But I repeat myself

A couple weeks ago, in one of those digression to the tangential comment conversations, I finally realized that my writing reflects my reading, and my reading style isn’t necessarily like other folks. I tend to pick up details on the first round, and incorporate them into building out the world and my expectations of the story.

For example, what I thought of as a slow opening prologue for a really dull first half of a thriller (paraphrased from memory):

Beirut, 1983:

Mohammed had just kicked Alif’s ball into the alley mouth, scoring a goal against the team of older boys when his sister came to tell him that his father was looking for him.

…Okay, self, anyone with a decent knowledge of recent Middle Eastern history is immediately going to go “Beirut, 1983. Either we’re about to watch the marine barracks bombing, or the retaliatory strikes. Kids, so we’re going to watch the loss of innocence. Mohammed’s about to grow up to be a terrorist.”

And then I had to wait five paragraphs of meandering family conversation and he forgot to feed the chickens, so he’s up on the roof doing chores with his sister when the airstrike hits, and his sister is horribly burned.

Really slow, right?

We then cut to modern-day (for this thriller), Washington DC, with our protagonist working on information about a bombing in the middle east. And I’m all “Goodness gracious infodump, why do we have to sit through laborious paragraphs about the situation in the middle east and terrorism and the politics of Palestine disguised as a briefing and an as you know Bob? We already covered this in the very first prologue paragraph! We know who the bomber is, get to the action!”

…apparently this is not how most readers work. Which explains why Sarah told me that I had to put something in three times in order for the reader to catch it for foreshadowing. It might not just be foreshadowing, it might also be general explanation and worldbuilding?

This might explain why I get reviews like “You can’t skim, you have to read carefully.”

Personally, I find going back and putting in explanations excruciatingly tedious. I did it in the last book, in places where beta readers got confused, because I don’t want the reader confused… but even then, I may have only put it in once, or in some cases where the alpha or beta reader missed it the first time, I gritted my teeth an layered it in a second time. And I thought that was putting in infodumps!

Perhaps I need to be more tedious. Because the non-military readers often missed a few finer details, especially as I never stopped and said in one place all at once:

“Dear reader, you are watching this from the protagonist’s perspective. And she doesn’t know a lot about military operations. She most especially won’t know that on larger operations that utilize multiple teams like this, there is always an officer in charge and a warrant officer as an XO. Therefore, you can infer that, as the teams are rapidly trying to reorganize and fill in holes, and the chief warrant officer is in charge with not an officer in sight, that things went very, very pear-shaped well before she got told by her chief pilot to get her ass in the air and don’t ask questions.

Therefore, you can now look back over things going pear-shaped in the cockpit, and realize that from everybody else in the operation’s perspective, this was just the cherry on top of a complete and total clusterf***, and FIDO is the order of the day. Once the exfil was completed, nobody else is particularly worried about it, just her.”

I bet Terry Prachett could put that in a footnote that would leave readers laughing. Heinlein could have slid it in somewhere that nobody would ever notice, but they’d retain anyway. Me, not so much. Clearly, I have more to learn!

How do you layer in worldbuilding and operational details, and how often do you repeat it?


  1. — How do you layer in worldbuilding and operational details, and how often do you repeat it? —

    There are as many approaches to this as there are writers attempting it. But two in particular come to mind, that will stand as the antipodes of the practice.

    First, we have Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy gets more praise for his “descriptive prowess” than any other critically acclaimed writer. But he describes everything in every scene, as if he were cataloguing the scene for some unseen painter to reproduce from his descriptions. It makes reading his books an exercise of the reader’s patience, for he leaves it to the reader to separate the important details from the rest.

    Second, we have Dr. Alice Sheldon, better known to SF readers as “James Tiptree, Jr.” This exceptionally gifted writer practiced a sparsity of description that surprises most who encounter her, especially on first acquaintance. Her motto, which she actually articulated on at least one occasion was “Don’t tell them!” – by which she meant, of course, don’t tell the reader: make him claw for purchase on the setting while you (the writer) concentrate on what’s happening to your characters. Sheldon’s stuff reads like a swift-flowing stream, though if you’re not sufficiently “in tune” with her method, you can miss some of what makes her stories striking.

