Sunday, January 1, 2012

Don’t Lecture Your Readers

-          by Jodie Renner, who posts craft of fiction articles here on CFC every second Monday.

Have you ever been reading a novel when suddenly the author interrupts the story to give you background or technical information about something, or he/she tries to sneak in some info via a dialogue, only it's really a monologue, with a character going on for a half page or more, uninterrupted, lecturing about something? Fortunately, this rarely happens to this extent anymore. Unlike 100 years ago, today's readers of fiction won't stand for this kind of heavy-handed, clunky imparting of information within a story.

Savvy authors know that readers choose fiction to be entertained and swept away by a compelling story. Stopping to fill them in on a topic as an aside jars them out of the story, slows down the pace, and runs the risk of boring many of them. If readers want to find out more information on a subject, they can do that very easily these days, through internet searches.
So unless you’re writing a historical saga like those of James Michener, or the one I’m reading right now, New York by Edward Rutherfurd, where readers welcome background info on historically relevant times and locations, I don't think fiction is the place to interrupt the story to insert a lot of detail on a particular subject. And of course, if you are writing a saga, it's best to include the info in a natural, character-specific way, so it doesn’t come across like a history textbook. (See below for some hints.)

So be careful not to dump a bunch of factual information willy-nilly into your story. A novel or short story is no place to give a lecture on a technical subject –- or to get on your soapbox about a topic that's dear to your heart or makes your blood boil. Readers will feel annoyed, patronized or manipulated, when what they really want is to be entertained and captivated by your tale.

Here's why most readers of contemporary fiction don't like having their story interrupted by author explanations:
  • It takes them out of the character’s viewpoint, so the illusion of being right there in the story is shattered.
  • It creates a jarring interruption to the story line, which you then have to re-establish, and hook your readers back in.
  • Readers may feel you’re lecturing them or preaching to them, which has no place in fiction.
  • It’s distracting, annoying, and often boring.

What about info that’s essential or relevant to your story? There are ways to slip that in without interrupting the narrative flow or dumping a pile of information on the readers. For example:

  • Your viewpoint character has to recall some critical information she once knew, and works to remember or find it.

  • Your protagonist asks another character (or several) to fill him in on some info he’s fuzzy on –- but be sure it’s in a conversational way, and keep the information-imparting as brief as possible. (more on this below)

  • Your protagonist is researching critical information on the computer or in the library. Show what she learns as thoughts or in dialogue –- but only what is essential for the plotline. And give her emotional reaction to what she’s learned, and to how the new info changes things.

  •  Your character is interviewing people to solve a problem. Show some of the interview in real time, with dialogue.

  • She’s reading the newspaper or watching the news or other TV show, where she learns some new information on a subject.

  • For backstory, use flashbacks and play them in real time.
And of course, don’t let your characters lecture or pontificate in dialogue, either. It’s just not natural, and will bore the readers just as much as an author aside or intrusion. Avoid “info dumps” in the guise of dialogue –- in real life, no one likes to be lectured to in a casual conversation. Replace long monologues of information with questions and answers or a lively discussion, and keep it relevant to the scene question. And, for more interest, insert some tension in the give-and-take –- a little (or a lot of) arguing about facts, or their significance, for example.

So if you need to give your readers some background or essential information, work it in as you go along, in natural, brief, interesting ways, with lots of interaction and some tension or out-and-out conflict. And perhaps rethink whether any more detailed information is really needed in your story. Remember, if any readers want to know more, they can always google the topic. Leave the lectures for the classroom, articles, or nonfiction books –- the goal of fiction is to entertain the readers with a riveting story. Period.

What are your thoughts on this, as a reader or a writer? Agree? Disagree? Why?

Writers - what are some techniques you've used successfully to impart some information to your readers without interrupting the narrative flow?

