Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Q is for Questions - and Answers

Paula asks: How much information should a character should give in answer to a question?  

Having a character 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 an 'expert' 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’ve read novels like this in which readers were treated to a long dissertation when most of the answers the expert gave could have been condensed into a few concise sentences. Sometimes it seems the author simply wanted to show off how much research he had done and therefore bombarded the reader with a lot of 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 detail.

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.

What should authors do instead?

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 many cases, with questions and answers, ‘less is more’. Don’t spell everything out in your characters’ questions and answers. 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!


  1. Replies
    1. I try hard to follow my own advice about this, Ana! :-)

  2. Good advice. I've recently been reading books where there has been huge information dumps and it has been so boring! I love reading snippets of a character's back story as they are drip fed to the reader, it keeps you guessing and is intriguing.

    1. Agree that large information dumps can be boring, especially back story.

  3. Too much information gained from research is definitely a pit fall. When I researched skiing to include in one of my books, some of my scenes wound up sounding like a step-by-step guide instead of the backdrop for the story of the characters.

    It's just so interesting when we as writers learn about new things...we just want so badly to share it all! :)