Too Much Information

What does your lead character know, and when does she learn it? What about the other characters? When you’re writing fiction, this is not a trivial issue — it’s a constant concern.

If you’re not careful (and I’m not always as careful as I ought to be!), you can send your lead character off in some unlikely direction not because it would make a lick of sense for her to think of doing that particular thing at that particular time, but because you, the author, know that she’s going to need to go that direction in order for the plot to develop in a satisfying way.

In essence, you’ve got a character who has been taking a peek at the author’s plot outline, which is how she knows what she needs to do. She has access to privileged information. And please don’t get that smug look on your face and tell me, “I never outline.” If you know in your head where your story is going, you’ve got an outline. If you actually don’t know, then this problem is very unlikely to arise. Other, worse problems will certainly arise, but this won’t be one of them.

Fortunately, my editor noticed that I was falling into this trap, and flagged it. My young heroine has become, by the start of Book 4, the ruler of her native land. (I’m sure you knew she’d make it eventually.) But now foreign powers are threatening to invade and toss her off the throne. I know exactly how she’s going to manage to repel the invading army; I don’t just have a plot outline, I have a completed draft in which it’s all worked out.

The method by which she is able to do this, however, is very much a long shot. My editor referred to it, quite correctly, as a “Hail, Mary.” The fact that it’s a long shot makes the plot predicament more intense, and that’s a good thing. There seems to be no way at all to repel the invasion! But instead of trying to do sensible things, like sending men out to dig trenches, my heroine wanders off and picks up some information that will become a vital component in the eventual solution to the problem.

Not good at all. She has to have that information in order for the story to reach a satisfying ending, but it’s not really very reasonable for her to go looking for it. She’s only doing it because she has been peeking at the plot outline.

Oh, well. I’ll think of something. As I often tell my cello students, “If playing the cello was easy, everybody would do it.” I suppose the same is true of writing novels. If it was easy, everybody would do it.

Sometimes it seems everybody is doing it, but that’s a topic for another time.

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