    I incline more to Sheldon’s approach. I describe what the current viewpoint character would notice, and remain terse about other features of the setting. If I can get the reader to bond with the viewpoint character and live his adventure along with him, the reader will build the world for himself, using his natural imaginative powers. Tolstoy’s approach, in contrast, strikes me as one of the main reasons why War and Peace is called a “classic:” i.e., a book everyone wants to have read, but no one actually wants to read. But in this as in all things, De gustibus non est disputandum.

    1. And there are some people who actually like more description, and endure the tendency to minimalism because otherwise their reading would be very short rations.

      Now that indie publishing makes it possible for writers to write directly for readers, rather than for gatekeepers who buy according to what they think readers will like (or ought to like, as often is the case), I’m wondering if there would be a niche market for people who like rich description, who don’t think it’s prolix or otherwise a fault, and view minimalism as a thin cracker claiming that it’s a meal.

      Of course you’d then have two problems: 1. how to identify those readers and get them to find your books and 2. whether that niche is large enough to meet your financial goals in writing. A tiny minority may love your books to pieces and really wish you could write more of them, but not be a large enough number that you could live on the sales, so you have to have other income, the earning of which takes time away from writing what you and they love.

      1. — And there are some people who actually like more description, and endure the tendency to minimalism because otherwise their reading would be very short rations. —

        Well, yes. For any given auctorial proclivity, there are some that adore it, some that revile it, and lots and lots of folks somewhere in between. But that’s part of the writer’s problem in defining and finding his audience. Once again, de gustibus. And there’s also the possibility that particular tastes for description / worldbuilding correlate to preferences in genre: a study I wish some dogged pollster would undertake. It’s all very cloudy, for those of us without extensive statistical knowledge of the world of readers…which I suspect is nearly all of us.

        A fan once asked mystery / thriller writer Elmore Leonard why he wrote so few descriptive passages and kept them so short. Leonard smiled and said “I try not to write the parts that people skip.” Given his enormous success, he’d clearly found what his readership preferred. For most of us indies, it’s an ongoing quest.

  2. I tend to use characters’ mental meanderings. However, it also depends on which novel or story in the series, and how different the world is from ours. In _Merchant and Magic_, Tycho’s travels and musings, and his wondering about this and that, provide the story building and foreshadowing. I also leaned a bit on deus ex machina, which works in that series. The dei really do intervene from time to time, and it is set up so readers know it.

    That also leaves room for things like in _Miners and Empire_, where the protagonist keeps telling himself that he’s not using magic, while the reader is going, “Dude, it looks like magic and it acts like magic, so it’s got to be magic.” Which then leaves readers wondering ‘Why is he so far into denial that he’s practically climbing the First Cataract?”

    1. That also leaves room for things like in _Miners and Empire_, where the protagonist keeps telling himself that he’s not using magic, while the reader is going, “Dude, it looks like magic and it acts like magic, so it’s got to be magic.”

      ‘ll admit that I’d react differently to that. I’ve read enough books where there’s a huge distinction drawn between magic and, for example, psi powers that are indistinguishable from magic from my perspective, that I would assume that was where he was going with those thoughts. So I’d be less like to think “Why is he in denial?” and more “Okay, what do we call his powers and what is actual ‘Magick’ in this setting?”

      Though I do love the phrase “so far into denial that he’s practically climbing the First Cataract.” Is it short enough that I can steal it without copyright violation?

  3. World building is like scaffolding–it’s there for the builders to use, but you don’t leave it up when you open the building. At least three quarters (probably closer to seven eighths) of the background I invent or research for a story never makes it into the story.

    If I write a story that opens with a giant spider chasing a man through an abandoned hotel, I need to know why the man is there, why the hotel is abandoned, and where the giant spider came from.

    But what the reader wants to know is, “does the guy get eaten or not?”

