Saturday, January 16, 2010

Show Me Some Leg

All day long, I've been wrestling with this question ... how much leg should I show?

I'm almost halfway into my WIP now, and I'm at a crucial scene. Two main characters are sitting before a fire, talking. One of them knows everything; the other one knows nothing. So I've been wondering, wrestling really, with how much backstory I should let slip here. How much should I give away? How much leg should I show?

It's an important question, not least because, before I wrote this book, I almost wrote a book about this book. That's how intricate and involved the backstory and world is. It's a tightly bound world, with rules and precedent, and a whole history. And I'm more than a little enamored of this world. It's just so ... exciting and big.

My impulse is to spill the beans. I can't help it. Ask my crit partners. Throughout this book, every time they get to the end of a scene, I get all excited and say, "So do you wanna know what that all means? Because it's pretty cool. That's not some accidental slip of the tongue there. There's a whole story there! See, because what's about to happen is—"

And they say, "No! No! Don't tell us!"

Then I tell them anyway.

So all day, I sat around, thinking about how much I should let go right now. And finally I decided: absolutely no more than is minimally necessary, and finally, only the stuff that makes sense to my character. She has an agenda, and even if she knows everything, she's only going to say what's important to her right at that moment.

This question—what to tell, when—has everything to do with pacing. For every question I answer, I want to raise two others. For every mystery I solve, a new one needs to replace it. The books I can't set down—even if they're poorly written—are the ones where I must know the answers to all my questions, when the author pulls me by the nose all the way through. So even though it goes against every strain of my big-mouthed writerly self, I'm hoping to keep this scene short, sweet and simple.

Perhaps at the end of the day, the same thing that makes a striptease effective also works in writing novels: only hint at the good stuff. Leave 'em wanting more.


Mark Terry said...

In theory, it's easier to cut than to add, so I guess spill your guts and clean up the mess afterwards.

Jonathon Arntson said...

Maybe the struggle you have keeping your mouth shut with show up as passion in the book.

Natasha Fondren said...

*cringing at Mark's advice* LOL... just goes to show how different we all are, and how all roads to Oz... um, lead to Oz. Or something.

Anyway, maybe my serial writing background is showing some skin (*snicker*), but littering the story with unanswered questions, unfinished bits, and half-threads to pick up at the end and weave together is the name of the game. And the fun of it!

So here's a vote for no explaining!

LurkerMonkey said...


In theory ... but backstory's a different animal than exposition for me because it actually advances the story. So it's much harder to cut back because I have to pull the whole pace of the story back. So I'd MUCH prefer to dole out the story right the first time and only worry about cutting exposition, etc.

LurkerMonkey said...


Hey! Two things ... first, I spell my name the same way as you--with an 'o' not an 'a'. That's pretty rare. Second, you're in Ludington! I grew up in the suburbs outside Detroit and we've had a cottage on Pentwater Lake for years. I've spent many weekends fishing up in Ludington ... caught the biggest salmon of my life in the mouth of Ludington harbor. It was a 42-pound king, back in the days when they still caught 40+ pound fish with some regularity.

And yeah, hopefully some of the excitement shows up. I've always believed that if the writer's not having fun, then no one is.

LurkerMonkey said...


I'm with you ... no offense Mark, but *cringe*.

And yeah, it's way fun to keep it mysterious.

Melanie Avila said...

I agree with only including a bare (*snicker*) minimum. I tend to write more sparse and would much rather fill in later. Cutting a lot and then needing to make sure it all makes sense seems backwards to me (although I suppose I do the same thing by adding later).

I just finished reading a book (that I'll be reviewing tomorrow) that literally had me guessing until the end. Even when we finally figured out the bad guy, we STILL didn't know the why. I LOVE books like that.

Jonathon Arntson said...

Well, I'll be! Pentwater is lovely, too. My sister's mom-in-law lives there, near downtown, great place to visit on summer afternoons.

Mark Terry said...

Which is why I say "in theory." When I get into the "how much, oh Lord?" mindset, I try to turn the internal editor off and just write, because the questions kill me from making the decisions. And sometimes I have to put it down on paper (or screen) to get a sense of how much is the right amount. :)

E. Flanigan said...

This is an interesting question .... Maybe it would help to think of yourself, the writer, as an unseen character. Like in a metafictional way.

Because whenever you read, you're engaging with the people on the page, but you're also engaging with the writer who is manipulating you, moving you, leading you by the nose. Each character knows what they know, but the writer (theoretically) knows ALL.

So in thinking about what to share when, maybe it helps to mentally identify yourself as being part of the story. The choices you're talking about here are the ones that most directly connect me, the reader, with you, the writer.

In addition to thinking about each of the characters' motivations for sharing what they know, you need to think about what your motivations are at any given moment for sharing what YOU know.

In general, I vote for holding out. If the reader doesn't NEED to know, don't tell. Just hint.

Jude Hardin said...

Rule #8 from Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules of writing:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I love suspense, so I would never say hell with it. But I don't think true suspense comes from withholding information. To me, true suspense comes from creating characters the reader cares about and then putting those characters in jeopardy.

LurkerMonkey said...


In general, I'd say my motivation as a writer is to hold interest. Which sounds simple, but I think is actually much harder than it's generally given credit for. So that's always the danger of backstory for me ... I tend to create a lot of it--I'm big on world-building--but when I'm writing, I'm always trying to ask, "Who's really interested in this? Me or you?"

LurkerMonkey said...


Vonnegut's such a crank :)

Anyway, I think there's a bit of "apples and oranges" here. I'm not actually talking about creating suspense. Rather, it's a pacing question. I'm writing fantasy here, so this is a highly developed world with extensive rules and backstory. The temptation I'm fighting is to spill the beans all at once, instead of slowing down my introduction of this unique place/situation.

But I think there's another whole post on suspense in here ...

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