Too Much of a Good Thing Isn’t So Good

In the first installment of this series, we looked at how head-hopping (abrupt POV jumps within a scene) can damage the intimacy between a reader and the story. In this second part, I want to cover another major problem area I see in my daily work as a freelance editor.

First, take a look at this passage:

Slipping his knife from its sheath, Jack warily eyed his adversary, Conrad. Even as Conrad leapt toward him, Jack considered that the assassin had a long history of kills, dating back to the post-Vietnam days in southeast Asia. Legend had it that Conrad had successfully sanctioned targets on every continent and in more than fifty countries. He’d even made short work of several presidents of overseas nations, including the French president that had so staunchly opposed the hostilities that led to the Mediterranean War of 2120.

Jack deftly sidestepped Conrad’s initial attack and blocked the fast follow-up, but the assassin was simply too fast. Seconds later, Jack lay on the ground, looking up at Conrad’s weapon: a twenty-inch Japanese katana sword with a leather-wrapped hilt and silver blade so shiny that Jack could see the reflections of the lights from the wharf behind where he lay.

As Conrad powerfully pushed the sword toward Jack’s neck, Jack held him off the best he could, but Conrad, at six-foot-four and around two hundred fifty pounds, was proving to be too much. Finally, Jack decided to buy some time with words.

“Look,” Jack said with a friendly tone. “We both know why you’re here! You did that job last month in South Africa, and now you want the dead guy’s wife! You know she has the intel that you thought her husband had when you whacked him! Your employer wants her and the intel to disappear, and you’re here to make it happen! And your employer is paying a ton of money to kill yet one more person and add another notch to your belt!”

As I said of the sample passage in the first article in this series, this doesn’t sound like a horrible piece of writing in general, at least in terms of grammar and punctuation, right? Even the characters seem like they might be somewhat intriguing. So the issue here is…?

Answer: Too much.

In general, it’s just too much telling, and if you’ve read even a little about the craft of writing fiction, you’ve heard the old adage about “Show, don’t tell.” And it’s true.

In terms of specific forms of telling, this passage has too much detailed description, too much backstory, too much information, and too much explanation.

  • Detailed Description: It’s a fine line to walk, knowing how much description to include without going overboard. You want your reader to have enough that his or her imagination can engage and then take it from there, but you don’t want so much that you’re drowning a reader in the details. The passage above clearly goes into overkill on description. As Stephen King says in On Writing, “When it comes to scene-setting and all sorts of description, a meal is as good as a feast.” So don’t stuff your reader so full of details that they’ll want to leave the table, saying, “No more for me, thanks.”
  • Backstory: Yes, every tale has a backstory, because no matter where you decide to begin your story, something happened before it and some of it does matter to the story at hand. As with description, this is a fine line to walk. When do you get backstory in? And how much do you get in? While every story is different, I usually recommend to authors to only include backstory when the reader really needs to know it. So, keep a lot of backstory out of the beginning. After all, if it’s that important to the story, then just start your story earlier and include all that backstory as part of the actual tale. Another suggestion is to not clutter up fast-paced scenes (like the one above) with a lot of backstory that brings the action to a halt. As for how much, that’s going to depend on the story, but bottom line is: if it’s necessary, get it in; if not, cut it, no matter how much in love with it you are.
  • Information: As with backstory, your novel is at times likely going to have to provide the reader with some information to keep him or her in the know, whether it’s some of the intricacies of heart surgery or the firing mechanism on an assault rifle. Again, as with backstory, it comes down to when to present the info and how much to include. In this case, my suggestion is the same as with backstory: only get in the most essential information to help the reader know what they need to know, and only do it at the right times (as in, not during an action scene, like above).
  • Explanation: By explanation, I mean that the author is trying too hard to make sure the reader understands how something is said or done, or to make sure the reader knows the character’s emotional state. In the above passage, I would flag the manner adverbs and exclamation points as two examples of over-explaining. Looking at the exclamation points in the final paragraph above, does any passage ever need so many to convey the tension of the situation? I think the context of the passage should do that! If it doesn’t, then the author hasn’t done a very good job of showing us the scene! And the author is slipping into yet another form of telling instead of showing! Finally, manner adverbs (ones that tell how someone acts or speaks, usually –ly words like “deftly” and “powerfully”) are okay sometimes. But it’s still best to avoid them if you can. For the most part, you can either use stronger verbs that show what the manner adverb tells (“he sprinted” rather than “he ran quickly”), or you can make sure the idea comes across in the words or actions in the context of the scene and just delete the adverb itself. While some adverbs are unavoidable, adverbs are one more way that it’s easy to tell readers rather than show them the story unfolding. To try your hand at eliminating adverbs, do a document search for ly, and see how many you can rework (although this method won’t flag adverbial prepositional phrases, such as “he said with a friendly tone”—you’ll have to find those on your own).

As I feel like this article is getting to be “too much” in terms of length, I’ll leave it at … ‘Nuff said.

Next in this three-part series — Part 3: Typos Can Tip the Scale