Out of the Info Dumpster

This continues last week’s post with the rest of Nicole’s questions and Christie V Powell’s responses:

From Nicole:

Q#2-How much essential information should I include in the first few paragraphs (or chapters) of my story? When I try to introduce essential info, it always comes out in a jumbled mess and makes no sense whatsoever. How do I spread out the info across the plot?

Q#3- I want to make the beginnings interesting, but sometimes I want to avoid action as an opener and introduce the plot calmly. How do I do that without losing the reader after the first sentence?

From Christie V Powell:

2 For introducing information, I’d suggest looking at some of your favorite sequels and see how they summarize the story before and how much they put in. Sometimes it helps to use a “Watson character,” someone who has no idea what’s going on and so needs to have things explained. You can also add short flashbacks if they have to do with the subject at hand: showing her home in flames to explain why she can’t go back, for instance. I found that I knew too much about the story and didn’t know what needed to be said, so I had some new readers look at it and tell me where I needed to explain things.

3 Ella Enchanted doesn’t start with action. The first chapter is a quick summary of her life and what brought her to this point. And yet we love it. Having an interesting voice helps a lot–I’m not sure it would have worked in 3rd person, for instance. I think the important thing is that there’s conflict, whether or not it involves action. Ella is pitted against her curse–there’s conflict right from the beginning, even though she’s not fighting ogres or something.

Thank you, Christie V Powell for the kind words about Ella Enchanted!

What follows will jump around between Q#2 and Q#3.

Looking for help in beloved books can be instructive, as Christie V Powell suggests, and these don’t have to be sequels. Any admired fantasy will do.

In some of his Discworld books, Terry Pratchett starts with background about his universe. It’s not action, but the strangeness of this world draws me in. The appeal is intellectual more than emotional. I want to know more about a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle, so I start turning pages.

That’s one strategy, to think about the universe we’re operating in and what might most surprise the reader, and then we can state it directly. This is probably easiest to do in third person. In first, the reader may wonder how the MC knows that other universes exist. However, we can set the stage in third person and then shift to first for the rest of the story if that’s our preference.

Further along in his books, Pratchett sometimes gives information in footnotes, which are usually humorous. I love them, but they do take me out of the unfolding action–though I don’t care. I’m a total fan. When I read a Pratchett book I abandon myself to whatever he throws at me in whatever form he throws it.

We can do something similar. We can use footnotes or sidebars or information in outlined boxes. But what we reveal in these asides has to be worth it–has to feel key to understanding or has to charm on its own and can’t take more words than are strictly necessary–or the reader will start skipping.

In her famous beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Austen starts out as calm as pudding with irony and an abstract principle: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

This isn’t fantasy, but the early nineteenth century is in some ways more distant and different from our own world than anything our early twenty-first century minds can create out of thin air.

I can’t resist Austen’s beginning, not even after umpteen readings. The first time I read it, my response was, Huh? Let me look at that again. Then it was, Ha! And then: Single man? Wife? Romance coming up. I’m in.

So we can even start with an abstraction, if it’s interesting.

Humor always works for me. A beginning can be devoid of action, but if it’s funny, I will give what follows a chance.

Despite my admiration for Terry Pratchett, I’ve never used his direct delivery approach. I tend to throw readers in at the deep end, swim or sink. In a way, entering the world of a book is like learning a language, and I prefer the immersion method. I’m not aware of this while I’m writing. I know the territory, so I just write as though the reader does, too. I assume that if what’s going on is just comprehensible enough and interesting enough, he’ll want to soldier on.

But I confused the copy editor for the Two Princesses prequel, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and she had lots of questions. On one, my editor wrote in response to let it go because an information dump early in the story wouldn’t work. (I think she’d agree it never works, no matter when it appears.) In other cases, my editor asked me to address the copy editor’s question in the manuscript. But when I did, I dropped the info in quickly, as minimally as possible, a sentence, a phrase, rarely a paragraph. And sometimes, I confess, I thought the copy editor’s questions came out of nothing more than curiosity, because the answers weren’t essential to the story, and sometimes they just over-complicated what was going on. So I ignored ‘em.

If we don’t want to start with action, we can begin with character. Say our MC Katya is a kitchen wench in the king’s castle. The book opens with her chopping vegetables and imagining a conversation between the carrots and the onions. The reader will learn about her, both because she’s someone who wonders what veggies think and from the speeches she gives them. We can even make the reader like or dislike her depending on the words she puts in the veggies’ not-mouths. And we can drop in some hints at future conflict even though we haven’t introduced it directly.

