Enough Already

Enough Already
Terry Odell

info dumpingI talked about repetition in my last post. Today, another peeve along similar lines, triggered by the same author that bugged me enough to write that previous post. I understand (and agree) that sometimes telling is more efficient than showing. But how much? While I can understand an author’s  desire to make sure the reader understands background, I’m not fond of his technique, which is to step in as the author and provide details that don’t seem worth stopping forward motion.

Michael Connelly feeds in background, but it never pulls me out of the story. This author, also writing a police procedural, isn’t pulling it off as well.

The two cops in the story—typical detective tropes: old, fat, donut eating guy just counting down to retirement, and the young, attractive female, recently promoted to detective—answer a call to a home where a neighbor says she saw blood. The cops take a look, and the newbie says, “Exigent circumstances?” Now, both cops know what this means, but the author decides to spend a paragraph explaining it. If the author wants to show the reader, why not have one of the cops explain it to the neighbor who wants to know why they’re not rushing right in?

Then there’s stopping the story for reflection. Two cops looking into a possible murder scene. Is this the time for one of them to reflect on what her siblings dressed up as on Halloween? And do we need to know the ages of those siblings? Is it important? Maybe. Is it important now? I don’t think so. Skimming right along.

Given the possible victims have connections to the movie industry, one of the witnesses mentions a possible suspect who’s a grip. She very nicely explains that a grip “moves lights and carries stuff on movie sets.”

That’s fine. Makes sense for her to explain it to the cops, but then the author takes us on another trip down memory lane while the rookie cop reflects on a family member who was also a grip, and how he was related, how often he visited, and what he brought them for Christmas. I’d call this a “stay in the phone booth with the gorilla” moment.

Details about what kind of magnets are holding up what kind of artwork on the fridge don’t move the story forward. The fact that there’s blood spatter on one of those pieces of art does.

In an attempt to give the readers information, the author has a scene between the rookie detective and the head of the Crime Scene Unit. It’s clear the author has researched the subject and wants to make sure readers know it, but how many readers care that the techs test stains they think are blood with tetramethylbenzidine? Just “We ran a test to confirm they’re blood” would probably work for 90% of readers. And do I want to know that they used HemDirect to tell if the blood was animal or human? Again, a simple “We determined the blood was human” would probably be sufficient. And this type of conversation went on and on for the entire chapter. We see the rookie detective using her knowledge, but her thoughts seem to be on the page as a way to explain—or over-explain—things for the reader. Or, worse, showcase the author’s research. Research should be like pepper. You don’t want to overwhelm the dish.

I’m also bothered by a lot of the roadmap descriptions. I don’t really care what street a sheriff’s station is on, or that the street runs alongside the southern edge of the 101 freeway. I’m direction-challenged, so telling me a hotel is seventy miles north of Los Angeles (even through I grew up there) doesn’t add anything. It makes me stop and try to imagine a map, thus pulling me out of the story. Unless you’re familiar with the city, seeing the turn-by-turn route a character takes won’t add anything to the story. Going into detail about how long it would take to get from point A to point B in varying traffic conditions, unless there’s a plot-related reason is just another speed bump. Even the Hubster, who has a much higher tolerance level for things that bother me, complained about the overdone roadmap scenes.

Where do you draw the line between description and info dumping?  Genre matters, of course, but in commercial fiction, especially mysteries, thrillers, and action-adventure, too much might be as bad as too little.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

39 thoughts on “Enough Already

  1. Terry, I agree. Too much information is a big dump in the middle of the story track. Your suggestion about how to handle the “exigent circumstances” explanation was excellent.

    I occasionally like to know where something is happening in a city but if the action is at a real-world location I can always look it up.

    Thanks for another great post. I love the photo, but…how did you get into my office?

    • Thanks, Joe. You didn’t notice the drone at your office window. 😉

      I don’t mind a location reference, just not an AAA TripTik (anyone remember those?)

      • AAA will still custom print one out for you, if you are a member. On the other hand, Google (insert 300 words on how Google maps are generated here) will for free.

  2. Good post. For me, if the POV character notices (sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches or feels emotionally) it goes into the story. If s/he doesn’t, it doesn’t. Every word is written through the physical and emotional senses of the POV character and his/her opinions. I’m only the recorder. Not my job to insert my opinion.

    • Agreed, Harvey, although sometimes POV characters want to explain EVERYTHING they see, hear, feel, think, remember, and I have to rein them in.

