Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Information Feed Tricks And Tips For Writers Part I - Definition of News

In college, there are majors for Creative Writing, for Journalism, and for various skill sets that fiction writers need -- such as English, Linguistics, Anthropology, Psychology.

But there are no actual majors in COMMERCIAL FICTION WRITING that I know of. If you find one that covers the material I've been including in these blog posts, please drop a comment here.

There's a major for Music Arts. But not a corresponding one for Fiction Arts to prepare you for a career in fiction writing, editing, publishing, or fictioneering in various other media such as comics, animation, dramatic writing, etc. The stage arts have a major, and so do the screen arts. But where is the major in writing novels for the commercial market?

Isn't that curious? If you want to become a professional novelist or editor you are on your own after college, and woe betide you if you didn't take the courses you need. But of course, nobody will tell you what those course are before you start college.

Now, the brutal truth is that there is a living to be made in Journalism, but very rarely in commercial fiction writing. Perhaps that's why there's no major?

Oddly, most of the best selling novels I've encountered lately were written by Journalists with long track records in magazines and newspapers.

News "papers" are dying, but "news" and news gathering and news writing are still here.

A lot of journalists are going indie after being laid off from newspapers.

And they are doing very well with blogging and building audiences that click on advertising links for which they get paid. Huffington Post, Politico and similar blog-sites have real, well trained journalists both announcing and commenting on the day's events.

Fiction writers are going indie with either publishing their own e-books or finding new e-book publishers that do packaging and presentation, but usually the writer then has to do promotion, publicity and advertising.

However, non-fiction is doing much better than fiction in paper editions, so it's worth studying non-fiction closely for clues, tips and tricks.

The competition for the attention of readers and viewers is more fierce than ever. There is a growing population, and more people online willing to read (more enchanted by images on YouTube, true, but still reading a lot), but there are more people writing and creating videos, more different media that are accessible to the indie creator, so that the result is more stuff for each reader to choose from.

There's the information glut come to full fruition just as predicted in the 1970's.

How do you, as a fiction writer, attract and hold attention?

Writing teachers will tell you that the core of that trick is "suspense." And you can see that trick being used on TV news programs as "the teaser."

Just before a commercial, they will announce what they're going to cover "next" and tell you something about it that makes you want to hear that item. When they get back from the break, they go on about some other item, with yet another "teaser" about the item that you wanted to hear about, repeatedly putting it off until the end of the show.

They string you along like that with artificially generated suspense.

If you're smart, you give up, channel surf, get bored, and go google the item up. It'll take you five minutes to find out what you wanted to know instead of sitting around for an hour watching commercials.

But solid research shows people do sit there in suspense, waiting, and letting the commercials wash over them. Research shows exposure to those commercials does change behavior later in the stores. (Sad, horrifying, but true, which is why they do it.)

Series TV fiction does the same kind of artificial suspense, cutting to commercial just where you want to see what's coming next. Good fiction writers do that at chapter ends and scene ends.

The tricks and tips for how to structure a scene so suspense is built "naturally" rather than "artificially" by tricking the reader into waiting are in these posts:



Suspense works every time to create a "page turner" when it's not done as a "delay" or a "digression." Why is that and how do you learn to do it with your own material? And how do you tell a "delay" or "digression" from real suspense technique when you're the one who's written it? How do you test your own material to see if you've achieved "suspense?" (after all, you know what comes next, so you can't feel the suspense you are generating!)

How do you take a story you have had erupt into your mind whole cloth, a universe, a character, a whole complex situation that is too fascinating for words, that spreads over galaxies and is built on centuries of political history, that has the characters entangled in a huge web of bizarre science unthinkable by your reader, and criss-crossing love affairs finally erupting into True Love, and make that reader see what is fascinating about it?

Suspense is not fascinating. It makes you impatient. "Get on with it already!"

To get suspense to work for you as a writer to attract and hold a reader, you need to achieve a pace that the reader is comfortable with.

In previous blog entries here I've defined how I use the word "pace" to mean "rate of change of Situation" rather than "fast action" or "how many fight scenes how close together."