We can open with actual conversation, but we should resist the urge to make our characters say what they already know just to inform the reader, because that sort of conversation is forced.

Katya’s best friend, Mark, who serves crumpets to the prime minister, can come into the kitchen and stop for a moment at Katya’s chopping board. Mark can tell about the mouse that ran over the queen’s slippers at breakfast. Katya knows nothing of this, so their dialogue will be fresh. We can drop in impressions of characters who are going to figure in our story, and we can show the relationship between the friends, which will be revealing about both.

Let’s use this example to show how we can slip in information without our story grinding to a halt. Suppose in the anecdote Mark tells Katya, the mouse jumped from the slippers to the table and ran across one of the golden plates. The reader thinks, Golden plates? Why does that seem familiar? Mark adds, “That’s when Her Majesty fainted.” Now we’ve highlighted our clue by the fainting. Katya says, “What about the baby?” The reader thinks, There’s a baby? I think I recognize this story. Mark can answer, “Oh, she slept right through it.” That will probably drive the nail home: golden plates + girl baby + good sleeper = “Sleeping Beauty.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the veggie-chopping scene and the imagined carrot-onion discussion and make the reader dislike Katya, who may be the villain in the coming tale. If you like, keep going.

∙ Begin your story with Katya in the castle kitchen and subtly introduce a different fairy tale, maybe “Snow White” or “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” In this version, she can be likable or not–your choice.

∙ Begin your story with an abstract principle. You can use an adage like “A stitch in time saves nine,” or borrow from ancient Greek philosophy with this from Democritus: “The world is change; life is opinion.” Or anything else that interests you.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. The Florid Sword says:

    Great post, Gail. Thanks.

    I had a question. How do you stay interested in a story? I have trouble finishing my books because I have a grand idea that works and I write feverishly and then- I get a new idea for the same book, usually involving a new character or a new subplot. And I start over. Either that or I write the first three pages and then lose interest and move on to something else.
    Needless to say, it’s annoying. Does anyone have any advice about how to stay on a story without changing the plot or losing interest?

    • The Florid Sword (love your name, by the way), I would recommend using a motivational sort of tactic to keep yourself on a story without losing interest or changing the plot. There are a lot of good websites out there (Write the World– for young writers– NaNoWriWo, Camp NaNo, etc. A quick Google search will bring up tons of options) that you can use to link in with fellow writers and share your story with them. On many of the websites, they have a deadline for you to complete your project by, and occasional prompts to jumpstart your writing. I find that having other people motivating you and holding you to your word makes it easier to stay on task. Hope this helps!

      • The Florid Sword says:

        I got my name from the awesome Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. The Florid Sword is easily the best character. 🙂

    • I have a box of stories from high school in my closet. Most of them are unfinished (but they are super fun to go back and read). Almost all of the stories that I did finish were ones that I outlined. I had to know where I was going and a couple of steps on the way, so that I desired to get there. Otherwise I lost interest and filed them away. I know it’s not for everyone but that’s what worked for me.

      As far as not changing the plot, is that a bad thing? Even we outliners know that our plans are flexible. If we follow where the story wants to go, it’s not going to go exactly according to plan and that’s okay. Instead of starting all the way over, make some notes (in the margins, or a separate document, or in a different text color), about what you’re going to change when you go back and edit. Then keep going.

    • Create a lot of suspense and laughter. That will make it a lot more interesting. I have written a few stories myself, and some are very long. Think of what you would do in the situation . Sometimes I even play a game out of my books. Sometimes I write a story out of a fun game. If you happen to lose your interest, draw some pictures for it. Maybe even draw some pictures for what’s going to happen next. I am sure you are a great writer, you just need to not only catch your reader’s interest, catch yourself’s interest. If you want to change the plot, you can, but don’t erase the rest. Create a new book and maybe even connect the two like have the different characters meet. Hope this helps!

      P.S. Your name is AWESOME!

  2. Dear Miss Gail.
    I am Silvia and I am from Italy. I have borrowed “Ella Enchanted” from the library (here in Italy your book is called “Il dono della fata” which means the fairy’s gift) and I completely love it.
    I’m also desperate because there are no more copies of the book here and I desire it on my bookshelf.
    I don’t know if this is the right place to say it, but I really hope that this book will be published again here in Italian.
    I give you my compliments,
    Best regards!

    P.s: I apologize if my english isn’t proper.

