Paula tries to answer an interesting question about questions!
I was asked a
question recently about how much information a character should give in answer
to a question, which really got me thinking! Having a someone ask a
question and someone else answering is a useful technique for giving your
readers some important information, either about the character or about a plot
development. However, there are pitfalls to watch out for!
Have you ever read a novel where
a character asks a question, and is then given a long complicated answer, so
much so that you’ve switched off half way through the paragraph, or in some
cases, the whole page?
I’m thinking of one novel I
read where the symbols expert (there, I’ve probably revealed the book I’m
thinking of!) goes into lengthy explanations about symbols and history. We are
treated to what almost amounts to a dissertation when, in fact, most of the
answers the expert gave could have been condensed into a few concise sentences.
I was left feeling that the author simply wanted to show off how much research
he had done and therefore bombarded the reader with a lot of detailed (and unnecessary) facts.
Similarly, I’ve read
‘backstory’ presented in a similar way, following questions such as, “What have
you been doing since we last met?” or “Why did your grandmother (or aunt or
whoever) bring you up?” The character then proceeds to tell all in lengthy
In both these cases, the
author is using the question and answer as an information dump, either to
reveal his/her detailed research or to tell the reader about the past life
history of one of the characters.
What should authors do
In the case of the research
information, yes, it is tempting to include the mass of details you have
scribbled in your notebook - but only if you want to bore the reader to death!
When I was writing ‘Changing the Future’, I did a lot of research about
volcanoes, but probably only used about one percent of it in the story. I
sometimes tell people that you have to research the other 99 percent to make
sure your one percent is correct, but you only include what is absolutely
necessary for your story.
With backstory, it is far
better to ‘drip-feed’ it into the story at appropriate times. Any huge chunk of
backstory, either in dialogue or in the inner thoughts of a character,
inevitably breaks into the ‘present’ and slows the whole story down.
In most cases, with questions
and answers, ‘less is more’. Don’t spell everything out in your characters’
questions and answers, don’t beat your readers over the head with lengthy
explanations or descriptions, and don’t use ‘contrived’ questions and answers
to dump information or advance the plot.
Instead, credit your readers
with some intelligence and imagination, keep your questions and answers short
and to the point, and use the ‘drip-fee’ technique to reveal information as and
when it is necessary. Far better for the readers to formulate some questions in
their minds, than to give them all the answers too soon!