Thursday, 6 May 2010

Plot, Pace and Information

Every now and then in this blog, I touch on an issue concerning the writing of crime fiction, and I’ve been interested to see how many comments some of these posts have prompted. One example was when I asked about the gruesomeness of some modern crime fiction. And another came last Monday, with my post ‘Too Much Information?’

These are topics that intrigue me, though I don’t think there are simple answers to the questions I have posed, and I’m glad that you seem to have found them interesting too. Many readers, it seems, are fascinated by the craft of writing, and give it a lot of thought.

A number of comments on ‘Too Much Information?’ made the point that the key issue is that of balance, and I agree. If background information slows down the development of the story, that’s a drawback. But background information conveyed subtly can add a layer of interest to the book, and can also, sometimes, reflect some of the key themes.

If I were to choose an example from my own work, it might be The Serpent Pool. There’s quite a bit of stuff in there about Thomas De Quincey, which (I like to think) is interesting in its own right. But it’s also intended to cast some light on the plot, both in relation to the role that Daniel Kind plays in unravelling the central mystery, and in conveying ideas about motivation to murder.

Books that have a historical setting tend, by definition, to include a good deal of information about past times. Ellis Peters’ books about Brother Cadfael provide a classic example. And when I wrote Dancing for the Hangman, I tried to integrate historical background with the depiction of Crippen as a credible, if by no means wholly likeable, character. The pace of modern life is one of the reasons why a novel set today can seldom afford to become bogged down with an excess of background detail. But provided that detail is relevant and interesting, it can certainly add to reader enjoyment.


Eric said...

I'm not so sure that the setting isn't the main character in some historical novels. Mary and I try to integrate historical background into our writing without resorting to huge info dumps but, I admit, it is difficult for me because, as a reader, if the information interests me enough I really don't care how gracelessly it is dumped in. (If it doesn't interest, that's another matter) But I think most readers take a little more balanced view than I do and rightly so. If all one wants is information about history it is better to read a history book.

Anonymous said...

Martin - You make a very well-taken point about historical novels, or novels where a point of history figures into the plot. In those cases, information is quite helpful. I'd argue it may even be necessary for the plot to make sense. That said, though, I agree that there's such a thing as too much background information. As with anything else, I believe it has a lot to do with context. Some contexts call for more information than do others.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I think a lot depends on the genre, as you've pointed out. Back story and trivia have *some* role in the traditional mysteries I write, but not much.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Clarissa Draper said...

I think you're right, depending on the genre and the era, you will need more or less backstory. But how you apportion out that backstory is important. I think too much at once will lose any reader, even the more enthusiastic. Great post, thought provoking.


Martin Edwards said...

A number of very interesting contributions here, thank you all.
Eric, you make a good point, and I'm also reminded that you and Mary are an admirable example of duo-writing, a subject I wrote about for Bookdagger.
Margot, you are spot on about the crucial significance of context.

Dorte H said...

I certainly enjoy it when you blog about the writing process. When you enjoy a series, it is always interesting to read about the writer´s tricks of the trade.

And to me the combination of British countryside + a touch of history is almost irresistible.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Dorte. You have encouraged me to do further such posts!