When writing fiction one of the biggest challenges is how much information to give your readers.
Too much, the Dreaded Info-Dump, you end up spending pages on irrelevant back story and boring your readers to death.
Too little, the Big Question Mark, and literally nothing makes sense to your readers. My blog post on GMC goes into detail about the bad things that can happen. To summarize, character motivations, plot movement, even the story itself can fall to nonsensical tatters.
The real challenge is knowing HOW MUCH to provide.
I’ve developed a few guidelines for my own writing.
These are things you SHOULD include:
What the Protagonist or Main POV KNOWS must be explained as soon as it effects their actions, reactions, or thoughts.
If your Main Character is walking down a hall, sees a black cat, then jumps onto a table. That would be a great time for you to include that she is afraid of black cats, and why.
These things can be integrated into the action as they affect the character for the first time. A full scene is often unnecessary, don’t over do, two or three sentences. Like this:
Maggie walked down the dark corridor with her candlestick grasped tightly in her hand. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of dust, mold, and death. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted movement, and spun to see the one thing she feared most. A black cat, a witch’s familiar, the merest scratch of its fangs could kill. The evil little feline sauntered towards her, so Maggie jumped onto a convenient table and brandished her candlestick as a weapon.
World-building Blocks, defining factors that influence your world must be shown or explained, either before or at the same time as they affect the plot.
Your world includes flying monkeys as messengers. Show and explain.
The monkey flew through the window, teeth bared, and scaled wings flung behind to slow his progress. A sealed parchment was clenched in his tiny fist. Maggie reached out a cautious hand to received the document without being scratched or bitten. She never would understand why her mother insisted on using monkeys to carry messages. One such flea-bitten creature had left a ragged scar on her wrist when he bit her three years ago.
Plot developments, must be clear and laid out. No off stage or behind the scenes events should change the course of the plot without being discussed or explained in detail. As the effected characters discover them.
“What do you mean he was killed?” Maggie screamed.
“The battle went badly, my lady.” The captain ducked his head and lowered his eyes with shame.
“You were supposed to keep him safe!”
“We were separated in the heat of battle. I’m so sorry, my lady.”
“No, no, you’re lying, my brother isn’t dead!”
“He died bravely under a charge of elephant cavalry.”
“No…” Tears streamed down her face.
NOW..here is the major caveat to those rules.
The information given, shown, or “known” does not have to be CORRECT! Maybe cats aren’t really poisonous but Maggie has been told they are. Maybe the monkeys are really spies and assassins, the messenger role a cats-paw. Or maybe the captain killed her brother. You can let the reader into the secrets by showing the scenes or other characters POVs, or leave them in the dark until the Main Character discovers them.
Now, what you should NOT include:
Random Unimportant Facts, something fun or quirky about your world that doesn’t influence the story? Leave it out. We don’t need to know that the protagonist had a dog growing up, unless it influences them now. Birds in your world bark instead of sing? Unless it factors in the story, we don’t need to know.
Overt Foreshadowing, this is an opinion, but I HATE this in novels. This decision will impact the person’s life? That doesn’t mean you should write the phrase:
Maggie didn’t know it, but this decision would have lasting consequences in her life.
Instead, just let the reader come to their own conclusions based on the actions and thoughts of your characters. Unless your character is a precognitive psychic they shouldn’t have “feelings” that this will impact them later or a sense of deeper meaning. Nor is such a “feeling” necessary. If you present the action, and then the consequences this is totally irrelevant.
The villain’s MASTER PLAN, can be a mystery if you never give their POV or that POV is brief. Most of the time not knowing what the bad guy is doing adds to the tension. So leave the bad guy or girl as a mystery. Only revealing the truth as the heroes discover it.
Anything not mentioned. Yes, anything. If it doesn’t influence the main characters or the plot, leave it out…
The key is to have everything you need, and nothing you don’t.