Monday Motivation: Walking the tightrope of too much or too little

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

It’s a delicate tightrope we walk. On the one hand, if we provide too much information, we run the risk of turning a suspenseful story into a ho-hum record of events. Restraint in feeding your reader information, remember, is the key to creating tension and suspense.

But if, on the other hand, you give too little information, you run the risk of confusing and perplexing your reader who simply doesn’t know what the hell’s going on.

Peter Selgin, award-winning writer and academic, has written a book about the challenges writers face composing the first page of their novel. He writes very articulately about the tightrope I’ve described.

He says: “Beginning authors tend to err on the side of confusion/frustration. They withhold too much information, making it hard or impossible for readers to follow — let alone to appreciate  — what’s happening. They trade in false suspense: suspense that asks not ‘What’s going to happen?’ but ‘What am I reading?’

We’ve all experienced reading books where we’ve felt a little cowed by the erudition of the writer. Reading these tomes is a little like wandering into one of those brutalist buildings that once were all the rage: they seem to have been designed with the express aim of making mere humans feel overawed.

But on the other hand, if you over-explain, and over-elaborate, you’re likely to give too much away. You show your hand too clearly, and in doing so answer some of the questions that should best remain unanswered, at least for now, in order to pique the interest of the reader and motivate her to read on.

But there is here, as so often, a middle ground, and again let me quote Selgin on the subject:

“More experienced and confident writers,” he says, “tend toward generosity rather than stinginess. They aren’t afraid to make things clear, to give us all or most of the information we need to understand what’s happening in any moment or scene, making it easier for us to wonder — based on what we already know — where things are going, what’s going to happen next.”

Happy writing,


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