Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Spoon Feeding

Readers are like babies.

Now before you go all postal on me, just relax. I'm a reader. Any writer worth their salt is a reader first. We all read. We love it. So that means you're a baby. (Neiner, neiner!)

Think of babies for just a second. They're small. They can't do much for themselves. They don't know much. They learn in stages.

And that's where I want you to be. Readers learn in stages too. They don't want the whole philosopy and rationalization about how it's better to go to the bathroom in the toilet in the first ten seconds of their life. Babies can't handle that. What makes you think the reader wants the entire backstory of your plot in the first ten sentences? Trust me, they don't.


This is where spoon feeding comes in. I read a lot of manuscripts. I read so many I swear I should move to New York and become a slush reader for a big literary agent. Hmm...maybe I will. No, I won't. I have a teaching job.

Anyway, I read a lot. One of the common things I see is the author trying to shove something down the reader's throat way before they're ready for it. Like trying to feed your newborn baby pork ribs. Oooh, yum. Pork ribs.

Back to the topic at hand. Don't try to force the reader full of information they don't want or need. Spoon feed them. A little bit here. A little bit there. Just enough to keep them interested enough to turn the next page to find out more. That's all.

Another thing I see is the overloaded plate. Like a few pages of background or trying to explain the world or the species or something. Yeah, the reader can't handle that. Babies learn to walk one step at a time. So it is with your novel. Give me one step at a time, preferrably in an active scene. Never just the MC telling me they can feel death. Okay, so I do do that, but the girl feels death and it makes her life more complicated and she happens to feel it right there in history class, so the scene is semi-active, all right? Sheesh. Get off my back already.

And see how fast we morphed into a teenager?

Yeah. So there. Spoon feed your readers.

Two easy things to avoid:
1. Shoving too much down our throats too fast.
2. Overloading our plate with unnecessary information.

So do you get it now? Readers are totally like babies, right? We want to be spoon fed exactly what we need when we need it. No more, no less.

How do you spoon feed your readers?

30 comments:

Scott said...

I spoon feed my readers . . . a bit here, a bit there, and a bit everywhere. I intersperse background information in small doses throughout the first few chapters. I also . . . well, I just lost my train of thought on that one. Go figure. I also . . . hmmm, still lost. I also . . . let the reader (aha, the power of positive thinking) figure out some things on their own. If my character is always drinking margaritas, then the reader can pretty well figure out the character likes margaritas. There's no point in actually telling the reader this information. Just as readers aren't babies, most of them aren't stupid either. There are just some things you don't need to spoon feed your readers.

Great post!

Marybeth Poppins said...

The question is...how do you go back and spoon feed your story after you've already shoved an entire tablespoon down their throats! Sigh.... Oh the things you learn when it's too late. Granted maybe I should have taken some time to learn before I wrote in the first place. LOL

Great Post!

DJ FOX said...

Good post! A little bit at a time goes a long way. I need to remember that for my own new WIP. Hmmmm. =)

christine said...

Great post - and so true! I have found myself rewriting a lot of things because I gave the reader too much too soon.

Kat said...

This was a hard lesson for me to learn at first. I kicked and fought to keep my backstory for a while, but eventually let it go. Now, I see it as stringing the reader along behind me as they try to keep up (because, hopefully, they WANT to keep up). I like to drop little things through thoughts - characters remembering things. I have a scene where my main character sees her old high school and remembers where she met her abusive boyfriend, lamenting the fact that she said yes to him that day. I found it a lot more effective than: "She met him at school one day."

Sarah Bromley said...

Excellent post! Just after being so careful to spoonfeed your readers the story, you really hope they don't spit it back up at the end. ;-)

Jaime Theler said...

One of the things I have watch out for is spoon feeding all nice and good at the beginning, and then a few chapters in BAM! have some pork ribs. Then the tricky thing is knowing when to *stop* spoon feeding and let the readers pick up the food with their fingers because they're smart and want to figure some things out themselves.

Geez, this writing thing is hard. :)

Paul West said...

Good Post. To Marybeth Poppins, the best advice I can give you is to go back and revise, revise, revise. Get rid of the large dose of back story in the first chapter and sprinkle it in later scenes as you go along - assuming the back story is even necessary.

TereLiz said...

I used to be the biggest perpetrator of too much backstory. Like I was trying to stick those ribs in a bottle and hope the reader was willing to suck them out. Instead, readers just got frustrated and gave up.

In keeping with the babies metaphor, this is a lesson that infant writers must learn ASAP!

Greta post, Elana!

