by Don McNair, @DonMcNair1
You have two choices. Write in the "here and now" or dump information. I'll tell you right now that editors and agents want you to write in the "here and now."
Unpublished writers often present information dumps in their first chapters. How do you recognize one? Generally, your characters don't do, they think. They think as they drive a car. As they sit in their office. As they ride an elevator. Nothing of interest happens in real time. If your critique partner tells you your story actually starts on page seven, she's saying that the first six pages are an information dump. Those six pages generally include information you think the reader needs to understand your characters.
Your novel would be much more interesting if you showed instead of told. In fact, editors who read past your manuscript's first paragraph stop reading when they see this problem. Unfortunately, many writers hearing the "show-don't-tell" advice don't really understand what it means.
Use narrative summaries sparingly
When writers tell instead of show, they're generally writing from the author's POV and not the characters'. While the technique called "narrative summary" does have its place in a novel, it should be used sparingly.
Here's a before-and-after example. The first version, written in the author's POV, is a narrative summary:
But the site itself had been inhabited for much longer. The previous day she and Mike had jogged along an old path which edged the Knob, and she spotted the stark, vertical rock chimney of a burned-out cabin. It jutted from a weathered rock foundation that was now covered with thick vines and forest debris. The cabin had been built near the Knob's edge, which plummeted almost two thousand feet to the valley floor. She realized that, when the one-room cabin was built, its owner had probably cleared trees away to open the valley up for a spectacular view.
Notice the author is telling about the discovery, just as one tells ghost stories around a family campfire. He is summarizing what happened yesterday. There is no action. There was action yesterday, but that doesn't count as action today.
I wrote that passage years ago. I thought it was fine writing until an old writing pro pointed out the problem. I read it again, and—by gosh, she was right. Following is the passage as I rewrote it to put the scene into a character's POV and show the action, instead of leaving it in the author's POV and tell about it:
Mike stepped aside and she saw a clearing. Grass, kept at bay in the deep woods they'd passed through, covered an area the size of an average yard.
She frowned. "This is it?"
"Yep. The original cabin site. See if you can find it."
She saw nothing but the woods and grass. Blue sky appeared over a huge, waist-high stone outcropping at her left. She stepped to it and peered over.
"Why, we're right at the bluff's edge!"
"That's right. Jump off that rock, and you'll fall almost two thousand feet."
And then she saw the vertical stone chimney. She'd overlooked it before, since it resembled the surrounding tall trees. She walked tentatively toward it. As her eyes adjusted she saw the stone foundation of a long-gone, one-room cabin. Its chimney rose from one corner, its hearth opening toward the center. Slanting rays filtering through the treetops brought the chimney and foundation to life.
She turned to Mike. "Look at that - it's just like a shrine. Why, I feel like I've just stepped out of a time machine."
The lesson? Write in real time. Don't tell what happened in the past, but show it as part of the action now.
Bad, better, and best
As you write fiction, think of the information you present as being at one of three levels: Bad, better, and best. Then upgrade that information as best you can.
The "bad" level has information told from the author's POV, as in the first example above. The revealed events happened in the past. There is no action today. There is little or no dialogue. Here's an example:
After she ate her sandwich, Mary left the dance without answering Brad's questions about the Pekingese.
See? No action, no dialogue. The author is telling us about something that happened in to someone else. A scene or chapter written at this level could have a bored editor flinging a submitted manuscript across the room.
The "better" information level—and it's not really much better—at least presents thoughts from the POV of a live human being. Here's an example:
Jane started her Mazda and pulled into the traffic. That Mary, she thought with disgust. She ate her sandwich and simply left the dance. She should have at least answered Brad's questions about the Pekingese.
Here at least we have human involvement. Although the information Jane's thinking is still dead and has no action, we do see Jane. In small, well-placed doses, using such internal dialogue is an acceptable way to pass information. Unfortunately, some authors use this approach for pages and pages, and the only live action we have is the heroine doing the equivalent of driving that car. It's easy to see why so many manuscripts are rejected.
Okay, we've discussed the "bad" and the (not much) "better" ways to present information. Let's look at the "best."
When you start a new book, there's certain information you want to reveal. Rather than have the author tell us about it or have a character think about it, have the heroine confide the information to a sidekick in real time, perhaps like this:
Jane sat her Margarita on the bar and turned to Amy, who stared at her pocket mirror as she adjusted her hair. "Did you see that?"
Amy looked up. "See what?"
"Mary. She just ate her sandwich and left."
Amy glanced at the lit ballroom exit, past entwined couples dancing cheek to cheek on the dimly-lit dance floor. "Wow. Well, did she answer Brad's questions about the Pekinese before she left?"
"I don't think so . . ."
Jane frowned and retrieved her drink. She brought it to her lips and tasted the bitter salt, looked about, and paused. Standing by a small table with its flickering candle was Brad, staring at the entrance.
"She should have, you know?" Jane sipped again, and set her drink down.
"After all, Brad was kind enough to have the Pekingese fixed."
I'll admit I got carried away with that last example, but I did so with purpose. Didn't you feel like you were there, watching this scene play out? Didn't you catch the action—Alice primping, Jane sipping and tasting, dancers dancing, and perhaps even Brad staring? Didn't you believe this is happening now and that you are on hand to watch the scene unfold? This give-and-take is important. It keeps the reader engaged. If you write in this mode she'll continue to read your novel.
Don McNair, an editor and writer for more than forty years, has written six novels and four non-fiction books. His latest, titled “Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave (Quill Driver Books),” helps writers self-edit their work. Learn more at his website, http://DonMcNair.com .