Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.
Every scene contains a certain amount of new information. Information management can be one of the toughest aspects of crafting a story, since you want to build your world and your characters with drowning your reader with mind-numbing facts. Information can be divided into these general areas:
- History – Basically everything that’s happened from the beginning of time up until this point of the story. Family history, social history, geological history, corporate history, births and deaths and everything else.
- Setting – Where things are, what they look like, and what things that can be manipulated. Buildings, roads, rooms, tokens, animals, coffee cups, climate, local dress, mobile objects like cars, dragons, etc.
- Character – Who are the characters, what do they know, what are their relationships, what are their individual beliefs, what are their motivations. Just keeping track of a cast of hundreds can cause a migraine. Make charts if you have to.
- Value Systems – Whether codified in law, religion, or custom, these systems can have complex rules and interpretations. Every action your character does either aligns or is against accepted value systems. 19th century people didn’t use cell phones. What was their mode of communication? Women didn’t wear jeans back then either, and couldn’t vote. Make sure your rules and customs are consistent with the setting.
- Object Skills – From swinging a broadsword to reciting an incantation, object skills help a character interact with the world around them. Many of these skills must be mastered to progress in the story.
- Life Skills – How to kiss, how to raise a child, how to pay taxes. These are harder to define than object skills, but they are usually more important. The character must master some important Life Skill to prevail in the end, but there are some smaller skills they can work on in the meantime.
- State – This is sort of the catch-all knowledge-base. The position of characters in the setting, where all the objects are, the weather, time of day, who knows what about whom, even hidden things not obvious to the reader or the characters. What are they wearing? Holding? Body position, facial expression, pitch of their voice. Are they expecting someone? Waiting for a bus? This is the “what’s going on right now” question.
In every scene, the POV character is going to acquire either information and/or skills that will help them along their journey. Note that these lessons may not be easy, and some knowledge is won at a very high price.
I think it’s important to impart some portion of each of those bullet points above in every scene. The next question is, what techniques to use to make this information flow seamlessly to the reader without appearing forced? Here are some ways:
- The Information Dump (info dump). In very foreign (to our experience) settings, especially fantasy worlds, you may just need to explain the setting and the rules to the reader. The danger of this method is boring the reader, but done well, it can be a fascinating look at another world.
- Exposition. Similar to the info dump, you basically include an essay about your world in your story. This is a non-dialog method of explaining the world. Keep it as short as possible.
- Training. A character acquires a Mentor who guides them through the nuances of their world. The Mentor is there to impart critical information, but the character usually must pass some tests to earn each piece of info. The Mentor may not have the character’s best interests at heart, so something false information can create challenges for your character later on.
- Goal-oriented Problem Solving. Your character is trying to accomplish something, and must interact with the setting and characters to do it. Perhaps they are exploring the world, noting things as they go, providing the reader with their impressions of what they find.
- Dialog. Your character is allowed to ask questions…unless they already know the answer. Be wary of the “As you already know, Bob…” Interactions with other characters is very revealing.
- The Novice. A good technique is to create a “novice” character who, like the reader, knows little about the world they’re in and must be inquisitive to survive. Be wary of exposition in dialog where characters go on lengthy explanations about the world.
- Prologues. If you must, prologues are handy for explaining a key part of the backstory. However, when you review published literature, you’ll find they are rarely needed even when they’re included. Use them sparingly.
- Consequences. To help learn the rules of the world, characters should break them, and then face the consequences. The rules are there for a reason, and can reveal a lot about the people who crafted them.
- Research. More character-directed than Training, the character goes to a library or Google to find out key information. But as you know, there’s nothing more boring to a reader than hearing about keyword searches, so stick to the highlights.
Another point is that your character must grow in each scene. Whether growing in skill, knowledge, or in experience, each scene is like a mini life-lesson.
What techniques do you use to pass along information to your characters and readers?