Cool facts can ruin stories

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It’s the truth, darn it, and there’s no way getting around it.

Readers should be treated like people without security clearance – information on a need to know basis, only.

I’m working on this story that involves Aztecs and Mayans and all sorts of awesomeness about, well, Aztecs and Mayans. Unfortunately, for all the pages of random knowledge I’ve assembled in my quest to become acquainted enough with these civilizations to write a character living in them, I’ve yet to find facts that aren’t awesome. This sucks, because now I want to work all of the things into the story.

But that would make the story suck.

This is because, not being the writers of the story, most people won’t care that much about what the Mayans ate for breakfast, or how many prisoners an Aztec had to take captive to move up in rank. With tidbits like these, I’ve essentially got two choices, which apply to just about any “fact” that you want to drop into a story (and this includes world-building things, like spaceships and magic systems):

1. Massage the fact into the narrative

This is the most effective, but also the most difficult way of dealing with information that you want the readers to know but that isn’t plot or character-essential. To use the above example about breakfast, rather than dropping a line in a paragraph that the Mayans ate fruit for breakfast, you could instead include a scene set at breakfast. If you’ve already got a scene in mind that doesn’t have a set time, then make it happen in the morning. That way, your characters can discuss all the juicy conflicts while having their juicy, fact-based meal. Your readers will enjoy the authenticity without wondering why you’ve bothered to include these food descriptions.

Another way of doing this, depending on the fact in question, is to slot the fact in as a bridge for a particular plot element. Say, for example, that your hero needs to sneak inside the Mayan palace. Having the character come up with various breakfast foods and use the delivery of same as an excuse to get into the palace can work. Again, you’re imparting facts and color to the readers without throwing it out there for them.

2. Burn it

Is this a choice? Why yes, it is. If you can’t find a way to fit information into the narrative in a way that’s relevant… then perhaps it’s not relevant. If a given tidbit doesn’t help the reader learn about the characters or understand a particular scene, then you’re probably better off not touching on it. Readers aren’t generally reading fiction for facts (though working facts into the narrative is often fun for this reason – readers don’t always expect it). Don’t lambast them with pages and pages about how your world works, what various societies are like, or what the current toy fad is unless those things are critical to an understanding of the story.

But here’s something I also keep in mind, and that might help you too – when writing a draft, if you’ve got a cool fact that you want your characters to drop, put it in there. Move on. Don’t debate.

Then, when the editing pass comes around, you’ll spot that passage again. Or you won’t. If it seems out of place to you, if you’re asking “what does that have to do with anything?” or “I’m really bored right here”, then that’s a sign your story hasn’t earned or doesn’t need that particular nonfiction nugget.

By the way, did you know many Aztecs wore capes? How cool is that?