    I tend to give background information on a setting only when it’s part of what is happening right now. In the case of a civilian in a war zone, what’s happening isn’t the events that led to this particular conflict or the events that caused her to be attached to a military unit, what’s happening right now is that she’s hitting the floor of the transport and trying not to get hit by stray shrapnel.

    Knowing when and how a particular enemy combatant became devoted to the cause, as in your Beirut 1982 opening is the kind of thing that is good for you, as an author, to visualize because it allows you to write a compelling character, but the reader doesn’t need to know. The reader wants to know if your civilian protagonist gets blow up, not who set the explosive.

    One of the reasons that I tend to focus on short fiction is that it help me stay focused on what the story is about and what is important for that particular story. (There are a lot of genre novels that I think are good short stories buried under a mass of exposition–Orson Scott Card has based his whole career on expanding great short fiction into mediocre novels.)

    There are authors who can make backstory compelling–Tim Powers is probably the master of that, but then he spent most of his adult life as a university lecturer. The pacing is very delicate–getting the mix of lecturing to jumping out and saying “boo” is a tricky matter.

  4. I’ll admit that I tend to use the “naive newcomer” approach: a character who doesn’t know all that much about the overall situation and thus needs to be brought up to speed. It’s cliche, yes, but it often works: the explanations feel natural, rather than two characters talking to each other about things that they already know, or or one character deciding that she needs to review the entire history of her country and its class system before meeting with a businessman. It can also let me slip in details as necessary, given that the newcomer is more likely to ask about immediately relevant things than random bits of historical trivia.

  5. In this particular case, some of the ‘read carefully’ parts you are talking about assume some prior knowledge. I was 9 in 1983. I had to go look up what happened in Beirut. I couldn’t fill in those assumptions because I had no knowledge. Same deal with the bit about the warrant officer — I don’t know much about military organization, and wouldn’t have been able to know how bad things were by the information provided.

    1. That’s a really good point. And part of why I’ve been carefully expanding my alpha and beta reader base – because the gents who are double checking the small group tactics would never even think twice about it. I’m actually slightly younger than you – but that, like the fall of the Shah in Iran, was such an impact on the world and the deployments and the troubles that I grew up with, it’s as ingrained in there as 9/11, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, the Surge, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the siege of Sarejevo, the Christmas Day tsunami…

      This is where my darling man will probably gently tell me that living a life surrounded by military, first-generation immigrants, and expats means I’m expecting too much when I think everyone else is paying attention to the rest of the world. *facepalm*

      The general writing rule of thumb I was given is to only take a close look at something an alpha reader has flagged as a problem if a significant percentage of them have noted it, due to individual quirks and humans being human. I actually go over all reader feedback with a “where is this person coming from”, because the gents won’t catch some of the relationship stuff the ladies will, the civilians won’t catch some of the small-group tactics the vets will, and so forth, especially with subject matter experts.

      As it is, I suspect some of the ‘read carefully’ is also from passages where I had some interesting troubles, because the non-pilots and non-military who aren’t used to radio traffic were “This is really tech-speak-heavy”, but they were plot-critical, and character-development critical, so I couldn’t cut the scene entirely… and if I changed it to something the non-pilots were comfortable with reading, it’d completely break the suspension of disbelief, because that’s just not right. I’m not sure the non-military/pilot readers were able to as easily suss out some of the information being conveyed.

      Every new story is a learning experience!

      1. Strictly speaking, I’m neither military nor a pilot, and didn’t find it too difficult.

        But I’m too much of a military otaku to be a good guide to non-military, and am not entirely disinterested in aviation. (I’ve never been a fan for airplane models and know that I could never safely pilot. On the other hand, I recently learned about an FAA cert I could almost use, and just got a copy of the new 2020 Space Strategy Summary, which I will read. I know just enough to realize that the planes in GB were pretty hard sci fi. Okay, the implants in the humans were softer, and necessarily part of how the passenger ballistics are judged. And some of the planes looked like technology well established in RL.)

