So I’m working on the latter third of my work in progress, one of my Finnegans novels, and I need to bring in some history about one of the characters and the small town where she lives. How to do this without being intrusive or pedantic?
I more or less stumbled into having the necessary information presented as chatter among a group of old men at the town cafe. My main character is among them. She’s a freelance journalist writing an article about the town, and she’s urging the men to blather away, hoping to pick up some tidbits for her piece. I, of course, am urging them to blather away to provide some plot points about the past that figure in the story of the present.
It’s only first-draft stuff at this point, and I will probably modify/revise/enhance it several times down the writing road. I have a group of old men, the collection you might find hanging around the seed mill of a farming town, or at the cracker barrel of the country store, or, in this case, at the small town’s only cafe. What I haven’t done is give any one of them a name or description. One has a cane, but that’s it. I don’t intend to present these characters again. (I suppose there is a temptation to describe each of these characters. To give each a name and some colorful, quirky characteristic, but I don’t see any value in that. I’ve already written in this humble bog about my anathema for Nancy Drew Moments.) These men have no individual importance to the story. They are more of a Greek chorus than individual characters. What they are doing for me is imparting a lot of plot in a small space.
I’m sure I’ve seen this technique in other fiction I’ve read, though I can’t point to any specific examples. The knowledgeable sidekick is often used this way. This is the person who knows the history of some situation. Or it’s the scientist who can give the necessary technical explanation. Or some other expert who can credibly spell out some important facts that would be too tedious or incongruent to put into narrative form. It’s pure telling and little showing, a dichotomy I’ve seen anguished over by too many writers.
My old men are gossips, and my protagonist has already judged much of their material to be dubious at best. It’s useless for the article she is writing, but it is valuable for the actual plot of the novel. At this point, it’s working as a device to move my plot into the reader’s mind. We’ll see how long I keep it.