How Much Information Is Too Much Information?
When studying the craft of writing, a constant admonition you run into is to make sure everything in your book has a purpose. Some authors and editors say every movement, action, word, and description in a book must serve a purpose or have meaning. When developing my craft, I struggled with this advice because I have found myself to be a very literal writer. I battled to make everything have a greater and higher purpose in my book or to add symbolism into every page of my book. As my writing and editing career have continued, I have discovered that while there is truth in the need for purpose in every aspect of your book, the need for purpose may not be as deep as it has been made to seem.
Allow me to explain with an example. Imagine you are writing a breakfast scene in your story. The hero is sitting across from the heroine--he is eating an omelette, and she is eating toast. There are so many possibilities for what you could do with this information, so let’s begin with what you shouldn’t do. Under no circumstances should you write ten pages about the heroine eating her toast and the hero eating his omelette. No one, and I seriously mean no one, wants to read that.
There are many ways in which this information could be useful in a scene though. For instance, during breakfast the hero and heroine are having a difficult discussion. Maybe the heroine is using her toast as a tool to stall the conversation. The hero says something, the heroine takes a bite and chews slowly, taking time to think over her answer. After the fourth time she does this, the hero becomes annoyed, takes the toast away, and the fun really begins. In this case, the toast doesn’t have to have some higher, cosmic purpose. It is not an intricate use of symbolism. Rather, the toast serves a small purpose for a short space of time.
Or, maybe you want to use the toast as a source of irony or foreshadowing. Say, early in the book, the heroine and her mom are talking about pregnancy with the heroine’s pregnant sister. Her mom tells the daughters that for the first trimester of the pregnancy, the only thing the women of their family want to eat is buttered toast (or maybe something obscure like honey wheat toast with peach preserves, just for fun). The heroine’s pregnant sister confirms it. Flash forward two months into our hero and heroine’s hot-and-heavy relationship, and all the heroine wants to eat is buttered toast. The hero just thinks she’s sick, but BOOM! dramatic irony, just for your readers. You know she’s pregnant, your readers know she’s pregnant, and she suspects she may be pregnant.
Now, moving on from the infinite possible uses of toast, we should focus on movement and gestures. Many hold that movement should do something for the story. When writing characters, it is important to think about the fact that people move a lot. Sometimes with purpose, and sometimes meaninglessly. Whether we know someone is watching us or we know we are completely alone, humans move. It is part of our nature. If your nose itches, you scratch it. If you’re outside and the wind blows your hair in your face, you move it.
Simple movements such as this can be added into conversations through dialogue tags. Or they could be noted by another character who is watching the person, mentioning hair being tucked behind an ear or a shirt sleeve being straightened. Perhaps these movements seem insignificant, so it may not seem necessary to include them in your story. The purpose of these movements though are to help bring your character to life. By adding normal human movements, you make your character seem more real to readers.
As with the toast, I must add a word of caution here. Don’t add a small movement in every other line about your character. Unless that character is supposed to have a physical or behavioral tic of some sort, adding too many movements can make your character seem odd. Only in times of anxiety or distress would a character usually have increased movement in such a manner. While you may feel adding small movements acts as fluff in your story, adding it can often help rather than hurt your story.
One of the hardest lines to walk in the world of romance is how much physical description is too much. Readers need to know your characters’ style and physical looks, but sometimes a sentence of description is better than a whole paragraph. But, at other times, a paragraph or more may be needed if the description plays a larger role in the story.
There could be some physical detail that you want to be related to your character, and in this case, you can bring it up often even if it doesn’t play an essential role in the story. Maybe you just want your readers to know that your heroine loves wearing earrings, so each day you mention the new pair she’s wearing. That’s not only fine, that’s a great detail to include to further develop your main character. But, maybe don’t take two pages to have the heroine reflect on each pair of earrings she owns.
Writing is a balancing act. You don’t want to include too much or too little of any certain trait or characteristic you would like noted in your character; at least not without a specific meaning. This is part of your job as the author. You have to provide your readers with information, details, and so much more. Though you don’t want to bog your readers down with heavy text and details, it is also important to let yourself add details and information about what is happening to your characters. Even a small purpose is a purpose, and as long as there is logic behind what you have written in your book, you can include whatever you want.