      2. “Going Ballistic” occupies an odd slot for me — it is one of the very few fiction books I have read and enjoyed that I cannot create an appropriate blurb for. It is an excellent book, and I am looking forward to the sequels, but no summary I do conveys why it is so good. I consider this a very odd property for a book.

        But after reading about your approach, I think it may be related to the fact that the world the story grows out of is so much richer than the book lays out. Your point about the warrant officer was not something I caught, but it is one aspect of a much richer world than is spelled out in the book. And in thinking about fiction books that have that property, I find that in general such a “hidden tapestry” enriches the books. And I find that using the details of the “reality” of the situation to form the background another positive. I have seen it before in historical fiction, although it is not as common to get the details right as I might like, and now that you have indirectly pointed it out I need to re-read some works to see if I can identify how the world overview enriches the writing.

        Regardless, your minimalist style does resonate with me, and I am happy to tout your book to those who might be interested. I can tolerate more explicit world building if you decide it is necessary, but whatever you do please continue writing.

  6. I put in all the backstory and worldbuilding that occurs to me as I’m writing the opening chapters of the first draft, just so I’ll have those details when I need them later. Then, on the second draft, I go over those opening scenes with a scalpel and remove everything that isn’t absolutely necessary for the reader to follow the action… and save the deleted segments in case I need to plop them in later.

  7. I like “as you know, Bob” because you can use the character to sprinkle the explainium in the guise of getting other characters up to speed. If you have the lippy robot spider talking, that lets you sneak some infodump in with your wisecracks and making fun of other characters.

    *** from current WIP, “Coffee with Kali the Destroyer”

    “Pull these on over your clothes and shoes,” instructed Athena’s scorpion, handing them the suits with a pincer. “They’re bulletproof up to .30 caliber, and they’ll protect you from blast effects well enough that we can use the heavy artillery.”

    “But try not to get shot, because it’ll still hurt,” said Morrigan’s spider practically.

    “That is the goal,” said Agent Perkins absently as he pulled on the voluminous coveralls. They shrank to fit him closely, using the extra material to form hard plates over long bones and a breast plate/back plate arrangement. “This is nice!” he exclaimed as it changed shape. He pulled on the helmet and it likewise changed to fit, producing a heads-up display on the visor. “I feel like I’m wearing a jet fighter.”

  8. Some of the best work with presenting strange (at least to me) settings that I ever read was done in the Judge Dee mysteries by Robert Van Gulik, and the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser. The former are murder mysteries set in classic Imperial China with loads of setting information on every page. It’s just there; the characters get all of this because it’s their home, so we’re just shown that ‘excess’ daughters often get sold off to brothels, how a Chinese courtroom and trial work, and what regular street life is like. Since the Judge is a Confucian magistrate we get a few looks at court life as well.

    Te Flashman stories are military adventure stories set in Victorian times following the career of Harry Flashman, Hero of the British Empire — on the surface. Underneath he’s a liar, bully, coward, lecher, and utter creep, but the stories are so well told and VERY un-PC. Not in the sense of being deliberately offensive or insulting, though Flashman’s language is obnoxious; rather in the ‘this is what REAL history is like’ kind; be warned, whoever you are, that Fraser takes no prisoners. They’re really entertaining. They also go into tons of detail about the countries and societies that Flashman encounters and connives to escape from. The series covers everything from the last days of the Triangle Trade to the First Afghan War/Retreat from Kabul to the Second Opium War to the Little Bighorn. I think it’s a great series and Fraser puts in an incredible amount of detail, both in the story proper as well as in footnotes and postscripts.

  9. I bet some of why you write that way is the experience reading and I presume writing technical writing that is intended to be read with a careful eye for detail.

    Stuff that may require a rare and unusual mind to verify is well matched to the actual hardware, and that using to operate the hardware is safe.

    If you have one of those minds, and do that work long enough it’ll definitely color the other things you do.

    I once tried to read a particular textbook that covered a lot of different topics relating to a particular field. Very compactly, it explained a lot of stuff once, and if you didn’t know where to page back to, figuring out was difficult. I found it very difficult to learn from that book.

