“And remember, lecture is the least effective method of teaching.”
My class dutifully noted this point, then settled in to listen to our professor’s extensive lecture on the other methods we ought to use.
The temptation to slip into lecture-mode is strong for experts on any subject.
This includes writers.
Who doesn’t like to go on a bit when given the chance? If you’re like me, you do your research, your background work, your world-building, and quiver with excitement as your little paper universe finally takes shape. It is so tempting to stand before your audience and share, share all of it!
It is tempting to forget that perhaps they don’t care about all of the background details- the minutia of shoe styles or the history of farming techniques etc.
I love reading history. I love finding interesting tidbits to tuck into my writing. I don’t love how easy it is for these tidbits to pile up into blocks of text that choke the flow of the story. Researching my current project, set in 1939-1946, presented waaaay more information than I needed, but I wanted to use it ALL!
I was fascinated by ways the people on the ‘Home Front’ adapted to restrictions and rationing. Of course I would have to write about wedding dresses made from old parachutes and knitting projects using pet fur…somehow!
Then there were the ‘cloak and dagger’ stories. Spies! Code breakers! Exploding Rats! (Yes, I said EXPLODING RATS!)
Flail tanks! Oooh, I’d never heard of flail tanks!
Of course, I realized that flail tanks didn’t factor in to the areas I was writing about at all, for obvious reasons…
At that point I realized my danger, and asked the big question. Where does detailed world-building morph into eye-glazing lecture?
The answer is simple, even if the execution is not.
Information shared for world-building, whether historical or fantastical, must serve the story.
If it doesn’t serve the story, it needs to go.
As fun as it might be to have a character just happen to walk past a flail tank, and have them ask about it, and have someone else give a detailed description…well, that doesn’t sound fun at all, does it? It sounds forced and stilted.
Interesting background details that require long explanations and do nothing to forward the plot loose their interest value quickly.
I have read numerous books and articles which will contribute nothing to my current project, but I don’t count that as a loss. I learned from them, got a stronger sense of the era I was writing about, and maybe I’ll finally get someone into Norway in another book. Or into a tank. Or stopping baddies with exploding rodents!!!
Sometimes a bit of lecture is unavoidable.
My male lead ends up at Monte Cassino, a MAJOR battle site on the Italian front. The story in this section of book would make no sense without an idea of the landscape, the history, etc.
My first attempt was dry. Rereading it, I could almost picture myself at the front of a classroom with a chalkboard an pointer.
I asked a few questions of myself, which helped improve the writing.
Rather than a big ‘ol block of text, could the information be woven into the story, or at least presented in shorter paragraphs and phrases?
Could the information be better conveyed by a conversation?
Could the reactions of the characters set the mood- for instance, rather than the old monastery on the mountain looking “threatening,” perhaps the characters could move or speak in a way that shows fear.
It all comes down to the ever popular bit of writing advice, “Show! Don’t Tell!”
NOW, like most advice, the above is subjective.
For instance, I had a couple of professors whose lectures I loved. One would tell us about his expeditions to Antarctica. Another would occasionally slip jokes into his lectures hidden under a perfect dead pan- only those of us who kept sharp knew how funny he was.
There are popular authors who give immense lectures in their books. I immediately think of one who writes military fiction and one who has warned us about the inadvisability of dinosaur theme-parks. Both have been successful and had movies made from their work.
How do we decide on the strongest way to tell our stories? One of the best pieces of teaching advice that I received was, “Do everything with a purpose.”
Whatever style of writing we employ, we should do so purposefully, to best convey our story and to share the joy of it with the readers who come along on the journey.
Writers, have you found any techniques to keep lecturing/ info-dumping tendencies in check?