Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Much is Too Much?

By Bethany Maines

My brother is what my family kindly (sarcastically?) refers to as a “verbal processor.” There’s a thought in your head? Then of course it must exit the mouth. Not that I don’t occasionally suffer from that genetic disorder, but mine seem to be of the one off variety. My brother’s are more of a constant stream. One of my finest moments was when, at a movie, I strategically positioned my friend Jennae between him (Why is he doing that, do you think?)and another friend who liked to narrate (And now he swings his coat on symbolizing the battle between good and evil.) I sat on the end of the aisle and enjoyed the spectacle, the movie, and my popcorn in a comment free zone. Ah, bliss!

Interestingly, his talkativeness generally comes as a surprise to 90% of people who meet him, since the perception of him is as strong and silent type. Possibly he saves up all his words for those of us who are close to him, or maybe he just doesn’t like 90% people he meets. But either way… he’s a difficult character to write in third person. At this point my lawyer recommends that I state that all my characters are fictional and are not based on real people. Yup, that’s definitely the case. Nothing to see here. Move along. You, yes, you – no lollygagging.

But regardless, the point remains that certain character types are easier in certain formats. I’m working on a manuscript currently and one of my readers pointed out that the love interest was behaving inconsistently. Her major bone of contention was the same as the heroine's – does he like her or not? And the answer is… Yes, but he just finalized his divorce and he’s kind of bitter about women right now. In other words, he’s conflicted and behaving inconsistently. And he’s not the kind of guy who’ll give you a tidy paragraph of exposition on the subject. If it were first person and he was the main character, then it would all be explained. But it isn’t. Having set myself to write third person, I can’t just change my mind half-way through.

Which brings us back to what I’m beginning to think is the central problem in writing… Just how much do I have to write? That’s a bit of a flippant way to put it, but there’s a definite quality difference between a book that states “he just finalized his divorce and he’s bitter about women” and a book with character details sprinkled here and there that let the reader come to that conclusion on her own. We’re all told to “show don’t tell,” but no one tells you where, how, and how many clues to leave for a reader. I’m not sure anyone can tell you exactly how to do that. Which means that all of us writers are hacking into our own literary jungles of discovery – finding our own paths among the words. Some days that’s fun, and some days I just want a map.

Happily for me, today is not one of those days. Tomorrow… well, that’s always another story, isn’t it? And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go revisit a certain conversation and have a character mention that the love interest just got divorced.


  1. Bethany, I don't think anyone has the answer to "just how much is too much" (or not enough, for that matter!). We all have to muddle through in the best way we know how...and however best suits our particular story. I feel like every time I see a lot of articles about "show, don't tell," I pick up a worldwide bestseller that's more of the "tell me everything and show me nothing" variety. Makes you wonder. Figuring out what to write (and how) isn't easy, and I'm always glad for my editor's and agents' input to let me know if I've gone astray. And even then when the book comes out, someone will review it and inevitably say, "She explained too much" while another reviewer will say, "I didn't think she explained it enough." ;-)

  2. Ah, Bethany, you are reading my mind. Personally, I hate being hit over the head with stuff. I want a writer to respect that fact that I'm smart enough to figure things out on my own :)

  3. Excellent post. My sister always talks to the movie screen--but I have to admit, I shriek right along with her when something scary happens.

    I sometimes question things that happen in books I read, like "Why on earth would she do that when it's obvious the killer will be lurking in the basement... or that old house..." etc.

    But I do like when I know enough about a character as to understand his/her motivation, or at least think I do.