You put your feet up after a long day and zap on the television to enjoy your favorite program. Then those commercials come on.
You know the ones I’m talking about: The mother hugging her child, the man with a skip in his step, the gray-haired woman doing the cha-cha. But wait! That drug will prevent depression or drive you to suicide. This one will transform your sex life or cause 24-hour erections. And ladies, your bones will get stronger or you’ll go into renal failure.
I’m fascinated with the skillful juxtaposition of cheerful visuals with droning voiceovers, mile-a-second disclaimers that are every corporate legal department’s wet dream. I’m in awe of how abundant and terrifying details wash over us so effectively we hardly hear or digest their meaning.
While this is undeniably intentional in the marketing world, there are unintentional parallels in our own literary craft.
No we’re not all striving for cognitive dissonance. Yes we do overwhelm our stories with irrelevant information. The result? We force our readers to ask unrelated questions, to get distracted, to lose track emotionally or to fall out of our stories completely.
Be honest, is the entire history of a grandfather clock – from the sprouting acorn through the clockmaker’s apprenticeship — really driving the story forward? Or is it merely showing off your knowledge? Hmmm?
Sure, there are writers who include chapters of details that read like fresh lemonade – cool and refreshing. Far more writers drown their salads with gloppy dressings, float their matzoh balls on seas of schmaltz, cover their steaks with gallons of Hollandaise . . .
What’s a poor wordsmith to do?
Here are a few techniques that might help counter TMI:
- Cultivate the mindset of a reader: Look for the yawn trigger. Find the places in stories you read where you skip or skim. Study these sections. Chances are the writer got carried away with unnecessary information. Got it? Now search for the same flaws in your own work.
- Read your work aloud #1: If you run out of breath, something is probably wrong. I’m not joking. Well, unless you aspire to be Proust.
- Read your work aloud #2: If you find yourself wanting to skip over sections you’ve written, get rid of them!
- Play the cutting game: See how much detail you can cut from your descriptions/explanations and maintain the essence of your message. This game is good for two reasons: it cleans up your prose and shows you that no matter what you write, it can be deleted without killing you.
- Find sections that contradict everything I’ve just written: Study them. Find out why they work and tell me in the comments.
Writers: Do you struggle with TMI? How do you deal with it?
Everyone: Do you have examples of TMI in favorite or crummy books/short stories? How about apparent TMI passages that actually do work?
* TMI: Too much information