1. bsbvermont
    Offline

    bsbvermont Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 13, 2012
    Messages:
    104
    Likes Received:
    1

    really wrestling with knowledge in fiction

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by bsbvermont, Aug 18, 2012.

    OK Folks...so this has been plaguing me for a few weeks. When I read, I love it when I get an occasional paragraph inserted in a story that "tells" me something. If I only wanted information I'd turn to non-fiction, but even in fiction I like some factual back story (and/or current knowledge). Sometimes that unfolds, and sometimes it is told, but I always like to feel "smarter" for having read things. Michener might have been a little extreme for me, but he seemed to have quite a following despite a highly academic tone. Even in more contemporary books like Seabiscuit there are paragraphs of well written knowledge. As I trim my novel, I have cut out 90% of the telling of knowledge, but there are things I think are important to understanding the book that some are telling me to ditch. (Heck there are even the answers to 2 great trivia questions embedded) I also want to preface that I am writing for a demographic that is probably over 35. If people liked Newmoon, they might be disappointed. I get that...they are not my demographic. My question is, how much "knowledge" seems to be absorbable (yes, I think I made that word up) in today's fiction?

    EX.

    Duncan couldn't help but notice the pragmatism of Vermonters. The only New England state that wasn’t one of the original thirteen colonies on the Declaration of Independence, the Green Mountain State still managed to have its own notoriety in the Revolutionary War with the Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain boys. They took both sides of the conflict by surprise with their knowledge of the land and more importantly, their valor. Despite a lack of resources, their gumption was a deciding factor in several battles, but most notably when they captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and at the Battle of Bennington in 1777. (Which, by the way was not fought in Bennington, but rather 10 miles northwest in Waloomsac, New York.) (There were actually two more sentences here that I cut) It was due to this kind of grittiness that many of the old Vermonters derived their reputation of being “tough old birds”.

    Thoughts?
     
  2. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,684
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
    It depends on the purpose of the passage within your story, and what the story itself is about. If your only purpose is to show that Vermonters are "tough old birds", then it's way too much - the reader doesn't need to know that it wasn't one of the original 13 colonies on the Declaration of Independence, nor where the Battle of Bennington was fought. You would probably be able to serve the reader's needs with a single sentence making reference to Ethan Allen. OTOH, if you are writing a historical, then some of the facts you present may become relevant to your story.

    The problem with having this kind of information is that the writer is often just itching to show how much (s)he knows, if only to justify all the research (s)he's done. But you really have to consider what the reader needs.

    Good luck.
     
  3. GHarrison
    Offline

    GHarrison Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jul 29, 2012
    Messages:
    114
    Likes Received:
    8
    Location:
    Philadelphia, PA
    I believe you are referring to one of a list of things that are considered elements of a good story, namely: utility. But as Ed suggests, the writer must use it with sensitivity for the reader, and not distract from the point of the piece.

    Plus, you write:

    "Duncan couldn't help but notice the pragmatism of Vermonters. The only New England state that wasn’t one of... "

    Should be:

    "Duncan couldn't help but notice the pragmatism of Vermonters, citizens of the only New England state that wasn’t one of..." or something like that...
    , because you are talking about the people, not the state...

    Cheers,
     
  4. mammamaia
    Offline

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2006
    Messages:
    19,316
    Likes Received:
    1,014
    Location:
    Coquille, Oregon
    sorry, i'm with ed on this... that's way more boring gluck than most readers will want to be forced to plow through before they can be brought back to the actual story... it's an info dump pure and not so simple... and the worst kind, to boot...

    don't take your readers out of the story, if you want them to keep reading... tom clancy is infamous for his long show-offy 'knowledge' digressions that most of us just skip over unread... he can get away with it... as a new and unknown writer, you can't...
     
  5. bsbvermont
    Offline

    bsbvermont Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 13, 2012
    Messages:
    104
    Likes Received:
    1
    Ohhhh Geeez...Now I get it! I love Tom Clancy's books and reading about the intricacies of arms deals from the seventies and the organization of the armed services etc. I'm not a huge fan of military battles, but I feel like I learn from his writing. Are we really in a society where reading one out twenty paragraphs of information is too much? I guess it would explain the success of fifty shades of erotica. (Sorry on the rant, but the success of that series doesn't bode well for most writers. It will most likely only lead to the next series of young authors who have moved on from vampires to soft erotica.) I started writing actually because I was tired of pure fiction or pure non-fiction. Can't they be combined?
     