    On the other hand, saying stuff once can be good practice for certain documents. Restating things means more work making sure every location of an explanation is correctly updated to the current version of the document revision.

    I think most of those documents may be references for people already familiar with the basic information, but needing to be absolutely sure of details. That might be opposite from fiction for the most general audience.

    On the other hand, fiction written to that standard might be pretty good at retaining an audience who edits those sorts of documents.

    I’m not good enough to reliably write non-fiction at that level. If I have ever actually done it, it was very short, and probably by accident. My current fiction work in progress is incoherently defined enough that I could not write it perfectly consistent and fully researched. Which tells me that even if the background knowledge was available, I probably would not want to ask people like you or OldNFO for editing help. Even if using such an editor for this project wasn’t a waste of the expertise, it would be to ask someone who habitually gets the details correct to work on something whose details cannot be correct.

    The spectrum you’ve brought to my attention is definitely useful for more than just your own writing.

    1. How’d you know?

      I protest! Writing the user manual or at least creating the quick reference sheets for the…interestingly adapted (and kludgy) software such that it could be reliably, safely, and quickly used by any of my subordinates was never part of my job description.

      I did it because the lack of training and documentation annoyed me, and fixing the same mistakes and dealing with the inefficiencies and slowdowns at critical times over and over was frustrating. And then I made the mistake of not telling my subordinates to hide it from my boss. Inevitably, every single job, when the boss noticed, it then it fell under “other duties as assigned.” Grrr.

  10. Your darling man is correct. Even the “I never stopped and said in one place all at once” explanation would be more or less unintelligible to the average librarian. Picture someone whose knowledge of the military is about like this: “Um, sergeant and colonel and lieutenant and private are all titles that mean someone is a soldier, right?” No concept of the division between officer and enlisted, no clue about the relative rank levels or implications for experience or competence, and a similar grasp of most other concepts of military organization and operations. “Warrant officer” and “exfil” and “FIDO” and “order of the day” are terms of art that this librarian simply does not have in her vocabulary. Even if she can find an acronym translation of “FIDO”, she still won’t feel what it means to the people saying it in realtime. That librarian represents at least half of America, possibly three-quarters. Those are the people complaining about your books being hard to understand.

    Then there are the ones who think, “Soldiers always have to follow orders, right? So they all have to be little robots and can’t think for themselves and just love to kill babies?” Those people are probably not your target audience.

    The trick I’m currently using to avoid “as we both know, Bob” is to have a clueless reporter along for the ride. She gets to ask a lot of “what just happened?” questions when there’s a lull in the fighting, or when the perp suddenly escapes. I stole it (subconsciously at first) from Niven & Pournelle, who probably stole it from someone else. She starts as a stowaway, but there’s no good way to get rid of her while the shooting’s going on. And she has her own motivations, which slowly emerge.

  11. To handle your “I never stopped and said in one place all at once” question, the classic advice is, show, don’t tell. She might pull someone she trusts aside and ask, “How badly did I mess up that last flight?” He says, “Geez, lady, compared to everything else that went wrong today, you were stunning perfection. I guarantee you, whatever mistakes you think you made, everyone else here has already forgotten them. Get your ass back out there and prep the bird for the next mission!” Or something like that; I’ve forgotten the details of that scene. If there’s nobody there that she trusts that much, and you can’t sneak someone into the scene, then at least the troops filing off the ship can say, “Thanks for getting us home. At least one thing went right today. Cheers for the pilot!” Or buy her drinks and toast her at the club that night, or whatever.

    1. The problem is that you have to judge how well you showed, and you already know that information, which makes it hard to judge.

      Though at the extreme — in “The Maze, the Manor, and the Unicorn,” I figured I couldn’t count on people knowing about unicorns’ affinity for virgins, so I slipped in a bit about a maiden being safe in a woods where there is a unicorn, and one person in the writing group actually told me I must have left out a “not” in there.

  12. My current WIP didn’t have a proper opening until today, when I conceived of a scene that could not only impart vital exposition and character, but set up some of the major themes as well. And it’s dramatic enough that it shouldn’t be boring.

