An agent recently told me during a face-to-face, and concerning a manuscript of mine he was looking at, "You're telling too much at the beginning. It's an information dump. Spread out the back ground stuff, maybe over something like the first fifty pages."
You always give the agent the benefit of the doubt, right? He or she knows more than you about how to structure a saleable story, right? I recently read another article in The Writer's Chronicle that made me think long and hard about that. As a result, I came to the conclusion that this well-intentioned agent was wrong, or at the very least, his comments were irrelevant.
He was treating my story (from the first 30 or so pages he saw) as if it were a puzzle to be solved, as one might in a conventional mystery, or as what's often done in some suspense novels. Where he was right was in cases where plot prevails over character. That is, each bit of external information doled out gives the reader a clue to anticipating the plot's next big surprise.
image via writersbreak.com
But my story is one of character clothed in a suspense plot. Meaning, these external bits of data are essentially a "cloud" about the characters, nothing more than pin pricks to stir the characters to interact. It's the story of two old friends caught up in a terroristic plot, the two seeming on opposite sides of the law. But that's not really the case; as far as these two are concerned, the terror plot simply complicates their friendship. There's ideology involved, sure, but it's way second banana to their trying to manage a difficult friendship.
And that's what Steven Schwartz is driving at in the article I mentioned, "The Absence of Their Presence." Whether you choose a first- or a third-person narrator to spin your yarn – and Schwartz gives examples from the works of authors ranging from Joseph Conrad to Tim O'Brien that – and I'm quoting O'Brien – "The object is not to 'solve' a character – to expose some hidden secret – but instead to deepen and enlarge the riddle itself." In my case, and in the case of virtually all character-driven works, the riddle is the characters and their relationship.
Have you ever had a somewhat difficult friendship – or a marriage – in which some rising action resulted in a crisis moment in which the relationship was resolved – forever and a day? No? Didn't think so.
In my story's case, I could, as the agent suggested, dole out informative background bits over a greater number of pages, but as long as I don't let the "info dump" bog down the flow of action or lead it into a digression, I'm probably okay. In other words, after four hundred words of text, it wouldn't've mattered how I sprayed background over my characters (yes, given that the action gently rises to a climax, and briefly falls after that), because the project is to portray characters in all their inconsistency, their mystery.
It's a postmodern chestnut to leave a story with an incomplete, muddy ending, allowing the reader to participate. But in real life, that's the way it always is with characters. Your job as a writer – and yours, too, dear reader – is to note the depth and range of the characters' personalities, some of that spelled out in the story, but much, much more left in the literary cloud of unknowing, but appreciated nonetheless.