Controlling the Flow of Information
by Simon Brett
As a writer, you have one enormous advantage over your readers or audience. You know the whole story, and they don’t.
Except in very rare circumstances, you don’t start off knowing the whole story. You begin with an idea, which hopefully leads on to other ideas, which in turn act as springboards for further ideas. Characters begin to develop, as do conflicts between those characters. Settings become more solid and pertinent in your mind. A plot emerges. Gradually your story takes shape.
There’s no right or wrong way of building a story. Some writers don’t start the actual writing until they have the whole scenario worked out in their minds. Others begin with a sentence that intrigues and see where it leads them. Some regard the first draft as the exciting part of the process—telling themselves the story—and resent any changes that have to be made afterwards. Others find the first draft a terrible bore, creating a great block of material from which, rather like a sculptor with a mass of stone, they will carve out and perfect their work of art. For them the fun of writing lies in cutting away the dross, refining and reshaping.
But, by whatever process writers arrives at it, there comes a point when the whole story is known to them. And what they then have to decide is how much of that story they want their readers or audience to know at any given point in the narrative.
This is true in all writing, but particularly so in the two areas in which I specialise, crime fiction and comedy. The effect of both is weakened by giving out too little or too much information. For example, I remember my sister once saying to me, ‘I’ve just heard this very good joke about the Lunchpack of Notre Dame.’ I asked her to tell me more and she gave me the set-up question: ‘What’s put in a plastic box and swings from a bell-rope?’ I said I didn’t know and she told me the punch-line: ‘The Lunchpack of Notre Dame!’ She was disappointed at my lack of reaction to the joke, but then she had given me rather too much information too soon.
And that’s how storytelling works. The writer feeds out the narrative gradually, withholding clues and details until the optimum moment of revelation. A lot of a writer’s planning will involve thoughts like: ‘If that’s going to happen there, then it must have been set up earlier.’
For this reason, one of the most difficult parts of any book, play, or screenplay is the exposition. A lot of information has to be conveyed in as short a time as possible. In the visual media it’s easier. The look of a person, the environment in which they live, their clothes, their possessions can all increase their viewers’ knowledge of their character. And all that information comes across the moment the character walks on stage or appears on the screen.
In a book you don’t have that shortcut. Everything needs to be described, but it’s down to the writer to decide how much needs to be described. And here the general rule is: go for the minimum. If a character’s height is going to be important to your story, tell your readers how tall he is. If it isn’t, don’t bother. Two-page descriptions of every new character in the manner of Charles Dickens are completely unnecessary. The same goes for where they went to school, what their parents did for a living, how many siblings they had, whether their childhood was happy, and an infinite number of other details. Let your readers do some work for themselves; let them create their own pictures in their minds. Only supply the kind of information if it’s going to be relevant in the story you’re telling.
Some writers, I am aware, say they cannot begin a novel without knowing all the characters in detail, without having built up lengthy dossiers of all their personal data. In my view that’s just another displacement activity—and no one is more skilled in displacement activity than writers. Anything that puts off that dreadful moment of actually having to write is fulsomely welcomed.
The importance of exposition generally means that the opening of any piece of writing is the bit that gets most rewritten. As new ideas emerge in the course of creating the story, new information has to be injected into the set-up chapters or scenes. And it’s a task with which most writers have difficulties. If you ever feel uncertain about your own skills as a writer of exposition, I recommend that you take down from your bookshelves the Complete Works of William Shakespeare and turn to The Tempest. In Act One Scene Two of that classic play you will find one of the worst pieces of exposition you will ever encounter. The first 284 lines set up the backstory to the action in what is effectively a monologue by Prospero, with brief interjections from his daughter Miranda, on the lines of ‘What happened next, Dad?’ It is inept and tedious. So even the greats had their problems with exposition.
But there’s no way around it. Your readers or audience have to be given that information somehow. And it is in that ‘how’ that the writer’s skills are really tested. Particularly in a crime novel, the plot is often dependent on a detail which the readers cannot claim they haven’t been told of, but which is slipped into the narrative in a way that doesn’t draw attention to it. Something apparently trivial can frequently turn out to be of pivotal importance.
The skill required to shuffle in this kind of information can be compared to that of the conjuror. As he uses his patter to distract the audience from what he’s doing with his hands, so a crime novelist has to find his own means of distraction to disguise the importance of certain details. All you have to do is to obey the basic rules of story-telling. Make your scene so dramatic – or so funny – or so intriguing – that your readers have an emotional response to your writing and almost unconsciously assimilate the facts that you have so subtly shoehorned into the narrative.
Never forget that a book is an interactive medium. The relationship between writer and reader may develop and change, but it never disappears. And a skilful writer will be constantly aware of the effect that his or her words are having on the reader at any given point in the action. That’s what story-telling is about.
A good way of honing your skills at controlling the flow of information is to write a page of dialogue which contains the fact that you are trying to hide. Say, for instance, the fact is: ‘The pastor had once been a professional footballer.’ Think of the various ways in which, without actually stating it in so many words, you can get that information across. The aim of the exercise is to make the little scene of dialogue you write so compelling that your readers become more concerned about the drama of the situation than about listening out for the facts which it contains. And the only restriction placed on what you write is that you are not allowed to hide your important fact in a catalogue of many.
A development of this exercise works even better with a group of writers. The tutor or moderator of the group writes on scraps of paper a number of pieces of simple information and gets each participant to pick one out of a hat or bag. The group then writes their dialogue and when everyone has finished, the pieces of work are read out in turn and the other participants have to try and guess what the hidden snippet of information was. The exercise combines the fun element of a party game with a useful lesson in writers’ diversionary tactics.
Simon Brett has published over a hundred books, many of them crime novels, including the Charles Paris, Mrs. Pargeter, Fetheringand Blotto & Twinks series. His stand-alone thriller, A Shock to the System, was made into a feature film, starring Michael Caine. Simon’s writing for radio and television includes After Henry, No Commitments and Smelling of Roses. Bill Nighy plays Charles Paris in the Radio 4 adaptations of his books. In 2014 Simon was presented with the Crime Writers’ Association’s top award, the Diamond Dagger, and he was made an O.B.E. in the 2016 New Year’s Honours ‘for services to literature’.