Don’t Let Information Overload Ruin Your Story

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Right now, I’m working on the most difficult novel I’ve ever written. It is based on my parent’s life journey. They moved to America in the early 1960s and had many successes and failures. But holy cow do I have a lot of information to dig through!

Not only do I have the actual events that they went through, but also the historical facts of the period to research and include.

But here’s the thing, I’m not writing a biography of their life; I’m writing a novel. Fiction. So, a lot of the things that really happened do not need to be part of the story if it does not move the plot forward. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, if it’s funny, if I love a certain event. The story I’m creating has its own theme and story question and ARC, so I have to decide what to add and what to leave out just like in any other story.

Authors can sometimes get so enthralled by research that when it comes time to write the story, they want to add all those details into the story. However, doing so will bog down the story and create information overload for the reader.

Thankfully, it’s easy to fix this problem.

Avoid Adding Too Much Information

First, don’t add anything to the story unless you can justify why it belongs there. Most of the time when you include an event or write a scene it should serve a couple of purposes. It might move the story forward, it might characterize the protagonist, it might add details that will be important later.

Make sure that you understand what the information does for the story. If you’re not sure, leave it out.

For my story, for example, my dad moved around at lot. I’ve decided to show this to some extent. I didn’t show every time he moved because it’s unnecessary and who wants to read a story about a guy who moves all the time; those scenes would get tiresome. But I do show some of that because it’s relevant to his personality and why he had trouble being successful. When you can’t commit to an address or a job it’s difficult to be successful. I wanted to show the personality quirk and the pattern, but I could do that without multiple “moving scenes.”

Delete Irrelevant Details

If you tend to write long and like to add a lot of information, your other option is to cut extensively during rewrites.

Be brutal during editing. Read your work carefully and cut all information that doesn’t help your story. Even if the information is interesting. You don’t want large chunks of your novel to be historical data or information on how to clean a yacht. All those things might be interesting, but they will not keep your readers’ attention for long.

Don’t Front Load Your Facts

Something else that I see, especially with new writers is that they want to include everything in the first chapter.

Yes, we do want to hook the reader. We want to introduce the main character, show her in her ordinary world, hint at what the conflict is going to be, show the setting, etc. But we don’t want to confuse our readers either. If we give them too much too soon, they will become overwhelmed and stop reading.

· Don’t introduce too many characters at once.

· Don’t go into details about the problem. It’s enough to say she was fired without explaining the many reasons why in chapter one.

· Don’t have long descriptions of the setting. Providing an image of her small town or the chaos of Los Angeles is all the reader needs to get situated

· Don’t go into backstory. Wait until the readers care about the character or really need to know what happened in the past before hitting them with information about previous events or characters.

The first chapter should provide only the information that is necessary to get the story started and to capture the reader’s interest. The rest of the details will come as the story progresses.

Keep Pacing in Mind Always

One way to avoid adding too much information is if you continuously check your pacing. How is the story moving? Is it getting dull? Is it slowing down?

If the story is moving too slowly or dragging, it could be that you’re adding too many details. It could be that you’re telling the reader too much of the story instead of letting them experience it.

Turn some of those telling scenes into action scenes where characters are doing something. This way the reader can become part of the experience rather than just absorbing information.

Details Are Good When Sprinkled In

I tend to have the opposite problem. I don’t add enough details. But what I’ve learned is that it’s best to sprinkle in details and facts throughout the novel.

When we add a few facts when necessary, those details give scenes the flavor of being and experiencing what the character is experiencing. You won’t bore the reader or make them feel they’ve taken a class in something that interests only you.

A book that violated this rule was A Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Now, I love the author and her writing. She has a beautiful way with words that is magical and poetic, but in this book, she had long descriptions of plants and moss and I felt like I was reading a Botany textbook. Those parts stopped her story. I think some writers can get away with breaking rules, but most of us probably won’t.

A good way to lose your reader is to overload your story with too many facts, details, and information. So, choose wisely what you’d like to include and make sure that you only add the information you really need.

When you do need to add information, do so carefully without dumping it all in one spot in the novel.

Have a story to tell? Want to learn how to record personal experiences before they’re lost or write the novel of your heart? Consider taking one of Julia’s beginning writing or publishing courses.

Also check out Julia’s new book, This Is Now!

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