Too Much Info Spoils the Story

Posted by on Sep 5, 2013 in Blog | 5 comments

Too Much Info Spoils the Story

Today’s guest blog is by Allen R. Kates, MFAW, an experienced book editor, coach and ghostwriter. One of Allen’s specialties is memoir writing. If you’ve ever tried writing your memoir, you know it can be tricky choosing the details to include and the ones to exclude. Here, Allen shares some sound advice on how to write an uncluttered, yet strong intriguing story.

 

Memoirs run on details, but too much information can ruin the story for the reader.

 

When I read a client’s book manuscript, the first thing I notice is whether there is too much information in a sentence. Do I feel overwhelmed by facts?

 

Writing a book is not like writing a newspaper or magazine article. In journalism, we apply the 5 Ws: who, why, when, where, what and how. Often reporters try to sneak all of the 5 Ws into the first paragraph. But memoir writing is not journalism. It’s creative writing, and in creative writing we do not want to give our reader too much information.

 

Instead, we want to withhold it.

 

Bombarding readers with too much information can bore, confuse, and really annoy them. A sentence loses focus when too many ideas are presented. Take this sentence, for example:

 

“Crippled all his life, the 10-year-old disabled boy named Jacob slipped out of his wheelchair, tiptoed out the front door of the red-brick house without his mother and father noticing and ran to the big box grocery store six blocks away, just like a regular boy might do, to buy a bottle of soda and a comic book, along with Junior Mints, a Snickers bar and a package of Red Vines, using money his grandpa gave him.”

 

The above sentence is overloaded with ideas. If we move some of the information into other sentences, the first sentence becomes more compelling to read:

 

“The 10-year-old boy slipped from his wheelchair and tiptoed out the front door without his parents noticing. He ran to the grocery store six blocks away and bought a comic book. With money left over, he bought candy and a soda, just like a regular boy might do.”

 

By moving some of the ideas to other sentences and saving others for further development later, I have created more questions than answers, as well as mystery and suspense. Consequently, I’ve aroused the reader’s curiosity. The most important ideas (a boy confined to a wheelchair has tiptoed and run, unbeknownst to his parents), are not buried in a mess of words, but are now prominent.

 

In the first sentence, it’s enough to say that he “slipped from his wheelchair” without overstating that the boy has been crippled all his life and disabled. You can save those ideas for later where they can be developed and have more impact.

 

Most interesting, the first sentence’s subtext suggests an intriguing question. Do the parents know that he can walk (tiptoe) and run?

 

I have established that the parents do not know he has snuck out, but have also vaguely implied that they may not know he can walk and run. The vagueness keeps the reader in suspense, again causing more questions than answers. Do they know or do they not know? If they don’t, then the deception can lead to a great story full of mystery, suspense, contrast and conflict.

 

By removing description like “crippled all his life,” “mother and father,” “red-brick house,” “big-box store,” “Junior Mints,” “Snickers bar,” “Red Vines,” and “money his grandpa gave him,” I’ve slimmed down the sentence and made it more powerful, more focused, and easier to read. I don’t even include the boy’s name, as the reader doesn’t need to know it yet.

 

When writing sentences and paragraphs, I ask myself what the reader needs to know at this point in the story. What information can I move to another sentence, what can I delay until the next paragraph or much later? What information can I withhold forever and never tell the reader?

 

In other words, by putting your sentences on a diet, you can encourage readers to turn the page and enjoy the read.

 

Allen Kates is author of the bestseller,“CopShock, second edition: Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” as well as ghostwriter for more than a dozen other books. For more information, visit www.WritingPublishing.com. 

5 Comments

  1. Great tips – I’m saving this one.
    Thanks
    Ann

  2. Good advice that can be applied to fiction as well.

  3. Concise, precise, excellent advice from a pro!
    Thanks!

  4. I’ve read Allen Kates’ “CopShock.” It’s an excellent and compelling read, and follows, to a tee, the advice given above. People don’t think and talk in long, run-on sentences, so why write that way? First-class advice from a first-class writer!

  5. Nice concrete example. I’m learning to withhold information so I had better not say too much more.

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