Too Much Information: Why Writers Should Conceal Their Research

"I have to resist the compulsion to reference everyone of these"
“I have to resist the compulsion to reference everyone of these”

A few years ago, someone approached me about adapting a thriller into a screenplay. Reading through the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure where the script should begin. The first scene involved an autopsy where the pathologist missed the symptoms of a biological agent. The author took us through each stage of the autopsy including each instrument the pathologist used, where he made his incisions, and the weight of every organ.

It was clear the author knew what he was talking about, but he wasn’t telling a story, he was teaching a lesson.

The scene had no conflict until the author told us about the crucial detail the pathologist missed. The prologue read like it was supposed to function as the opening stinger of a crime drama. This might have worked if the pathologist had struggled to find a cause of death or started to show signs of the contagious infection, instead he gave an extremely technical description of a routine procedure with no conflict.

Writers have a tendency to over share our research to prove we’re qualified to write about certain topics. We write what we know and we want to make sure you know our knowledge extends beyond Wikipedia. The problem is, it’s clear when we’re compensating for something.

The trick is figuring how much technical information our audience needs to understand our story and how to reveal it naturally.

Some pieces of research material don't age too well
Some pieces of research material don’t age too well

The Importance of a Well Placed Point of View

If technical information is necessary for the audience to follow your story, find a point of view character to relay that info through. The point of view character could be someone in a new profession like Agent J in Men in Black, or someone trapped in a new situation like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, or even someone that’s unaware of their own importance like Neo in The Matrix.

In fantasy stories point of view characters are proxies for the audience. They have limited knowledge of the fantastical elements of their universes, until a call to action forces them to go exploring. Their limited experience justifies lectures from mentor figures, like Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Authors build worlds around these characters, inviting audiences to see the new terrain through the point of view character’s eyes, ensuring we’re all on the same page.

In stories set in the real world, point of view characters are necessary to bring us into situations requiring a minimum level of technical expertise. This is why so many pilot episodes follow rookie cops, paralegals, and resident physicians.

Sometimes the point of view character is an expert returning to a job they’d quit. In Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, Will Graham is a former FBI profiler who’s persuaded to return to the bureau by Jack Crawford, his old mentor. Jack bring’s Will, and the audience, up to speed on an active serial killer. In NBC’s adaptation, Will Graham is a forensic psychology professor who’s lectures happen to be on whatever case he’s investigating. In one interpretation of the story Will is the audience’s point of view, in another it’s his students.

There’s more than one way to share specialized information. The point of view character doesn’t need to be the protagonist, they could be an apprentice our hero is relaying wisdom to.

In the Lincoln Lawyer, Matthew McConaughey plays a defense attorney who shares legal strategies with his driver. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a videographer who explains his methodology to an intern. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a dream thief who reveals his cerebral schemes to the newest member of his team.

The problem with passing information through a POV character comes when you use the wrong one. When you funnel information through someone who should already know it, the audience gets wise to what you’re doing. In the film Gravity, George Clooney’s character keeps telling Sandra Bullock how satellite debris behaves in space, I kept expecting her to say, “You do know I’m an astronaut too, right?”

This is the equivalent of one character saying, “As you already know,” before dispensing wisdom to another. This makes no sense. If both characters know something already, this character is breaking the fourth wall to relay it to the audience directly.

It breaks the suspension of disbelief when experts give each other text book information. The film Interstellar got around this by specifying that each astronaut’s knowledge was limited to their area of expertise. Matthew McConaughey, our point of view character, was a pilot, not a quantum physicist. It made sense for his peers to share information on how black holes distort space time (2nd McConaughey reference in the same article, alright alright alright).

3. Chrome Face

What is Too Technical?

When it comes to technical information, give your audience just enough to follow the plot, establish your characters’ skills, and flavor your universe.

Michael Crichton filtered his medical knowledge through scenes. He was a master at creating urgent scenarios where characters  shared what they knew to survive. He kept our attention by respecting the flow of the format, rather than just dumping information.

Right now, I’m reading a book by an author who’s guilty of writing chapters where nothing happens, where characters list things they know about seedy subjects just because they feel like sharing. These characters cease to be three dimensional the moment they become mouth pieces for the writer’s research. Their monologues would read better in social psychology books.

