Writing Nowadays–Frontloaded Characters

When I wrote Writing the Paranormal Novel (on sale now, highly recommended for all gift-giving occasions), I had to cut a few bits of advice for space.  Readers of this blog have the advantage of catching some of them here.

A common mistake I see on student manuscripts is what I call front-loaded exposition.  There’s all this stuff you feel the reader has to know right now!  And so the new writer drops a whole bunch of information on the hapless reader’s head, and it hurts.

One of the more common examples is front-loaded character introductions.  The writer introduces us, say, to Lawrence, who is waiting to greet his girlfriend at the airport so he can ask her to marry him.  Our new writer nicely shows us Lawrence double-checking his pocket for the engagement ring, fluffing up the flowers, and peering out the airport window to see if the plane is landing.  He’s nervous, you see, because his best friend Jake proposed to his fiancee Fiona at an airport, and she turned Jake down.  At which point, the author feels obliged to tell us all about Jake and Fiona and Jake’s romantic rivalry with Lawrence’s brother Patrick, who just dropped out of medical school and is now a beach bum in South Beach, much to the chagrin of Grandmama Benson, a grand dame of the old Southern tradition who was widowed after Grandpoppy famously said, “Hey, y’all–watch this!” because of a bet he made with his sister Belinda, an ER nurse in a major hospital who . . .

Know what just happened?  This writer just became one of those guys at a party who bores everyone within earshot with long-winded stories about people no one else knows or cares about.  Writers do this because these characters will be important later, and they want the reader to know who they are.  Trouble is, the readers become overwhelmed with information, and they set the book down.

As rule, it’s best to avoid “introducing” a flock of characters who aren’t in a scene, especially in the beginning of a book.  Readers have a difficult enough time keeping track of who’s actually there, let alone those who aren’t.

If you must introduce people who aren’t around, do it one character at a time, to give us readers a chance to digest the information.  John Steinbeck, for example, introduces a number of non-present characters in Of Mice and Men, including the ranch boss, Crooks, Curley, Curley’s wife, and Aunt Clara, but he does it very, very carefully.  Go read the book for yourself to see how he pulls it off.

Meanwhile, look carefully at that scene.  Does the reader need to know this information right now?  Is it absolutely vital to understanding the plot or character motivation?  If the answer is no, or not really, then cut it.  Bring it in later, when the character in question actually shows up.

–Steven Harper Piziks


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Writing Nowadays–Frontloaded Characters — 5 Comments

  1. Laughing, because I’m not a new writer and I love to do this. I’ve learned to tone it down, but I tend to write story as it appears in my mind. And I’m afraid I’ll forget all these lovely gems if I don’t write them down RIGHT NOW.

    Word processors may be condemned for many things, but the ability to delete isn’t one of them!

  2. Yeah–starting in the middle of a scene, and j-u-u-u-st when it’s starting to pick up some energy, the author stops things cold in order to load in a ton of backstory in a neutral, encyclopedic voice, is a real pace killer.

    • “As they fled from the dinosaur’s rage, the ton and a half carnivore ripped through the side of the building in pursuit.” I think it gives a better sense of the size of the animal than, say, the height would. Otherwise, we need to find out earlier how big the dino is.