We have a delightful little fall of snow happening up here in the northwest today, meaning that the planes behind my house are silent for the day, while the rest of the Seattle area loses its collective mind over a minor 4-8 inches of snow.
It’s a good day for reflection on the human condition, especially with a nice hot cup of tea at my side, and I figured I’d talk a little bit today about what I call Author Syndrome.
Show, Don’t Tell
Way back, I talked about the ‘Rules of Writing’, and why I hate them. I spent two posts ranting quite happily about the issues with the common advice on the internet, and that moderation is far better than outright rules. (You can find those posts here, and here).
Today, I’m kind of revisiting ‘rule 6: Show, don’t tell’.
As I said in my previous post, I have issues with the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’, rather than the intent, which is why I favor ‘author syndrome’ for talking about certain bad habits.
So, what is Author Syndrome?
In short, its the habit authors get into of splurging descriptions all over the place, when it is inappropriate to do so, and I don’t just mean character descriptions or location knowledge at the start of the book.
We all know, if we’ve spent any time at all working on writing, that front-loading your audience with information that is non-specific to the ongoing story is unwise. Thrusting your readers into a mini-lecture on the color of the sky, the tone of the protagonist’s skin, the layout of the castle and it’s intricate tapestries or whatever else, is going to come out as dull and preachy.
All of the information you might want to impart might have value, worth and creativity, but if it isn’t relevant, or it’s presented as a lesson, rather than a fun read, it won’t be doing its job. Readers of fiction tend to be there for the character growth, the adventure, the grand closure to the presented problem the characters are facing. Not, sadly, the complicated ecosystem and planetary alignments you spent months working on.
So why do writers continue to do it?
Well, in terms of creating the content, I think we do it because it allows us to move into our world before we invite anyone in after us, and it can help generate plot ideas or at least keep consistency for those writers who create multiple works in the same setting.
As for why a writer submits to Author Syndrome and splurges this information over their readers? Well. That’s a simple answer.
I run, watch and consume stories in many ways. There are movies I love, books I re-read yearly, video games I gush about and I adore table-top gaming a la Dungeons and Dragons.
Every author, in every one of the things I love, tends to be excited about their work.
I’m not really one for homogenized, mass-market items. The stories and games I love don’t tend to be the ones making millions of dollars or appealing to the largest market, precisely because there’s no excitement to such things.
I prefer my indie markets and personal passion projects. I am always more interested to see how a ‘normal working Joe’ is going to handle his players investing in Little Suzie and the Dragon Problem than I’m ever going to be in the latest RomCom at the cinema.
But there can be, in such things, a predilection for the creator to get a little too excited with something they made or thought up, and thrust it into the limelight at the wrong time, or in the wrong place.
When one has made an entire world or system or whatnot that they are genuinely enthused by, it can be all too easy to do the writer’s equivalent of dancing around the room with it, showing it off to anyone who comes in the door.
In some ways, it’s sweet. I love a bit of passion and excitement, and infinitely prefer it to trying to appeal to a mass market with the Blandsville Bland Quartet (for reference, the difference between, say, John Wick 1 and John Wick 2).
But there is a time and a place for all things and it’s so important to spot Author Syndrome in oneself and combat it. The ultimate goal is to have people as excited about your world as you are, and you won’t do that by lectures, or by thrusting a self insert character, NPC or other ‘non’ entity to the fore for no appreciable reason.
Combatting Author Syndrome
The first step, I feel, is recognition. It’s being able to look at ‘Rule 6’ of writing and understanding the intent.
Readers will enjoy more if you show, rather than tell, what you want them to be aware of. Feeling personally invested beats being told what is going on, being allowed to use your own brain to work things out beats being told the answers.
If you are not doing this, you have Author Syndrome.
Sometimes, an information dump is necessary. This is why the ‘Rule’ doesn’t work. If you are giving information that is needed to continue, and you have done your best to give it ‘in setting’ rather than as a lecture… that’s not Author Syndrome, it’s just a part of the story.
It’s certainly more ok for a character who can use spells to explain them to a non-caster so your readers understand why the introduction of the ‘serpent rock’ in the next chapter is important, as opposed to just dumping a few paragraphs of magic theory without context.
With Author Syndrome, the focus is on sharing something you created, without thinking about where the focus should be.
Who is this scene about? What is its purpose? How does it build the greater plot?
And, most importantly, does the thing you just wrote fit in with the answers to those questions?
If no, it needs cutting or retooling.
Share your excitement through your characters and events, and if the current story ends up not needing or using that excitement, it’s all good – clearly you have another story to write, where the Exciting Thing ™ is a core part of the tale.
And of course, for everything else… you could always write a Compendium…