    • By the way,

      It is SO cool you know a different language! I’m pretty good in french, but your English is AMAZING and you are fluent in Italian!

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Thank you! I don’t have control over publication in Italy–or anywhere, including the United States. A publisher has to want to publish my books. You might try contacting the publisher, Mondadori, I think, and suggest that they republish the book.

  3. Writeforfun says:

    Wonderful Post! You’ve given me such a brilliant idea for the beginning of my first book – which I wrote six years ago and never could find a good beginning for. It’s perfect! I’m finally satisfied with it! I don’t know how you do it, Gail, but it seems like you always manage to put something immensely helpful in every single post. Thanks!

  4. Writeforfun says:

    I know this is an odd question, but I’m curious! If I’m the only one that does this, please forgive me for being so weird ;).

    Do any of you find that you ever become fascinated with characters that you weren’t supposed to? What I mean is, in books as well as movies, there’s usually the hero, and one or two main funny or awesome buddy characters, who are the ones that everybody is supposed to love; but many times, for me, there’s some other supporting character that gets my attention. I don’t mean that I even like the character, necessarily, but there’s something about them that piques my imagination and keeps me thinking about them after it’s over. I noticed it for the first time the other day. Thinking back, I realized that most of these characters that have unintentionally caught my attention have one of two situations/character traits in common. How about any of you? Do you find that you are drawn to certain characters you aren’t necessarily supposed to be? Do you find that those characters have had certain traits in common, or is it random?

    I was just thinking that, if so, then in theory, some people may love some books simply for including, even in a minor role, the type of character that they like…? In which case, perhaps it might be a reminder to try to make each character in our stories, not just the main ones, interesting. Just a thought.

    Or, maybe it’s just me!

    Weird question, I know, but I was just wondering!

    • I’m fascinated with any character played by Richard Armitage. Just the sight of him can make me squeal for a whole minute.

      On a more serious note, there’s an actual term for this. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EnsembleDarkhorse

      It happened in the LOTR fandom, with Figwit the elf. (One of the (supposedly super cute) elven extras at Elrond’s court, who got his nickname from the acronym Frodo Is Great; Who Is That? He’s got an official fan page and everything. Due to his popularity , they actually invited the actor back for the Hobbit movies

    • Good idea, to include minor characters that still have interesting stories. What are the situations that draw you in?
      My new WIP is a bit different in that there’s only one main character but a ton of secondary characters. It’s also more character based than action based which is a fun challenge.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I used to love the Archie comic books, and my favorite character was Jughead. His closed eyes got me. Why were they closed?

    • Very interesting idea. Now that I think about it, I do this sometimes too. I always seem to like a character that has either a sarcastic or dry sense of humor, even if he or she is an antagonist. I also happen to really like the character of Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter books, as well as the character of Mr. Bates from the TV show Downton Abbey. Guess what? They both have the same Meyers-Briggs personality. Go figure.

    • Yes. I always like the super obscure characters best. Doyce, from “Little Dorrit.” Percy, from “Dear Enemy.” Are the most notable, I think.

  5. I used to read a lot fo Archie comic books growing up. 🙂 (My dad had a bunch he’d collected when he was a boy.) I never noticed Jughead’s eyes. I tend to go for the secondary characters who you’re still supposed to love, like Ffludder Fflan in the Prydain Chronicles, and Gonff the Mousethief in Mossflower. I think it’s at least partly because they tend to be more cheery than the brooding hero. But then I write a lot of brooding heroes myself. Don’t know why that is.

  6. I have a question: how do you figure out what your characters want? I mean everyone says “make your character want something” etc. etc. But how do you give them something to want that isn’t overly vague (world peace) or overly trivial (sparkly sholaces)? Does anyone have any suggestions? How do you give each character a separate agenda while still fighting for the same cause as the other characters?

    • Usually when I think of this kind of motivation, it’s something internal, like ‘acceptance’ or ‘to be appreciated’ or ‘to feel loved’ or ‘to feel safe’. Then for a major character those internal needs often turn into a goal: ‘to find my missing brother’ or ‘get so-and-so’s attention’ or ‘be popular’.

      In my book, I have two pairs of characters who have the same motivation. The second two both want safety. One seeks it by searching for her brother, who always protected her (in the second book she seeks it by becoming more independent and learning to protect herself), while the other tries to defend people and face the villain to make the world safer for everyone. The second two both crave acceptance, but in opposite ways: one wants to fit in socially, one wants to be accepted for who she is.

