.

A story is about characters resolving problems. In great stories, the reader vicariously experiences the characters’ feelings, thoughts and actions as those problems are handled.

Research often is necessary to create a sense of verisimilitude when the characters deal with problems. If writing about a World War I fighter pilot, for example, you want to get correct a whole array of facts – the kind of plane he flew, the distance that plane can traverse, the air base where that plane flew from, the countries and cities over which it fought and escorted bombers, what the pilot wore, the takeoff and landing procedures, and that’s just for starters. Get any of those facts wrong – for example, have a British pilot fly a P-51 Mustang for three hours from Scotland to Warsaw where it drops bombs on Nazi targets – breaks your story’s believability.

Sometimes writers feel the need to get all of their research into the story. They believe the information is necessary for the reader to fully understand what is occurring. Often they want to justify their research time, as if stuffing all of it in the story somehow means the three hours reading about the mannerisms of the English aristocracy during the 1810s or the habitability of Jupiter’s moons wasn’t wasted.

But rewriting exposition found online or in a nonfiction book doesn’t make for good storytelling. Doing so is what I call writing “encyclopedia fiction.”

Storytelling vs. Exposition
Consider the two versions of the following scene, set in May 1940 during the German invasion of Belgium. The first version focuses on delivering dramatic action, which is actual storytelling:

Wilfried’s foot pushed the shovel into the dirt even as his wife and children loaded belongings onto his brother Paul’s horse-driven cart.

“This is insane!” Paul shouted above Wilfried’s pit. “This isn’t going to survive a German attack!”

“I’m not leaving my home,” Wilfried said with gritted teeth, as he threw shovelful of dirt onto the grass above.

“Instead you’re going to leave Anne-Marie a widow and your children fatherless!”

“And what of you? Is your horse and little cart going to protect them from German bullets? At least I’ll take out some of them while you’re running!”

If the above passage instead had been written as encyclopedia fiction – in which the research becomes the story – it would read something like this:

Wilfried’s foot pushed the shovel into the dirt even as his wife and children loaded belongings onto his brother Paul’s horse-driven cart. The draft horse sported a huge middle, powerful muscles, and a phlegmatic disposition.

“This is insane!” Paul shouted above Wilfried’s pit. “This isn’t going to survive a German attack! Every German infantryman carries a Karabiner 98k, a 5-shot, bolt-action rifle, and each unit is equipped with a Maschinengewehr 34, a recoil-operated air-cooled general-purpose machine gun that can fire 900 rounds a minute!”

“I’m not leaving my home,” Wilfried said with gritted teeth, as he threw a shovelful of the brown cambisol onto the grass above.

“Hoth’s Panzer division already has crossed the Maas River and is on its way toward the coast. The country will be overrun in days, and with each minute the opportunity to flee into France for safety is passing. I estimate that by May 21 we will not be able to get out.”

“You won’t get out anyway!” The roads already were clogged with refugees running to the coast and into France. Rather then getting out of the way, refugees were handing Belgium over to the Germans by getting in the way of advancing French troops who might stop the invaders.

How to fix
While the encyclopedia fiction offers some interesting historical facts, it’s poor storytelling. First, it’s largely exposition that only serves to slow the story. That’s because exposition doesn’t focus on conflict between characters but on presenting facts, a lot of which are unnecessary to the story. Secondly, exposition reduces the suspense. The facts actually gives away the story. In the first version, there is the possibility that Paul might escape, but in the second version, the writer undercuts that by providing facts – presented from the vantage point of the 21st century – that show it’s a fool’s errand. Third, the exposition diminishes the story’s realism. Real people wouldn’t really talk like that, and even if they did the chance of them knowing the facts they present is highly unlikely. The facts, after all, were compiled by historians and military experts years afterward and most wouldn’t even appear in the media of the time.

The solution is to cut out the exposition and focus on character conflict. As a writer, you may know all of the facts that Paul and Wilfried deliver in the second version (In fact, you should know them!), but that doesn’t mean your characters will know them or that you’d want your reader to know them. Ask yourself what your characters would know and how they would respond, and use your knowledge to create tension between them and set them up for more problems to solve as they make the wrong choices.

You can sprinkle some of the facts you’ve collected into the story, of course, but generally limit it to descriptions. For example, you might note that dirt Wilfried shovels is brown, or if you know the day that Hoth’s forces crossed the Maas was hot and humid, you might show that detail by having Wilfried wipe the sweat off his brow or describe how he finds breathing difficult in the thick air. Those readers who know a lot about the history or science of your setting will appreciate those subtle details while other readers will prefer it over all of the telling.

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