When You Know Too Much

After I chose the title for this post, I realized that the title itself could be used for a number of writing related discussions. here, however, it’s when the writer knows too much.

Research is important, even when writing in completely fictional worlds. There are always thing we take from the real world, and those need to be transferred correctly if our created worlds are to feel real. This also goes back to the classic saying, “Write what you know,” which we’ve all heard far too many times. However, it is easier than it might seem to let all of the cool information we learn through research intrude on our stories–where they really shouldn’t.

The thought came to me recently, as I’ve been reading a really interesting book; Bows & Arrows of the Native Americans, by Jim Hamm. It contains a wealth of information about Native American bows and arrows, as the title indicates, going through different types, styles, and bowmaking process. He goes into great detail about the bowmaking process in particular, detailing everything step-by-step in a way that makes it seem doable, if a lot of work. In fact, I myself may try and make my own bow at some point in the not too distant future using this guide.

As a writer, however, I love the book because it explains so much about bows, and gives me new knowledge with which I can imbue my stories with. It would be cool to have more information about bows aside from what they do in a book. And wouldn’t it be cool to depict a character in a story making one, seeing as I now know how the process works?

No, it most likely would not be, unfortunately. The process of making a bow from scratch (and this is assuming the wood has already been cut into staves and properly dried, which can take a long time) is many many hours of (often dull and menial) labor. Watching a character do everything from start to finish, even if assisted by magic to make it go quicker or with time-lapses, would not be interesting at all to read. It’s just boring, as cool as the process might seem to me. I am reminded of a chapter in Christopher Paolini’s Brisingr where an entire chapter is devoted to the forging of a sword (including putting together the kiln). It got boring real fast. Showing every step did nothing to enhance the scene or build character or world or plot. The forging of a sword is a very cool process, and I understand his excitement with learning all about it and wanting to use it in his book (something I recall him saying in either an interview or in something he wrote about the process of writing the book. Unfortunately, showing off that knowledge really did not work. Just like other instances of over-description, it completely overrode the other, more interesting aspects of the scene.

This leads us to the question, however, of what we should do with all this cool stuff we learn about through research (or through our own worldbuilding, as it works much the same way for normal description as well).

We shouldn’t completely throw it away, certainly; it’s too interesting for that. One simple thing we as writers can do is draw on the knowledge sparingly, integrating it into the story and world but not at the expense of pacing and other important story aspects. We could have a character watch as someone else does the work, inserting descriptions based on what our character thinks and sees, maybe even asking the smith, bowyer, or whatever questions. We can show someone start the process, than skip to the end, either by following the character doing the action and having him lose himself in the work,, or through a character watching–no one would spend hours mentally commenting on a long process. (I don’t remember the scene perfectly, but I recall liking the scene in the Wheel of Time series where Perrin’s hammer is forged. It didn’t go into excruciating detail, and it also served to forward the plot. It had to do with fulfilling prophecies that dealt with Perrin, as well as his own character arc, and contributed to the world by reintroducing power-wrought weapons, which had been a lost art as I recall.)

That’s another thing. If this big, detailed depicting of creating a sword, bow, or anything is integral to the plot, you can pull it off, with some limitations (I still would not show every single step.) If, for example, Tolkien had devoted a great deal of time describing the re-forging of Narsil, that might have worked (but note the might). The reforging of the sword had a real, important impact on the plot as a symbol, as part of the world, and as part of Aragorn’s story. By contrast, the forging scene in Brisingr held none of that significance. There, Eragon simply got his fancy sword. It felt nowhere near as important to the plot aside from giving him a new, more powerful weapon. I would have been fine with some description of the forging, as Eragon was after all very much focused on getting the sword made, but nowhere near as much as we got.

Another potential way to use the knowledge we obtain in a more interesting way (though this is more geared toward the bow-making that prompted me to start thinking about this) is to use it to show passage of time. For instance, the act of making the bow is at least somewhere in the area of 30 hours of work, which will realistically be done over the course of days, if not weeks. I could for instance have my character happen upon someone in the early stages of making a bow, ask some questions (in addition to directions or something else plot related), and continue on. Then at a later point in the story, my character could pass through the same place again, say maybe a week or two later, and see the same guy putting the finishing touches on the bow. There I was able to use my knowledge of how a bow is made, but use it not for the sake of using it, rather to expand the world (as we see someone doing normal work), gain some insight into my character (like learning he’s curious about how things are made), and show passage of time (if we establish in that first scene that it will take the man X time to finish the bow, and the character passes that way again after other events, the reader will feel that the time has truly passes). And all this is done without taking anything from the plot or pace of the story.

Like with everything else, we have to strike a balance, and ultimately what does more for the story is what we should use. And I of course understand that it might be that scene you thought would be so cool to write, that you want the research (or worldbuilding) to be seen. But to quote another often-repeated phrase about writing, there are times when you have to “kill your darlings”. As much as we the writers might enjoy reading our chapter describing this one thing, most readers won’t. And ultimately, we have to consider the reader as much as ourselves. After all, they’re the ones we want to buy our future books.

I hope this post was useful, and I also realize that if I ever do get around to making my own bow, I’ll be obligated to document the process here. I wouldn’t hold my breath; it might be a while. But it still is on my mind, and I can definitely see myself making the attempt. Until next time, keep writing!

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