One error many beginning writers (even selling professionals!) make is to blow the suspense right at the beginning of the novel by TELLING the background.

That creates an expository lump
right at the opening.

Expository lumps are long sections (3 paragraphs or more; half a page even can be a lump) during which the Situation does not change, but the writer stops the forward momentum of the story to "fill the reader in" by telling about the background, or what has happened before, or what is happening off stage, all very interesting to the writer and crazy-boring to the reader because it does not go where the reader wants to go. Ahead.

Here's an example of how to show not tell the material in an opening paragraph of exposition so that it becomes dramatized narrative:


But that was just one paragraph of information. How do you dissect out the pieces of "an idea" that arrives with a whole Universe attached and lay it out in linear form so that someone who does not know everything about it can see just how fascinating it is?

How do you grind your idea up into bread crumbs and lay them out in a linear trail for the curious reader to follow to your HEA ending?

Well, there is a technique for that which I call INFORMATION FEED.

Every bit of "information" becomes a crumb to be laid down in a trail for the reader to follow. Pacing is all about how far apart you put the crumbs.

Here's how you take a lump of a universe and create a linear "feed" of information.

1) Ask yourself, "Why do I want to write this story?" What is the payload you want to deliver?

2) Find the vocabulary that scintillates with hints of that payload. It's all about semantics. Find the semantically loaded vocabulary you need.

3) Ask yourself, "Why would anyone NOT be interested in this?" What's boring about your universe?

4) Ask yourself, "What does my typical reader want to read about?" Tease that subject out of the morass of the "idea" you have. It's in there somewhere, but you have to bring it to the surface by submerging the rest. "Submerged" material is what gives fiction "depth." The more you submerge, the more "classic" your work will be. But submerge it under something clean, clear, simple, something you can express in one sentence.

5) Ask yourself, "What does my typical reader want to know first?" What will show the reader that this breadcrumb trail will lead to the payload that reader enjoys most at the end of the story. (i.e. the "HEA" ending, the "enemies vaquished" ending, the "hero triumphant" ending, or the "poignant loss of everything" or the "villain gets his comeuppance" ending, or the "villain becomes hero" ending).

With those 5 Answers, you now have some facts about this story that you can arrange into a series, a trail of breadcrumbs. You might have to switch it around several ways before you find the right path into the story, but you no longer have an amorphous lump.

The trick is to sort the lump so that the reader doesn't have to know all about the universe, the politics, the historic wars among kingdoms or galaxies, the succession to the throne, or anything else before the story starts. See? To have "pacing" the story and the plot must start to dance with each other, not just stand there and wait while you explain the history of the dance steps.

From those 5 answers on, your job becomes very much like plotting a mystery.

You stretch the information into a line of clues, and the protagonist follows his/her nose through to the end.

Suspense is created by what the reader does not know that the writer does know.

But the reader must never sense that the writer is "withholding" information. Suspense and surprise endings are not created by keeping the reader ignorant, but by keeping the reader engaged, moving (pacing) from one bit of information to the next at a rate that satisfies the reader.

To formulate that all important "beginning," the "downbeat" of the dance music between plot and story, choose semantically loaded words, words fraught with subtext, and weave them into a seductive, rhythmic sentence which carries the promise that you will answer the questions it raises as the story unfolds.

In the first sentence, reveal the first breadcrumb.

That will tell the reader if it's rye, whole wheat, or barley bread -- maybe raisin?

Simple choice of vocabulary can establish genre and invite the book-browser to work to figure out whether they want to buy this book by searching for the next breadcrumb.

Within a few paragraphs, reveal the next breadcrumb.

The space between breadcrumbs then defines the rhythm of the piece, the type of dance between story and plot: waltz, cha-cha, boogie, adagio, tap, break, macarena, tango!

The rest of the information on defining the conflict, the characters, and the setting is transmitted by implication, hint, symbolism, imagery, by careful selection of DETAIL.

