The Danger for the Writer of Too Much Research

It seems hard to imagine that too much research could be a danger for anyone writing on anything, but I think it is easy to get so enamored with what you discover in the research that you lose site of what are doing the research for—and that is to tell a compelling story.

Case in point . . .

Years ago, I decided to try to learn what I could on a craft level from about half a dozen best-selling authors from John Grisham to Stephen King. One of the books I read was “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton. He was a master at telling a briskly-paced, well-plotted story. Crichton was a Hardvard grad and had gone to med school, so research was something that fascinated him. But, if you read his book, you will see how deftly he used that research. Dinosaurs, DNA, and cloning are all complex subjects, but, in Crichton’s deft hand, you never get lost in the research. And, it never slows down the pace of the story. That is because he layers the research into his book a little at a time. A few sentences here, a paragraph there, but that is all. He doesn’t drone on for pages about the science—even though the author obviously loves the science. The novel was dependent on a lot of research, but the only findings that made their way into the book were the ones necessary for the reader to understand the story.

Shortly after reading that book, I started reading a book by Tom Clancy, which was full of detailed research, much of which, in my opinion, was unnecessary. Even tedious. Every time I got to a place like that in the book, I found myself skimming it so I could get back to the plot. Eventually, I skipped over those places. Finally, after finishing only a third of the book, I put it down.

I faced a similar tension when doing research for “Centurion.” For example, I learned a lot about the Passover, its roots in history, its practice in the first century, the type of food that was prepared, the lessons that were taught, etc.

But there were two problems that led me to cut that material. One, it slowed down the story. And two, the story is from a Roman perspective, not a Jewish one. And so that information isn’t as important to the story.

I’m sure I will have to cut more of the research that has made its way into the first three chapters. And here is how I go about doing that. As I am writing future chapters, I go back and read the chapters I have already written. If there is anything that slows down the pace, I cut it out, unless, of course, it is absolutely necessary. And, if it is, I try to find another way of inserting that research—dramatizing it, perhaps, or incorporating it into the dialog, or communicating it visually instead of verbally.

What is important to understand about writing is that it is a sequential art form and not a spacial art form. Sequential art forms are music, movies, and literature. Spatial art forms are art and architecture. The former you experience a note at a time, a scene at a time, a word or phrase at a time. The latter you experience all at once.

The sequential art form is especially dependent on rhythm and pacing and pauses to communicate. The spatial art form uses different techniques, by and large, to communicate.

Understanding the difference between the two will affect how you write. And it will affect how your reader experiences what you have written.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Danger for the Writer of Too Much Research

  1. Thank you, Ken. This information is so helpful. As I read through the research you’ve done for the first three Centurion chapters, knowing that was only a small part of it, I recalled doing research for my book––the northwest logging industry, the shipyards in the Portland-Vancouver area during World War II. Fascinating and necessary to the story, but how to include it without boring the reader. I shall revisit and edit where needed, using the guidelines you’ve proposed. Priceless, as always!

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