    • Excellent, Harvey. As a reader, that’s what I want — stay in the character’s head and body! All my writing advice (blog posts, books) urges fiction writers to take that approach, and as an editor, I always try to steer my authors in that direction too. Love your last two sentences! 🙂

    • Love the “Not my job to insert my opinion.” I write in deep POV and my characters rarely view or think about the world the way I would.

  3. Terry, good observations. How much to tell/show is a constant balancing act. Like you, I get impatient with backstory unless it’s relevant.

    Too often, authors show off rather than tell the story. We need to remind ourselves what Harvey says: “I’m only the recorder.”

    What seems to work best is slipping in description on the fly. Details like a refrigerator magnet help the reader form a visual picture as long as it’s not overdone. For instance…

    A child’s crayon drawing, fastened to the refrigerator by a red apple magnet, was spattered with a fine mist of blood.

    • Exactly, Deb. We might be recorders of what our characters are experiencing, but, just like with dialogue, we don’t need every last detail. Showing off our knowledge doesn’t necessarily help the story, and that’s what the readers are coming for.

    • Yeah, if the author makes a point of showing me something, I’m going to assume it’s important to the story. That magnet had better either be splattered or be the last item she purchased before her daughter was kidnapped.

  4. I really love your phrase “research should be like pepper.” That is so important to beginners, like me. I now will stay out of those rabbit holes of intense research that are really an excuse for not making the story people live. Thank you and keep the pen moving.

    • Thanks, Hedley.
      Another way to think of research is it should be like an iceberg, where most of it is under water and only about 30% shows on the page.

  5. Great post, Terry. All good points. It is interesting how different readers have different expectations, and how, historically, things have changed in terms of how much description readers want. I believe you that there is also a difference between fans of different genres. But, bottom line, the research should be like an ice berg. We should see only what is needed for the story, and only when it is needed. (Iceberg Theory, Ernest Hemingway)

    • Exactly, Steve. Description can add to the story, but too much research can slog things. I love learning new things when I read, but I don’t want to feel like the characters are lecturing me. (Or the author, which is worse.)

  6. Excellent post, Terry…you learned me a lot!

    With a nod to Debbie’s great post from yesterday, I did manage to put a scene in my current WIP based on some research down a rabbit hole I indulged in.

    Pages and pages of scientific description of what exactly would happen if the earth suddenly stopped spinning. Of course, the first draft of my scene contained waayyy too much, but it was all so darned fascinating.

    But, I reined in my bragging 12-year-old character, and his description of the ensuing devastation became there’d be 1000 mile per hour winds and 100 mile tall ocean waves. Cool!

    Then, his father adds, There’d be no tomorrow., which totally freaks the MC, because, well, the WIP is called No Tomorrows. 🙂

    • Those first drafts are as much–probably more–for the author than they are for the reader. It’s a wise author who know when enough is enough. Sounds like you’re a wise author, Deb. I wish I knew the title of my current wip. 😉

  7. Research should be like pepper. You don’t want to overwhelm the dish.

    Couldn’t agree more, Terry. Over-explaining is worse, I think. You’re a kinder reader than I. I would’ve put the book down long ago.

    • I’m still trying to get away from my mom’s clean plate upbringing. I’m getting better, but sometimes I feel obligated to finish. There are children starving in China, you know (although I never did understand that argument.)

  8. Terry, good stuff here. I will take just a little bit of an issue with the “map” complaint. I believe naming a street more readily establishes verisimilitude than the bland “a street.” It’s like the difference between She got in her car and She got in her Hyundai..

    This is especially true when writing about a famous location. If it’s New York City, I would actually be put off by We headed up the avenue. I’d want to know what avenue. Fifth Avenue is a lot different than First…or Eighth. Even for a reader unfamiliar with the city, the sound of reality adds, not detracts, from the experience….as long as it’s not “over peppered.”

    I always name the streets and locations in my L.A.-based books. I’ve never had one complaint…but I do get emails from readers who “used to live there” and are delighted to have had a “re-visit.”

    • Exception accepted, Mr. Bell. A few street names don’t bother me, IF they make sense to the story. When they’re used to fill the page with turn-by-turns and nothing happens, I skim. I confess I love following Elvis Cole through my old neighborhoods, but some authors seem to use it as a way to hit their required word count rather than have it mean something to the story. And, if it’s somewhere familiar to me (I grew up in LA), and you have the characters zipping down the 405 without mentioning the traffic, it’s the same as setting a story in Florida and not mentioning the humidity for me. Before the pandemic, the default state of the 405 was yellow.