It’s alright to know less about an area of expertise than your characters. If a cop has a walk on role in your story, you don’t need to know every police procedure, just enough to represent them in their scenes.

Sometimes sharing too much information on an area of expertise can reveal how little you know about it. If you’re copying and pasting information from sources that go over your head, your story will have problems. You might be basing it on a theory that’s already been discredited.

The more technical information space opera writers put out there, the more they give Neil deGrasse Tyson to tweet about.

Not every Science Fiction fantasy needs to take place in the realm of possibilities, but it helps to have an understanding of what you’re building on. If your foundation is a fringe theory, it might fall apart upon closer examination. If your premise is shrouded in mystery, we might not spot its weaknesses. This is where some well placed ambiguity can really help a story.

Someone is plotting something
Someone is plotting something

16 thoughts on “Too Much Information: Why Writers Should Conceal Their Research”

  1. Definitely a good suggestion. I’ve blogged about this myself before. It helps to have a character who needs things explained to them, like Hermione is constantly explaining things to Harry Potter, and through him, to the audience.

    Another method is to have the character learning new things on their own instead of having someone explain it to them. That works well in a situation where the knowledge is arcane and mysterious, since no one is likely to know what it is. The character’s journey of exploration and discovery then carries the reader along the way.

    1. I like the idea of a character discovering some arcane knowledge then declaring their epiphany to their cohorts, perhaps even teaching their mentor a thing or two.

      Thanks for plowing through this one so quickly.

      If you have the time, you should post a link to your article in a response.

      1. I’ve referenced it more than once, but the biggest example is in one of my posts on my series about making the rules of magic. Specifically, how people like Hermione and Morpheus explain the rules of their respective worlds to characters like Harry Potter and Neo (The Matrix being a world of “magic” for all intents and purposes). The character learning the “magic” is always one new to the supernatural/other-worldly places where the more experienced characters live. So they need to be brought up to speed, bringing the audience along with them.

    1. That’s an excellent way to put it. It’s tough to go back and reread or re-watch something and ask yourself, “Why is this working?” Especially when the stories are so simple.

  2. Love this!

    Somebody–I think it was Orson Scott Card, but then again, I ALWAYS think it’s Orson Scott Card–said something along the lines of ‘only ten percent of what you know about your world should be visible to the reader’. Which means, of course, that there should be oceans and oceans of research under the surface, guiding your story without taking it over. I stand behind that. Make sure you aren’t making mistakes, include the most interesting and relevant details, and let the rest go unstated. After all, your character has more important stuff going on than your research.

    1. Exactly. This goes back to the notion that reading and writing are a collaboration. I don’t want to do all of the reader’s imagining for them. I want to leave some gaps for them to fill themselves, invite them into participating in the process.

  3. I do feel I should have your writing blogs open when I’m writing as they are always useful and make me look at things I’ve written and think again!

    I have had some trouble with this issue in my current WIP. My protagonist is on his own (in the real world, although to him it is not the real world as it’s not his world!) and he has discovered a contraption which I need to describe as the story is set in the 18th Century and so would not be familiar necessary to a modern audience.It’s really tricky as he’s on his own so there is no POV character to help him out and so I’ve had to explore it completely through his eyes. I had to do a lot of research, but don’t want that to be obvious. This has happened a few times with the historical elements of this fantasy story and having read this post, it will force me to go back to certain points and look at how well (or probably how badly) I’ve dealt with that and whether I have used POV characters correctly.

    Thanks for another engaging and informative (but never preachy!) writing post. 🙂

    1. With those fictional steampunk objects you have the freedom to show how they might look in the course of their function. You can be showy without having to explain exactly how it works. In some instances, the less the audience knows about your McGuffin the better.

      A friend and I were just talking about how the hodgepodge of magical incantations on the Constantine TV show aren’t really doing it for us, because they try too hard to explain the mechanics of pre-exiting spiritual beliefs and spells we’ve already heard of. The show is at its best when it makes spells up from scratch.

      The audience doesn’t need to know everything, just enough to eventually understand what’s going on.

      As always, thank you kindly for reading!

    1. I’m noticing POV characters more and more now that I’m looking for them. Sometimes they fall victim to becoming information dumping grounds, but sometimes, in great stories, they become mentors themselves. It’s a tricky balance.

      I hate “as you know.” It always makes me wince.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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