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Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Jack Bickham on the Urge to Tell Too Much

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Excerpt from Setting by Jack M. Bickham:


I’ve known writers who got very uneasy—or downright panicky—because they thought they needed to get certain broad-scale information or sense impressions into their story at a given point, but couldn’t find a character to experience all that they desired to convey. If you ever get that feeling, let me suggest that you sit back for a minute and ask yourself if the reader really needs that panoramic view (or additional information). Often you may discover that she doesn’t, and that your feeling is an author concern, not a reader concern. You may be wanting to tell more than necessary just because you happen to know it.

It’s hard sometimes to accept that a reader doesn’t need to experience or know something. You know everything about the setting, can see it all in your imagination, and your natural impulse is to want to share your vision with your reader—to put in everything for the reader to know, see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and believe about the setting at that moment of story time. It’s a brave impulse, and one that’s very hard to dissuade writers of sometimes, but nearly always it’s fallacious.

Your reader seldom needs to know all you do at any point. You might think he would benefit from a vast and panoramic view of that city setting, but he does not experience his real life that way, and he does not want to experience the story setting that way, either. Belief comes from identification with the viewpoint. Identification with the viewpoint comes from a restricted view of the setting. The reader’s concern is with what the character knows. Your authorial concern about showing the big picture often has nothing whatsoever to do with telling a good story in the most effective way.

Work Cited:

Bickham, Jack M. Setting (Elements of Fiction). Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1994. 97–98. Print.

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