    • I became a KZB follower following Elaine Viets. Love her books. I asked her once how a street I had several bad experiences on moved across town. She use to live there before it became a good place to get shot at. BTW, spraying an apartment with an AK-47 will destroy most of the plumbing in the building.

      • Long ago, at a conference, a speaker said if ‘bad stuff’ is going to happen, it’s better not to use real locations. She had a situation with a women’s shelter, and said she changed the street directions to a left turn rather than right because she didn’t want readers to think there was a shelter down that street.
        Most of my locations are made up, simply to avoid issues, but I did have one reader tell me “there are no towns at 6000 feet” in the area I’d placed mine. I simply smiled and said, “Yes, there is one. Mapleton.”
        One time I carefully researched a restaurant (such a hardship!) and even named the shopping center where it was located, it closed before the book was published.

  9. E-book reading does make it easy for the reader to find out more about something in a few clicks. On paper, an appendix can add your carefully thought out research for those readers who want to know what re-agents the ME is using.

    • And it won’t interfere with the read. It becomes the readers choice as whether or not to stop reading the story or wait until afterward.

  10. Great information, Terry. There’s always a temptation to tell a bunch of stuff just because you know it. But unlike a dinner party where everybody’s stuck listening to the host tell about his trip to Mammoth Cave for the thirtieth time, the reader can just toss the book aside and go on with his/her life.

    Something struck me as I was reading the detail the author wanted to include. He should make the young, ambitious policewoman go into the elaborate descriptions as a part of her effort to show how smart she is. That could get the information across *and* produce the all-important tension between her and her donut-chomping, wise old partner. Win-win.

  11. Thanks, Kay. If I were writing it, I’d probably have the wise old partner cut her off once she got into “too much detail” territory. That would add to her frustration as well, and tension on both sides.

  12. Great post, Terry. I tend toward minimalism in my description and thus need to work to add description. I’ve been guilty of a few of those repetitive descriptions despite that, probably because I’m overcompensating for my aforementioned minimalism. Beta readers and my editors have been godsends in this as in other matters for me.

    My goal is for every piece of description to advance the story, or create emotional resonance, or amp up tension, etc, or all at once, and show rather than tell when I can. But more than anything, I want to keep the story moving 🙂

    • Exactly, Dale, and sometimes a quick bit of telling gets the information across efficiently. As in everything else, it’s a balance. I’m also one who has to add description, but for me, there’s a difference between describing and info dumping.

  13. I think people misunderstand what Chekhov was talking about when he mentioned that point of light glinting off a piece of broken glass in that moonlit scene. You draw the scene in a few broad brushstrokes, then add one tiny detail to make the scene pop, and you’re done: You’ve given the impression that there are plenty more details where that came from, even if they aren’t mentioned.

    Of course, nobody in a story should mention a detail that isn’t worth mentioning: it would be out of character, which is as deadly a sin as boring the reader, though more insidious. Not even the narrator should do that. As a purveyor of interesting story elements, the narrator needs to be above reproach, even if you’re going all Lemony Snickett for effect. Lemony Snickett is never tedious.

    I agree with James about the roads. I noticed that first in a Travis McGee book. I’d never even been to Florida, but his casual mentions of how he got from Point A to Point B somehow let me see the freeway. Frequent mentions of small convincing details made the world of Travis McGee real and solid, without the cardboardy thinness of so many stories. Also, his digressions helped humanize his narration. I’ve always disliked stream-of-consciousness modes because it lacks the human elements of avowed storytelling: it’s more like watching security footage. (That the viewpoint character is apparently being monitored via a brain implant so we can hear their thoughts just makes it worse.)

    • Well put, Robert. The discussion has morphed a bit into description, with a brief detour into POV, rather than info dumping of research, but they’re all interwoven. Anything that doesn’t move the story in some way, be it character development, story depth, or plot elements, doesn’t need to be there–in genre fiction, anyway.

  14. Dear Author, I am not an idiot or a toddler who needs things explained over and over again. I can also tell when you are padding the word count. Good-bye.

  15. Road map descriptions are boring, Terry. And they can cause trouble. When I lived in Washington, DC, I read a “road map” mystery set in that city. It had the hero making a left turn during rush hour on a major street. No way that would ever happen. Pulled me right out of the story.

    • The reality of traffic can bite you, can’t it, Elaine? I don’t mind the ‘local color’ but for me, I want something else to be happening rather than just a character driving.

Comments are closed.