  6. luna claire
    Offline

    luna claire Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jul 26, 2012
    Messages:
    176
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Lost in a Mitten
    I think that fiction and non-fiction can be mixed, if balanced correctly. I have enjoyed several of Michael Crichton's books and they are an excellent combination of facts and fiction. Congo and Timeline are both really good. I think that if it is subtle, and the reader isn't flooded with all the information at once that it could work. I know that I enjoy something with substance once in a while, something that is intelligent and entertaining but some authors tend to go one way or the other. If it was me, I'd ask myself: "Is this important to my story? Do the readers need to know this in order to understand my tale?" and if the answer is no, then I'd cut it out.
    Sorry if this doesn't help. Good luck!:)
     
  7. GHarrison
    Offline

    GHarrison Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jul 29, 2012
    Messages:
    114
    Likes Received:
    8
    Location:
    Philadelphia, PA
    Here is an excellent story (IMO) which utilizes facts within a fictional tale if you are interested: http://www.jhuger.com/watchmaker

    Whether or not you can get away with excessive facts in a story has nothing to do with how new you are to writing or how well known you are either (Mamma?). Just keep it relevant, and/or revelant.

    Positively,
     
  8. Cynglen
    Offline

    Cynglen Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jul 29, 2010
    Messages:
    173
    Likes Received:
    10
    Location:
    Missouri, USA
    One way of slipping knowledge into your story (at least, what sounds good to me) is to integrate it into the story instead of making it a textbook-style narration. Maybe there's someone from Vermont in the scene where your example paragraph takes place, and, after two sentences of narration (specifically, the first two, ending with "...Green Mountain boys.") you have a living Vermonter start boasting about his heritage and how his great great great...uncle once fixed the boots of a guy who got lost on his way to join the battle of Bennington in 1777 with the Green Mountain boys. Just with lectures in academia, the audience will stay much more interested and learn more if the dictation is given with a flair of personality that simply looking it up yourself doesn't deliver.
     
  9. fwc577
    Offline

    fwc577 Member

    Joined:
    Aug 9, 2012
    Messages:
    92
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Wisconsin
    I dunno, I've got really mixed feelings on Tom Clancy. On one hand, I loved Rainbow Six. It was a great character driven story that slipped you into the lives of several special forces characters. One the other hand, I hated Sum of all Fears. It was like info dump after info dump and I grew bored. The scene when the nuke goes off is like 5-10 pages discussing what happens in the milliseconds the bomb goes off just drew me out of the story.
     
  10. fwc577
    Offline

    fwc577 Member

    Joined:
    Aug 9, 2012
    Messages:
    92
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Wisconsin
    double post.
     
  11. prettyprettyprettygood
    Offline

    prettyprettyprettygood Active Member

    Joined:
    Sep 8, 2011
    Messages:
    452
    Likes Received:
    46
    Location:
    Edinburgh
    It isnt how much information can be absorbed, it's how well you can write about history in an entertaining manner. Your example paragraph sounds dry even for pure non-fiction. My favourite series of books (Flashman by George McDonald Fraser) combines fiction and non-fiction- the stories cover historical events, like the Charge of the Light Brigade and the 1842 retreat from Kabul, but with a fictional character inserted into those events. The books are very well researched, there are actually footnotes with references and further information, but at no point is there a single info-dump like your example. When I read the books I am completely absorbed in the story, but I still end up knowing about something I was previously clueless about.

    As a fellow fan of learning from fiction (British history is my particular interest), in my opinon the information should be weaved seamlessly into the story; not because we're all too stupid to read factual information, but because wedging in a mini-lecture just smacks of a lack of artistry. It isn't easy to do, but if you can develop the skill it's worth the effort.
     
  12. bsbvermont
    Offline

    bsbvermont Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 13, 2012
    Messages:
    104
    Likes Received:
    1
    Thanks folks...I'll continue to try to weave a sentence here and there and rework the info dumps to be shorter.
     
  13. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,684
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
    Short answer, I'm afraid, is yes, we are. How many writers other than Tom Clancy could get away with that? Besides, look at Clancy's first novel and see how little extraneous detail was included. As he built a readership, he was given more leeway to break the rules, partly because his readership was okay with it. Could Michener be successful today if he were just starting out? I doubt it, and I LOVED Michener's writing.


    I think they can, but the newcomer had best keep the writing tight if (s)he hopes to have any chance of commercial success.
     
  14. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,969
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    I don't think that it's the information that's the issue. I think that the problem is that the information needs to feed a line of thought, rather than just accompanying it. I love nonfiction books that are all information - for example, Visser's _Much Depends on Dinner_ and _The Rituals of Dinner_, and Grant's _The Thoughtful Dresser_, just to name three books that I've re-read recently. But these books don't just present facts, they present those facts in concert with a very specific train of thought.