Every detail you mention overtly when describing a scene (the color of the carpeting, the provenance of the vase on the mantel) carries information by inference. That you selected this detail to emphasize, rather than leaving it to the reader's imagination, indicates that it's important and must be remembered.

Too much detail, and the reader feels they're working too hard for too little reward. Lard in extra detail between breadcrumbs, and the effort-to-reward ratio becomes way too large. The book is not worth reading.

Too little detail between breadcrumbs, and the book is too "thin," too transparent, boring and not worth reading.

Get the proportion of detail to breadcrumbs, the distance between those crumbs of information wrong, and for the book-browser, it's like sticking their head into a room where someone is practicing playing the violin, one scratchy note at a time with repeated tries at hitting the note. The plot and story aren't dancing. There's no performance to watch.

Get the proportion of detail to breadcrumbs, and the distance between those crumbs of information just right, and the suspense becomes as engaging as watching the stage in the film Dirty Dancing when the lights come up revealing a couple posed just so, dressed just so, -- no other details on that stage but the spotlight, and you can tell they are about to tango and it'll be hellishly sexy. The downbeat, AND!, movement, suggestive, fascinating -- will she make the lift or not?

You don't have to have watched the movie up to that point to stare at the screen, holding your breath as they tango. The suspense is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

But it's natural suspense, inherent in the Situation, not artificial. The prior information about how he taught her this one dance in order to fill in as his partner, enhances the suspense, but doesn't create it.

Watch that scene in Dirty Dancing out of context. Watch how the camera "reveals" the old couple in the audience.

You don't have to know what's going on back at the resort to know that the presence of that old couple implies something is going to happen next.

That is natural suspense. Inherent in the Situation. And it works every time. That is how you want to lay down your breadcrumb trail.

And that's what News Shows don't do.

Their "coming up next" or "after the break" teasers are overt, hits over the head, carrying the information in text not sub-text.

Study news shows. Study "hard news" and "opinion" shows, study how they handle the huge and distracting commercial breaks, how they open a segment after a break and how they end off on a cliffhanger just before the break.

These are writing techniques illustrated in blatant, easy to learn caricatures. It's a clear illustration of how to grab an audience and how to hold it by arranging information in linear sequence.

In fiction, you have to do the same thing with the information you are transmitting to your readers/viewers, but you must do it by subtext, by inference, innuendo, and even mis-direction.

But it is the same technique. The same goal, too. You need to keep the reader/viewer interested in something that's interesting to you and inherently boring to them.

You have to take that lump of a universe that is so fascinating to you, and dissect it just the way TV news dissects our real world into an over simplified straight line presented by sound-bytes that don't bore the viewer (too much).

When is information boring?

When it does not answer the question you have in your mind.

When is it fun to acquire information?

When you have been harboring a burning question you need the answer to, AND when you have found that answer for yourself, by your own efforts, without anyone TELLING YOU.

Information someone tells you is boring.

Secrets you unravel for yourself are interesting.

That's what editors mean when they say they want to read a well written manuscript that "holds my interest."  That's code for "make me figure it out."  

Information that is kept from you is irresistibly interesting.

So how do you make your reader interested in your universe?

You lead him on a treasure hunt to the answer to a question he wants answered.

Your reader won't get interested enough to follow you if you don't let him know you are keeping a secret. But if you tell him/her the answer, he/she won't care anymore because now he/she knows.

That sounds so obvious and simple, but it is incredibly difficult to do.

In Part II, we'll look at just how to select your breadcrumbs and arrange them in a trail that is paced just right.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com - current availability
http://www.simegen.com/jl/ - full bio/biblio


  1. This is an invaluable post - thank you! I especially liked learning about revealing details, why we reveal some and not others.

    I adore leaving breadcrumbs - its so much fun!

  2. I saved reading this post for a half hour when I knew I wouldn't be interrupted, so I could really absorb everything. And it was worth the wait!

    I hope you will consider putting a few examples into Part II if possible.

    You mentioned the popularity of YouTube - what in your opinion can a writer do to make their scenes and breadcrumbs as "visual" as possible in order to capture this audience?