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How do you avoid giving readers TMI (too much information)about a character?
How do you decide what to share about a story’s characters?
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Is there ever too much information (TMI)? When you deconstruct a topic, you’ll find the answer is no. Think about your favorite topic. Any topic. Perhaps, focus on a favorite character. You have them in mind? What do you know about them? Is there something you have a question about? Is something missing that for which you’d love to have the answer?
TMI is described as over-explaining a topic, or providing too much cringeworthy information the recipient is triggered by. Some folks like to hear the gory details of sex, but a good number do not. Either they want to be in the mood for it, engage it on their terms, or not really partake at all. Everyone has a different level of information need. The same is true for readers.
When you love a book to death, often there isn’t enough information for your liking on any part of it. Any of the titles I’ve obsessed over, I’ve been grateful to get more on, whether that is Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, or even Better Caul Saul/Break Bad. When I like something, it is fun for me to get more information about the topic and characters.
Juxtapose this with the common understanding that providing too much information (TMI) is overwriting and frowned upon in our business. Some scratch their head, because writers were almost always readers who very much enjoyed reading and getting into a title before attempting their own work. I cannot imagine someone telling George Lucas or Tolkien that they went on too much. I’ve heard the odd comment in circles that prefer Papa and dry dramas, even action fans.
Short-winded is perceived as smart writing. Economical writing is preferred by mainstream publishing as well as the film industry. Less is more. You’re told not to fill in the blanks a lot–that’s the job of the director of the film or unimportant to the reader of your book. Yet…why are authors, like JK Rowling, then hounded by their readership with deeper (sometimes frivolous) questions about their books and characters?
Sometimes, there absolutely is no space or reason to bring something up. As writers, we need to accept that. A reader doesn’t need to know what color polish Diane got unless it frames something else–especially in film. It is inconsequential. That said, a reader may put some value on particular colors; some kind of meaning. For some reason, it’s killing them not to know the answer. Sometimes, they just find fun in these smaller details. Maybe it connects them. Diane likes hot pinks like I do! I am a Diane!
Remember, your reader is often trying to connect and relate to the characters in your work, whether they admit to that or not. Any effort to understand a character (motivations) is tied to the reader’s morality and understanding of their world. We don’t all love the same characters. When we do love them, it isn’t for the same reasons.
The fact that Claire relies so heavily on her lipstick as an object of safety and meaning throughout my work OP-DEC has upset a reader enough to dismiss her as flippant and shallow, annoying. Likely, this person holds no value in such items. They are also unlikely to understand the meaning of the red lipstick to women in that time. There are historical studies on the matter, but not every single reader I have will have become familiar nor care.
Should I have included more detail on Claire’s need for this lipstick or at least an explanation as to why it is coming up frequently? Of course not. That would be TMI. I trust that some readers will not fall in love with Claire. I trust that still more will not understand all the historical nuggets they’re coming across in the reading. They’re seeking entertainment. I did not see bogging my work down with explainers as a viable solution to satisfy this group of readers.
The importance, to me, was writing an entertaining and tight story. The story would boast small treasures along the way for those well-versed in the history. I wouldn’t want them bored. Being someone of that ilk, I know that I love finding these things buried in the narrative. It excites my interest!
Moreover, Claire was a bit vapid. But, that is correct for what and who she is. Claire is wealthy socialite. It rings true. If I made her utterly relatable and grossly likeable, I don’t think her story would have been as impactful. OP-DEC would have been far less noir and flipped the genre to romance. I’m not a romance writer. I wrote a historically accurate spy thriller that takes place during the throws of World War II.
Although I am not a fan of wealthy people or celebrities in general, Claire’s well-being still mattered to me in the end as a fellow femme and human being. There are things going on with Claire that never make it into the book. For instance, you see that she’s not really dated much. What could have caused that, other than the abuse she endured as a kid? Her aunt reared her, and her aunt is a spinster at the time of the action. Claire doesn’t open up about this.
What I did write about was Claire discovering herself in the midst of a crisis, having to ally herself with a man of unknown morality. This to live. I think I’d hold my lipstick close, too.
With so many unknowns, TMIwas a factor constantly on my mind. If I said too much, I could completely tell on myself before the end. I ran a tight ship and kept the movie running in my mind until I got it all out on paper. When it came time to create the script for my graduate studies project, I was ready to go. However, I still found it difficult to let go of a lot of the material that didn’t make it into that iteration.
The good part is, I didn’t have to be so tied to the narrative and could be more creative in displaying information visually instead of via dialogue or description. Writing screenplays has helped me hone my craft and learn economical writing, because the limitations are very specific. The majority of scripts are less than 120 pages. You don’t include parentheticals unless you can’t help it. There is no direction to anyone, just dialogue and some scene set up information. Brevity is the winner and authors learn a cavalcade of vocabulary to help.
When you learn script writing, you learn economy of words as well as necessity. I’ve used this skill to help me figure out the prose and avoid wordiness. Sometimes, though, if I am completely honest, the editor does have to remind me that I’ve already said something. Thankfully, that has gotten much rarer as I have honed my craft. The more I work at it, the less they have to do! To me, that’s the signal that I’m doing well.
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Stevie Turner says
I think ‘less is more’ is a good thing, and in my opinion is preferable to too much info. In this way the reader can form their own mental image.
P.J. MacLayne says
It is all too easy to repeat something you’ve already revealed to the readers. Thank heavens for good editors!
Captain Maiel says
Editors are definitely a help and necessary!
Richard Dee says
Yes, there are times when more is more, I guess the trick is separating the necessary from the padding.