    Looking at your example, "The only New England state that wasn't..." doesn't seem to be illustrating a point. If I rewrite to make it illustrate a point, I change it to:

    Duncan couldn't help but notice the pragmatism of Vermonters. They weren't idealists--the state didn't even join in signing the Declaration of Independence. But they fought tooth and nail for that independence all the same. The spirit that drove the Green Mountain boys to win the battle of Bennington in 1777 still powers Vermont's "tough old birds".

    The fact that the Battle of Bennington wasn't in Bennington doesn't seem to feed any particular train of thought, so I'd cut it. On the other hand, the "lack of resources" could feed the thought, and therefore it might be worth adding more detail. To make up facts:

    The Green Mountain boys, half-starved after a winter of no rations beyond the scraps that they could shoot or forage between skirmishes, nevertheless won the battle of Bennington in 1777, against a well-fed and better-armed British force that outnumbered them three to one. That spirit still powers Vermont's "tough old birds".
     
  15. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,684
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
    CF- yes, that's pretty much what I had in mind in my first post. But I would still question the presence of even this unless these comments point to something else in the story.
     
  16. mammamaia
    Offline

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2006
    Messages:
    19,316
    Likes Received:
    1,014
    Location:
    Coquille, Oregon
    sorry, gh, but it certainly does!... see ed'svery cogent comments re clancy and michener below...
     
  17. bsbvermont
    Offline

    bsbvermont Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 13, 2012
    Messages:
    104
    Likes Received:
    1
    Chicken freak...I do love your examples...I cut out the Battle of Bennington factoid (although it is a great trivia answer à la Grant's Tomb) And I reworked the paragraph considerably ...No I agree, Michener probably wouldn't have made it through the query process with his info dumps, nor Saul Bellow with his back story. I guess that is the downside of having read the classics more than new millennium fiction, I need to read more of what sells, not what sold or be happy with writing and not publishing. All good reasons to be part of the forum...Thanks all!

    Duncan couldn't help but notice the name Ethan Allen popping up in parks and homesteads throughout Burlington. He finally discovered that Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys had gained considerable notoriety in the Revolutionary War despite the fact that Vermont was not even a state when the Declaration of Independence was signed. They were somewhat the local heroes of Vermont showing their resourcefulness and valor as they fought through the cold and snowy Vermont winters with ragged wool coats and boots held together with bailing twine. It was due to this kind of grittiness that many of the old Vermonters derived their reputation of being “tough old birds”.
     
  18. luna claire
    Offline

    luna claire Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jul 26, 2012
    Messages:
    176
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Lost in a Mitten
    I like the new paragraph!:) It's informative but not bulky or overly detailed, in my humble opinion. Great job!
     
  19. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    I totally agree with you, I also like to be informed about stuff in novels, but it has to be relevant to the story, and interesting. Personally I love reading detective fiction, so to me the excerpt you gave is so boring, I couldn't stick with it past the first year written in numerals. But, I read a novel once called "Redbreast" by Jo Nesbo, a detective novel but with a backstory from WWII being told as a subplot, and I found all sorts of facts about battles, weapons, military strategy and politics, interesting.
    What I am trying to say is, out of context and in context, the same paragraph can have a completely different effect.

    Rule of thumb for me, though, never make it longer than a medium-length paragraph. Quickly come back to the current action (whether it is the main plot or a subplot) and if you disperse these "informations" throughout the narrative, it will be interesting and won't distract from the novel at all. In fact it will take it to a whole new level.

    I don't think that today's audiences have an attention span of a fly, and have no desire to learn anything other than how the story ends. There are many different readers, most of them interested and intelligent people, they should not be underestimated, nor should you limit your own artistic vision for the sake of some generalisations.
     
  20. Hettyblue
    Offline

    Hettyblue Member

    Joined:
    Jul 3, 2012
    Messages:
    78
    Likes Received:
    2
    Location:
    Middle England
    There is no problem with including factual information within the context of a story. In well written historical fiction it is necessary. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet and the Shardlake novels by Sansom come immediately to mind. I really enjoy inhabiting Tudor England and soaking up details of the life of a laywer in those troubled times. The pace of the story is slower as a result which is not a problem as long as you enjoy the ride. As has been advised above, keep it interesting and relevant and you should be able to take the reader with you.

    My turn off is long passages of purple prose, waffle and descriptive detail. Good luck - your reworked passage read very well :)
     

Share This Page