  7. The Florid Sword says:

    I had another question. When is it okay to write “and then a month passed uneventfully” or something to that effect? I get very bored when I’m writing fantasy and nothing is happening, even when something needs to happen (i.e., in this book, two characters need to fall in love, but I don’t know if I need to show that for the whole month or what?)
    Does this make any sense?
    Sorry. Any help would be appreciated. 😛

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      J. K. Rowling does an excellent job of this. Since her books take place over the course of a school year, she has to skip a lot of boring stuff. Instead of saying “months passed with no events worth noting,” she will simply change scenes, making note of the snow on the ground and the Christmas decorations and things like that. It’s subtle enough that it’s not jarring, and clear enough that the reader goes, “Oh, it’s Christmas time now”.

    • You might want to look at why time needs to pass. If you’re covering an event like a certain year, skipping months makes sense, and the same is true for traveling long distances–it takes time to cross that many miles. However, I read a book a few months ago where the author said, “The boy and his wolf hung around the house for three days before beginning their journey.” So? That added nothing to the story as far as I can tell. Rick Riordan often has his characters on a deadline (only five days until the end of the world!!!) and then has something come up like getting knocked out that causes several days to pass unnoticed, to increase tension.

      I like Jenalyn Barton’s idea of showing that time has passed through outside markers. Or you can say something like, “Even after three weeks, she had not grown used to having him around.” In Bird by Bird, Ann Lamont suggests something like “Six years later, the smell of fish continued to haunt her.” Or Ella Enchanted: “In my first month, I did little right. In my second, I did little wrong.”

      Time pacing seems to vary between books. One story takes place over a single day; another over a lifetime. Sometimes you zoom in moment by moment, and sometimes you allow a few hours or months or years to slip past. It really depends on you and your story. I decided my books would take a season each (about three months) and then made a calendar to figure out how time would realistically pass, especially as they travel. As far as falling in love goes, scene-time matters much more than story time. You can say “they dated for five years” and it still won’t seem as important as a single hour-long scene stretched out over a single chapter.

  8. The Florid Sword says:

    Okay. The time does need to pass, because one of the characters (the boy) is being monitored for a month so the adults can figure out whether or not to trust him (he’s related to the villains.)
    So if I just show one scene where they are quite obviously falling in love, and let the rest of the month go by uneventfully, then it will be okay?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      That sounds fine to me, except for the word “uneventfully.” We can write the one scene and then say that the month went by. “Uneventfully,” however, pulls me a tiny bit out of the story and makes me wonder, “Really? Absolutely nothing happened?” Without it, I don’t think to question the month’s passing.

      • Writeforfun says:

        Good point about the word “uneventfully.” Speaking of which, however, do you think it is a suitable word when you’re deliberately trying to show that the period of time was exceptionally boring, and events that everyone was eagerly anticipating, still haven’t come? Or would there be a better word or way of showing that that comes to mind? It’s unrelated to the situation of the Florid Sword’s question, I think, but this just reminded me of a scene where I used the word to try to show that it was agonizingly boring for MC and nothing that he was hoping for happened. Your thoughts?

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          Aaa! I don’t know! I’d need to see what you actually wrote. But I wonder if you might enact the boringness. For example, suppose the MC is waiting for someone’s arrival. We might narrate the failure of the person to come, as in, Three cars turned onto our street. Three cars were not driven by Sandy. I decided to make peanut brittle, because she would certainly come just as I was about to pour the sugar, and there would be a big mess. I made the peanut brittle, poured the peanut brittle, and it cooled, and it hardened, and we ate it, and Sandy did not arrive.

          Please do not regard this as a recipe for peanut brittle, which I last made when I was in high school!

  9. How do you decide whether or not to have multiple narrators?
    Years ago, I started this story with three sisters. Over time, two of the sisters merged into one, and both sisters have a POV. I’ve gotten a lot more done with the younger sister’s parts and I’ve thought of making her the sole narrator. But the older sister is still important and I feel like some key moments would mean more if they were told from her perspective.

    • I read the question to my husband. These are his thoughts: The two POVs should be balanced, with similar amounts of play. Also, if you do both, make sure they identify themselves with each change, and make sure they sound different from each other. He’s also mentioning that the younger sister could learn about the older’s point of view from a letter or journal entry (or magic fairy book!).

