Showing posts with label information dump. Show all posts
Showing posts with label information dump. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 15

What Do Aaron Sorkin, Stealing, And Advice About Writing Have In Common?

What Do Aaron Sorkin, Stealing, And Advice About Writing Have In Common?
"Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright," Aaron Sorkin.

What do Aaron Sorkin, stealing, and advice about writing have in common?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Yesterday Gwen sent me a clip of Aaron Sorkin's cameo appearance on 30 Rock where he pokes fun at himself, at his quirks.

After I watched the clip I thought, 'Huh, I wonder if Aaron Sorkin has written anything about the art of writing?' And, guess what? He has!

In How to Write an Aaron Sorkin Script, by Aaron Sorkin Mr. Sorkin gives advice about how to introduce crucial (but possibly boring) information and make it all seem interesting and clever rather than contrived and boring.

BUT, before I get to that, I'd like to talk about stealing.

And by "stealing" I don't mean plagiarism—which is bad, very bad—but the sort of outright stealing Aaron Sorkin was talking about in the quote at the beginning of this article.

In her post Develop Your Narrative Voice By Stealing From Bestselling Authors, Elise Abram teaches writers how to steal. But first, a caveat. Elise writes:
How I found my voice was by “stealing” from other writers, trying on different points of view, tones and styles until I found one that was my own.

Note: Modelling, which is what I mean by “stealing”, is very different from plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization, and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own.
So, plagiarism is nasty while 'creative stealing' or modelling, is perfectly fine.

The other day someone compared modelling to the way a musician learns to play an instrument. They play a song someone else wrote over and over again until they get it right, then move on to another song. This is the writer's version of that.

I'll leave you to read Elise's wonderful article, but I would like to share her #2 way of stealing.

Steal the setting

Elise writes:
[A] way you can model is to use a setting from popular literature.

As you read these passages, see if you can spot the similarities:
“A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street…the cask had tumbled out…the hoops had burst, and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut-shell…The rough, irregular stones of the street, pointing every way, and designed, one might have thought, expressly to lame all living creatures that approached them …Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped…Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads.”
“The driver had been coming out of the turn on the inside when the wagon had tilted and gone over. As a result, the kegs had sprayed all the way across the road. Many of them were smashed, and the road was a quagmire for twenty feet. One horse…lay in the ditch, a shattered chunk of barrel-stave protruding from its ear…Wandering around the scene of the accident were perhaps a dozen people. They walked slowly, often bending over to scoop ale two-handed from a hoofprint or to dip a handkerchief or a torn-off piece of singlet into another puddle. Most of them were staggering. Voices raised in laughter and in quarrelsome shouts.”
Did you catch the comparisons?
.  .  .  .
The first passage is from a scene in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the second from Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman. In the modelling of this passage, King and Straub use Dickens’ setting, making it their own by serving it up with the dark and graphic horror their readers know and love.

Aaron Sorkin on How To Steal From Aaron Sorkin

Which brings us back to Aaron Sorkin's article in which he, basically, invites us to 'steal' one of his tricks, which is how to give an information dump--or a 'fact-dump' as he calls it--but make it witty and interesting. He writes:
A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing—when words won't do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern. In the pilot of The Newsroom, a new series for HBO, TV news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) emotionally checked out years ago, and now he's sitting on a college panel, hearing the same shouting match between right and left he's been hearing forever, and the arguments have become noise. A student asks what makes America the world's greatest country, and Will dodges the question with glib answers. But the moderator keeps needling him until...snap.
And then comes a fact-dump/information dump, but it works and it's interesting.

In his article Aaron Sorkin demonstrates what he means by giving a short scene with commentary both about the effect he wants his words to create in the audience and how he creates that effect. It reminds me of a magician giving away one of his tricks. A wonderful read.

Who is your favorite author to model? Is there anyone you're currently modelling?

Other articles you might like:

- 4 Ways Outlining Can Give A Writer Confidence
- 4 Things To Keep In Mind When Choosing A Title For Your Book
- Beware Damnation Books

Photo credit: "Burglar Alarm Box" by taberandrew by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, February 20

6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story

6 Ways To Get Rid Of Info Dumps At The Beginning Of A Story

There are two entrenched ways of thinking about story openings.