  13. “You can’t skim” … Yes, you can. And then you can read the book again and again and find new bits each time. And since I read really fast I love books that reward rereading. And I still don’t know what FIDO means exactly but after ten rereadings of the book I got the point and enjoy seeing the setup.

    1. Thank you. FIDO stands for, ah, “F**k It, Drive On.” An equivalent authorial expression is “Just write it; you can always edit later.”

      It’s an emphatic, with the closest long form translation being “Stop worrying about what went wrong back there/is currently going wrong that you can’t change, or what you should have done/said/thought/brought/carried/requisitioned/maintained/shot that can’t be fixed now. Focus on the mission. Keep going.”

  14. I can think of two ways of sneaking background or explanations in, through character opinion or reaction and through “sequel.” And it’s necessary to sneak it in in all sorts of genres, particularly my two favorites, science fiction and historical fiction.

    Your main character can notice things, contrast two things, be annoyed by something, wish something wasn’t like it is, would stop, and on and on. That same MC can notice others being upset and say “What’s the matter?” or “What?” (as one of my beta readers prefers). These observations can then provide a stepping stone to the narrator slipping in and explaining the reactions, observations, and whatnots. Without those reactions, the explanation feels forced and dull.

    One of the things I learned early on is that everyone’s distaste for data dumps does not mean they want to be in the dark. They want to know what’s going on, but they don’t want to be hit over the head with it or bored by the explanation. They want skill. I make myself go ahead and spend three to seven sentences explaining something. I can reduce it later during editing.

    The other place is during sequels, in the Swain sense of “sequel.” In his lingo, the exciting bits of the story are “scenes” and the after-efffects bits are “sequels”). Sequels are great places for background and explanation. They serve a number of purposes, and one is to have characters plan next steps, but they do so in response to what went before. So, if you start a story with all the hook-y, gripping emotional stuff–whether action or something else harrowing– that readers demand, the part that follows, where everyone recovers from it or looks at each other and says now what do we do, is where you can explain what just happened and slip in some context.

    After the burglars enter the apartment and take the TV while Sally and her roomie are separated from their weapons, Sally can glare at her roommate and demand to know why she left the knives in the front hall. She can have mean thoughts about the roommate’s nutty enthusiasms. She can resolve silently to never again live with someone who moved from one of the outer moons, where they don’t understand how things work on Mars. She can say it out loud. Through the ensuing argument and planning to recover their possessions, we can learn what planet they’re on, that space travel is common, that there’s an exchange program between Mars and Ganymede, that police on Mars are corrupt, and all sorts of other useful stuff. It doesn’t all have to be said out loud. Some of it can be part of the simmering resentment festering in Sally’s head.

    Or, look how the Harry Dresden novels start. They open with Harry in it up to his neck. Then he goes and talks to Bob, and we start getting a clue as to what’s going on as Harry and Bob talk through his plans. Harry even explains things to us, the readers, and we’re ok with it because it’s part of his reaction to what happened in the building he didn’t set on fire. I’ve always figured those Bob scenes are Swain sequels.

  15. I try to remind myself that I know what’s there so my hints about it seem really obvious *to me*.

    There’s many a time that I’ve given feedback similar to “Who’s on the horse? I didn’t catch that the guy got on behind someone instead of just taking the horse.” and was told that, no, there in the second sentence it’s clear who’s on the horse.

    The point being that I didn’t read carefully enough. Which clearly I didn’t. But why would anyone assume that anyone *else* was going to read more carefully than I did?

    1. That makes sense. Particularly when a chunk of information is supplied all at once, the reader doesn’t know to care and thus doesn’t remember. So, if the writer describes 5 new characters in one paragraph, the reader doesn’t have them all straight. When those 5 people start doing new and interesting things, and get little reminder tags (“No,” shouted Jonas, tugging at his beard), then we can keep them straight.

      OTOH, I used to turn down the corner of the page when I came to one of those 5-to-8 character introductions so I could refer back to it as I read along. One day I’ll figure out how to find my bookmarks in my Kindle.

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