Lady Glamis said...

Great post! That's one of the best analogies of avoiding back story and info dumps that I've heard in a long, long time. This is getting bookmarked.

Marybeth Poppins said...

Thanks Paul...I kinda get the feeling that MAYBE I just need to start all over. However I can't figure out a way to make it work without the back story.

I have LOTS of work to do.

Lazy Writer said...

Awesome post! It is something I had to go back and fix in my first ms. I'm doing a much better job this time around! :)

Casey McCormick said...

Love the analogy Elana. So true.

B.J. Anderson said...

Good points and very true. Sometimes we think our reader can't get the story unless they know a whole ton of extra information. If that's the case, then maybe there's something wrong with the story.

Lisa and Laura said...

We've just started chucking food down the garbage disposal. Right now I'm at the point where I want to dump the whole dinner and start all over again. I feel like I've been giving my readers food poisoning.

Please tell me this feeling will pass?

ElanaJ said...

I'm glad you guys get me. And that you don't think I think you're babies.

I do think this whole spoon feeding thing is a process we learn. When we first start writing, we think we need to tell everything. It's a skill we learn as we go.

Lisa and Laura, it will totally pass. You're a culinary expert, so you'll be fine.

B.J. You are wise.

Jamie, you're so right. You have to know when to move to solids and then pork ribs. You're brilliant!

Sarah, no spitting up! That would be awful.

Scott, I *heart* you.

Rebecca Knight said...

Great points! Is it wrong that I want pudding now after reading this?

L.T. Elliot said...

I've noticed in my writing that the scenes that my readers like the most are the ones where I've slowed things WAY down and gotten DEEP into the character's head. For me, when I know a scene's not working, I immediately think this "Slow down, get deep." It might take some re-writes but the story ends up better. That's what works for me as far as spoon feeding. Slowing the heck down. ;)

Abby said...

I try to work the backstory into conversations between the characters, then the conversation always gets sidetracked for one reason or another, allowing me to throw in little bits here and there.

Great post! Love the analogy. :)

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Oooh, really good analogy! I always want to put tons of backstory at the beginning of my story and then I always end up having to weed it out or transplant it somewhere else. It is a tedious, much like feeding a baby can sometimes be;)

Icy Roses said...

While I agree with you on most of this, in rare cases, lots of backstory can work. I have never done this (I'm not good enough!), but in Robin McKinley's book "Spinner's End," the entire first chapter is dedicated to explaining the place of magic in the particular country's culture. No active scene at all. It makes a wonderful way to set the tone. And that happens to be one of my favorite beginnings to a fantasy novel.

Although, we're not all masters of fantasy and world-building like Ms. McKinley, so spoon-feeding is generally the way to go. You usually can't lose by cutting backstory.

Jessica said...

Awesome post! LOL :-)

I try to do it the way I did with my real babies, a little on the spoon so there's not a big mess, and I make them lean forward for their bite, so I know they want it. LOL!

Ryan said...

I think I've gotten better at this. One of the character's in my novelette is a dragon over 8000 years old. I didn't plan on letting this out in the novelette, but it just happened. There's no true resolution to that fact in the novelette, but its a major plot point in the book I'm writing about the same characters. So, I went ahead an dropped it. If it doesn't work out I'll remove it. That's how you need to deal with back story. Too much, and snip, snip.

Ryan said...

I hope that made sense.

WindyA said...

Hmmmm...

ElanaJ said...

Rebecca, you can have pudding any time you want. LOL.

L.T. I'm totally stealing those lines. I absolutely love them. Don't be surprised if you see a blog post called "Slow down, go deep" in the near future. I'm not even kidding.

Icy Roses, I think it depends on if you're a debut novelist (which I am) and someone who's already established in the biz (like Robin McKinney, who I agree is wonderful). So yeah.

Jessica, leaning forward. Classic.

Ryan, I'm okay with bits and hints and whatnot. The reader needs those things. What I don't need is the synopsis of those 8000 years of the dragon's life BEFORE this story starts. You know?

Windy... hmm....? Hmmm....

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Solvang Sherrie said...

I like that analogy. I know I had some info dumps in my first draft. Hopefully they're all gone now. I think with the first draft I do that, just to get it out there. But as I edit, I space out the feedings =)

Jessica (BookLover) said...

Interesting analogy!
As a reader, I completely agree. When too much is shoved down my throat too fast, it's difficult to digest.

Thanks for the tips.
I love your blog!

Anonymous said...

It was very interesting for me to read that post. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read more soon.

Joan Hakkinen

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