When I was a young cub reporter straight out of journalism college, my very wise (as it turns out) editor told me that our job was to inform enrich and entertain our readers. So, when we discovered that a local auction house was selling off some beekeeping equipment, I was despatched to see what it was all about. With my editor’s words ringing in my ears, I attacked the job and this led to the introduction to my article, being something along the lines of ‘What does Julius Caesar have in common with Benjamin Franklin and Aristotle?’ (It also led to a photograph of me dressed as a beekeeper and sitting on a hive, but the least said about that the better.)
My aim had been to find something that my readers would not have known and weave it into the story. This clearly resounds into fiction (without the beekeeping bit). Readers do come to writers to be informed about a subject (to some extent), and to be enriched, but in fiction the most significant element is entertainment.
I’m immediately reminded of Stav Sherez’s novel – A Dark Redemption. Not only does he create a great a great story and great characters, he manages to weave in a lot of information about politics in Africa into the story. You can immediately tell that Stav has done his homework, but the emphasis is on the word ‘weave’. It’s tempting as a writer, when you’ve done a lot of research, to show off how much you’ve learned. Some writers even stop the story to give you pages of background information in a huge chunk, which the reader doesn’t really care about. They just want to know what happens next. The story is enriched by the research, particularly when the reader sits back and says ‘Oh, I didn’t know that’. But it’s vital to remember not to let your work descend into a lecture on whatever subject you’re writing about. If readers want a lecture, they’ll go to one.
Instead, you should use the first two elements to carry out the third. Your main job, as a fiction writer, is to entertain. Readers pick up a book to be transported, to be pulled into a story and to enjoy that process. What they don’t want is to be overwhelmed with facts. And when I say overwhelmed I mean three to four pages of explanation of information they don’t need. I have come across an example of this, by a writer who has several books behind them and should know better, and it spoiled my experience of reading the book. Yes, the reader may not be familiar with the world you’re talking about – my knowledge of African politics, for example – is almost non-existent, but I didn’t need Stav to drop a text book on my head. And he didn’t, as I pointed out earlier. Instead I learned just enough about the political side of things to help me understand the plot and why things were happening.
So, my dear writers, by all means do your research and use it to inform yourself about the world your characters live in, but please don’t go into too much detail. It spoils what could otherwise be a great experience for the reader.
Informing and enriching are all very well, but don’t forget to entertain most of all.