Getting a first draft down is a voyage of discovery. You are learning about your characters and their desires and conflicts as they steer you through the course of their journeys. And so there is a tendency to tell too much, to use too much back story (or exposition) and what you do is not only pause the action, but you lose any intrigue.
When we first meet someone they don’t tend to tell you their whole life story in the first five minutes (well most don’t!). We learn, we make preliminary judgements (often wrong) and we start to work them out. And that’s what you want to do in your writing. Show the reader enough and then build on that slowly. It’s much more enjoyable for the reader that way. And when you do reveal something put as much of it in the subtext as you can, shown through their actions and words, rather than tell us Mr Graham was a quiet sort; probably because his first wife never let him get a word in but now he’s remarried to a quieter woman he seems to be coming out of his shell. All of this can be shown and woven like an invisible thread through the story.
A lot of the saying too much comes in early drafts and that’s okay if it’s your way of finding your way, getting acquainted with your character. Later you need to take it out and only show what’s needed when it’s needed (and if the above detail about Mr Graham is completely irrelevant because he’s the butcher who we only meet in the story once then not at all!). When you know the characters inside out, that is often enough to allow you to subtly write only the key features that makes a character seem real without the extraneous detail — as I always say if it doesn’t reveal character, move plot or at some level explore theme — lose it! But knowing all the background is still important to allow you to create real characters. Even Mr Graham with his two-minute cameo when the protagonist goes in to buy meat for her boyfriend (even though she’s veggie and has been since she saw a chicken beheaded on the farm she visited one summer with a friend because their family were big on farms and after the son died by choking on a peanut the family really needed a holiday and since it was her best friend whose brother choked on said peanut she wanted to be supportive but has never eaten meat since she saw that headless chicken) PAUSE for breath, where was I? Oh yeah even if Mr Graham only has a cameo you can still splash him with enough colour to make him seem real without ANY of his back story unless you want to foreground something needed for plot. Got that? Glad someone has! And while my little back story excursion there isn’t as bad as some I see — trust me I do see them!
So get it down in a first draft if you have to, but then lose it.
The more experienced a writer you become, the less you will do this, even in a first draft.
When I see it, okay not as bad as my example, but when I do, it says amateur. Now that’s fine when I am mentoring or critiquing for a client because that’s the point, I’m teaching and learning at the same time (it’s two-way) — but when I see it in submitted work when I have my publisher hat on, I know this writer needs to work more on developing their craft.
It’s okay — we are all somewhere along that learning line. But get it right when you submit if you are hoping to be accepted for publication, that’s all I’m saying.
Right, back to my new short story …
Have a great day all. Still working on some more In The Spotlights for the Autumn … so watch this space. I also saw some more potential covers for the novel yesterday, one I LOVE in particular — all I will say is it’s very bold. Watch this space as I will reveal it here first.