      For a little while I was concerned about my first book, where a secondary character, Sienna, has a fairly big subplot. I decided that instead of switching to Sienna’s POV, I would make sure that her plot was important to the main character Keita and to the climax. Sienna is looking for her brother, and on their journeys she discovers the identity of her parents. Sienna shares this with Keita at a crucial moment, giving Keita the motivation she needs to enter the climax. They both find her brother at the same moment and it is important to both of them.

  10. The Twelve Dancing Princesses… The Seven Wild Swans… The Little Mermaid… Seven Simons… The Nine Muses…

    I’m looking for a fairy tale or myth with many siblings in it (more than four). Any others come to mind?

      • Thanks. I knew about the two sisters but I hadn’t heard of brothers before.
        I’m woolgathering an idea of writing a bunch of short stories, one from the POV of each sibling, but then having them work together to tell the fairy tale. 12 Dancing Princesses would be perfect but I’ve read too many retellings of it lately. Maybe Seven Swans… what were those transforming brothers up to while their sister was weaving and not talking? Or Little Mermaid, but switch the setting to be less recognizable at first… I don’t know, I’m still playing with the idea.

  11. Hi everyone! I have a question:
    I’ve finished my Jack and Elsa fanfiction story, and now I’m looking for a new project. I have an idea about three brothers who don’t get along, who meet three princesses who have sibling issues of their own.
    My problem is, I’ve started a bunch of non-fanfiction stories, but only one made to the revision stage…and then I ended up abandoning that one. There are several reasons, but the main one is that I’m not madly in love with the characters I create as I am with Jack Frost and Elsa.
    I’m getting worried, because if they’re the only reason I’m able to finish a story, then my future as an author is extremely limited.
    How can I learn to love the characters I create from my own imagination?
    Thanks in advance for help! : )

    • Well, to start with, could you use the same characters and then mix them up a little? Write about Jack and Elsa, but change their names just a bit, and give them different abilities (fire? telepathy?). Almost all of my stories in my ‘memory box’ have real people I knew in them, but I discovered that a lot of times they would develop personalities of their own as I worked with them. In one story, my friend Brett was the peacemaker. In the next, he was constantly fighting with the main character. (Okay, that may have had to do with an argument we had gotten into…). My current story started with a lot of characters from my family (names and ages switched). Most of them have evolved into their own people, but sometimes I can still see the resemblance–my mom recognized herself in one of my mother figures. I’ve also had moments where I realized that one of my characters actually resembles someone I know in real life… and I didn’t plan it that way.

    • Characters! If you don’t have good characters you don’t have a story. How to fix this? Well, something I do is I figure out their place in the plot (plot always comes first with me, characters second, but others do it the other way around, characters first, plot second) and then I figure out why they fit that part in the plot.
      Say I need a Usurping Uncle to usurp the earlship and give my MC an enemy, and that overthrowing him is the MC’s goal. Usurping Uncle (let’s call him Clive) needs to be a living breathing character though. So, figure out WHY Clive usurped the Earldom.
      1. He’s power hungry.
      2. His sister wasn’t running the Earldom as efficiently as when should have been, and wasted millions of golden crowns (the currency of the realm), thus bankrupting the family. Clive doesn’t like being poor.
      3. He happens to look really good in the silver circlet worn by the ruler of the Earldom.

      Things that can be inferred: He’s power hungry (you probably didn’t see that one coming) but also good at running things, he is terrified of poverty and he’s vain as can be.
      Now that you have this base, use it to build him up a little more. If he’s vain, he’s probably also proud, and likely pretty selfish etc. etc.

      Now, sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to get Clive acting as he should, sometimes your not sure just what to do with him, and can’t figure out how he would react to a situation. Fear not! There is a useful solution! (Or, at least, I find it useful.) Go to https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test and take the personality tests for Clive, entering the answers you think he would give. Figure out what his personality is and use the handy-dandy reference pages they have on each personality to flesh out his characters and as a go to for when your not sure how he would react to certain situations. Using this method I have created many characters that are a blast to write.
      Hope I helped. 🙂

    • Song4myKing says:

      For main characters especially, but also for others, it’s like I take a piece of myself and build a character. One MC is like the epitome of myself as a teenager – at least, a lot like one side of my inner self, anyway. The daring, decisive side that nobody ever saw. Another MC seems to be shaping up more like the opposite side of the teenager me. More timid, uncertain. And another MC is more like the current me. Not sure what side of me – I probably won’t know until I look back in a few years. None of this was exactly intentional. I just tried to put myself in the situation, and capitalized on my reactions to it. And characters I cared about grew out of it.

      Hope this helps!

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