Folks either think a story needs to open with setting and a detailed introduction to the characters or they think that any description in the first, say, quarter of the story should be bare-bones and that backstory (/infodumps) should be kept, by and large, for the last half of the story.

I tend to agree that infodumps should be avoided at the beginning of a story but that often leaves the writer with a problem. How do we work in backstory when it's needed at the beginning to set the stage?

John Yeoman (@yeomanis) has written what has to be hands-down the most useful article on how to work backstory in at the beginning I've ever read. Which comes as no surprise since he was guest posting on one of my favorite blogs--Elizabeth S. Craig's blog, Mystery Writing Is Murder.

6 Ways To Work Backstory In At The Beginning

1. The naive stranger

A favourite device is to have a stranger ask a naive question. “‘Sir, why is the village school built next to a jail?’ Old Tom smiled. ‘It’s a long story,’ he began...”

Only, don’t make the story too long!

2. The helpful gossip

Whenever that great rival to Sherlock Holmes, Dr Thorndyke, was presented with a village mystery he - and his foil, Jervis - would dine in the local pub. Inevitably, a garrulous maid or landlord would volunteer a vital clue.

Postal workers, shopkeepers, doctors, priests and other community insiders are great volunteers of background ‘stuff’. (But avoid prurient old ladies who lurk behind curtains. The world has room for only one Miss Marple.)

3. The ‘official’ tour guide

If somebody is playing host, they can plausibly entertain their guests with anecdotal histories. A tree on a hill, a book upon a shelf, any object that draws attention to itself can provoke a story.

‘My grandfather carried this with him at the Somme...’

A tourist brochure, newspaper clipping or public poster can also disclose 'stuff' in a casual way, without disrupting the narrative. ‘Official’ information appears to come to the reader unmediated by interpretation, so it has a high truth value.

This can usefully mislead the reader - say, in a mystery story - where the official information, accepted by everyone, turns out to be wrong.

I have just had great fun writing an historical mystery tale (soon to be on Kindle, Amazon permitting). It proves, indisputably, that Queen Elizabeth I of England was not a red head. The records are wrong.

4. The chance remark

.  .  .  .
[L]et the background details unfold in dialogue, by way of chance remarks.

“‘You don’t want to go there,’ the garage attendant said as he checked my oil. ‘They never did find her body.’”

Further remarks can develop that back story - and any small event whatever can cue a chance remark.

.  .  .  .

5. Break it up with action

If granny really must dump the whole history of the family on the reader, break it up. Add conflict or action. Perhaps an exasperating child keeps changing the subject. Or a pet cat gets tangled in her knitting.

While granny copes with the distractions, the reader will stay with the story - if only to see the wretched child or cat get their comeuppance. (Five Ways to Handle Stuff and Other Nonsense)
John Yeoman closes by writing:
‘Stuff’ doesn’t have to be nonsense. We need ‘stuff’ to create a context. What the reader doesn’t need is a lot of digressive details that are unrelated to the plot and that they’ll never remember anyway.
I hope John Yeoman won't mind if I add a sixth way:

6.  Honored, yet grumpy, guest/Talk to a reporter

This is similar to John Yeoman's #3, the official tour guide, but I thought I'd include it anyway.

In one of my works-in-progress, I needed to insert an information dump at the beginning. It didn't work--I knew it didn't--and if there had been any doubt my beta readers firmly, but kindly, removed it. (Love them!)

Then I read a novel in which the protagonist talked to a reporter and necessary information was introduced. I thought the devise worked. (This demonstrates the importance of reading like a writer.)

In my WIP my protagonist, a zoo director, gives the Mayor a tour around the zoo and has to explain no end of things. I also use this tour to set up the Mayor as an antagonistic force which allows me to introduce one of the core problems facing the protagonist.

There are many different ways to sneak information in at the beginning of a book. Which ones are your favorites? 

Other articles you might like:

- 8 Tips From Chuck Wendig On How To Read Like A Writer
- Author Solutions: The New Carnys?
- Structured Procrastination: Procrastinate And Get Things Done

Photo credit: "read on the wall" by MarioMancuso under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.