Jodie Renner, a sought-after freelance editor, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Fire up Your Fiction, which has won two awards to date, and is a finalist for two more. Her third book in the series, Captivate Your Readers, will be out in fall 2014. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, her group blogs, The Kill Zone and Crime Fiction Collective, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. To be the first to hear when Jodie's next book is out and to receive links to valuable, timely blog posts, sign up for her newsletter here. 


  1. Very true, Jodie. I think it's innate in us to want to explain, and that fine--but it's how we do it where often, we run into problems. Anything that comes across as too expository can be what I often refer to as a speed-bump. It literally bumps us out of the story, thus slowing us down, and as we know, that's a red flag in fiction. LIkewise, inserting our own biases or political views is a definite no-no. It's more likely to annoy our reader than enhance our story.

    Thanks for the helpful reminder.

  2. Great post, Jodie! I was just ranting about this very thing not long ago, after I had read chapter after chapter in a work of fiction that read more like the Farmer's Almanac. I've also run into the same problem with how to make mortgage payments and sermons on yearly physical exams. It makes my brain sore.

  3. Overall, it's excellent advice. But every reader is different, and some crave extra details, while many just want the basics. Genre makes a difference too, but for thrillers, I'm with you: keep it moving!

  4. If it's true to the character's thoughts, it can work. I think Michael Connelly and Lee Child are experts at working in information that seems to be well within the thoughts of Harry or Reacher. I like to learn things when I read, but if it's not going to turn out to be relevant to the story, then it's not helping. But with Lee Child, you know if he mentions some trivia about subway cars, it's going to come up again in the book, and with very good reason.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. Thanks for your comments, Drew, Nissie, LJ and Terry.

    LJ and Terry, I'm with you that genre makes a difference. I'm grateful for the background info I'm getting in the historical saga I'm reading now, and would probably be frustrated at having to research those times in history to fill in the blanks, if the background info wasn't there.

    But in most contemporary fiction, I think it's most effective to stick with the POV character's viewpoint and keep the story going, with few interruptions.

    And of course, my advice is mostly for newer and aspiring authors. Masters like Lee Child, Michael Connelly and Nora Roberts are talented enough and famous enough to ignore how-to advice and "rules"!

  6. Information dumps can really begin to stink. Especially if the reader couldn't care less about the topic. Can I briefly mention Tom Clancy and submarine mechanical equipment here? Writers should never regurgitate all of the amazing details they learn through their research—unless it propels the story.

    Having said that, I love to learn things through fiction. I learned a lot about Jewish traditions reading Faye Kellerman and Dick Francis brought the world and people of horse racing to life for me.

    What I work to do is give my protag the "flavor" of expertise so that his or her decisions not only fit, but are trusted by the reader. I try to make sure I don't overwhelm the rest of the dish with too many flavors, and end up with something closer to non-fiction. Yuck.

  7. I agree, Peg. Some newbie authors do a great deal of research (which is a very good thing) but then feel that they need to justify the time and effort spent on finding and recording all that info, so they try to shove way too much of it here and there in their novel, like with a crowbar! "Mmmmph - get in there! Yes, you can fit!"

    It's better to use the research for your own background information, to get a feeling for the times and milieu, but then just throw in tidbits here and there for local color and ambience, where they really fit, and are needed to help the reader understand what is going on.

  8. I'll tolerate a bit more info dumping in sagas, but I want the story to go forward. It was a big problem for me in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Eight paragraphs to explain how Blomqvist got his nickname (I WAS so bored I counted) - then the info wasn't really used. And Authors, please don't pontificate on your beliefs. I read a book where the author went on for pages on what was wrong with religion. Show me what's wrong. Save the rants for your blogs, if you must.

  9. Absolutely, Gayle. I've heard that complaint (and others, like it takes forever to really get going) about The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo from many other sources, and as a result my copy is still sitting on my bookshelf, unread.

    And, like you, I'm turned off when an author gets on his or her soapbox in an obvious and awkward attempt at sneaking in their own strong beliefs through the characters. Be subtle about it! And show opposing views, as well. Remember, it's fiction, and readers want to be entertained, not preached at!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.