Thursday, September 8, 2011

Left to Write: The Information Dump

I'm sure you've all come across this. You're reading merrily away and then all of a sudden there's a whole bunch of background information told in a way that reads like a police report. The author has decided that you need to know absolutely everything about this character right now because there's no way that you'll be able to understand anything otherwise.

Even worse, sometimes this information is told to you in the middle of exciting action or intense dialogue. For some reason the author feels a need to take a break and let you in on why these two people are fighting or what led up to the action, or how come the hero is afraid of snakes or why the dog likes to turn around five times instead of three which is what normal dogs do. Whatever the reason, the author stops the action for no reason other than to fill in her audience.

Okay so your writing and you realize that maybe your reader needs to know something. There are ways to do this without doing the dreaded information dump.

First - Does the reader need to know that now? Can it wait for later? If there's action going on or an intense conversation the answer is yes it can wait for later. Do not interupt an exciting moment to reminisce. It's not the place. There are other moments in your novel for reminiscing. It's okay for your reader to wait for answers to questions they might have. It's good for your reader to have questions. It is not good for your reader to throw your book across the room in frustration.

Second - Is this information really important? Really? Does the entire background story of this character matter to this particular incident in his/her life? Does the fact that your character have a BA in French and has travelled the world matter right now when she's rushing her child to the hospital? Maybe it does. But if it doesn't just leave it in your personal files of character development. The info needed might come up later, but it might not. Just be careful that if it does come up later you're not pulling a rabbit out of a hat. You know "Oh, by the way, Sarah just happens to have a degree in French and it just happens to appear right at this particular moment when she's trapped in the lair of a half crazed mime in the middle of Paris." If this is a danger of happening then weave the information into the story somewhere else in a more natural way.

It is possible too that your reader never has to know why your hero hates snakes. Maybe the reader can just accept that about him and realize that there is a reason.

Third - Is there some other way to tell your reader this info. Maybe it can come up in dialogue. You have to be careful doing this. You don't want your characters telling other characters things they already should know. But maybe you can bring it up casually. Maybe Sarah mentions her ability to speak French to a new aquaintence, or maybe there's a place where she can naturally use this ability, like ordering coffee in a cafe in France or Quebec.

I'm also a fan of the flashback. Not everyone is, but I like them because it gives you an opportunity to show what happened instead of telling. Instead of your hero telling us how he met his wife, maybe you can turn back the clock and show what he remembers. It puts the reader right into the story and allows the author to give a more honest accounting - or not. It may allow the author to lie to us. Who knows. But it makes the telling more interesting.

You can also weave bits of information throughout your story. You don't have to explain everything at once. Little bits can come out at a time. Even within the same scene interupt the information with action or dialogue. Not exciting action and dialogue. Just normal actions and dialogue. Brushing teeth, driving a car, breakfast table conversation - "pass the milk" stuff.

Here's an exercise. Drag out one of your manuscripts and look it over. Is there a spot where there's an excess of information. Is there a better way of imparting it? Try several different ways of giving the information to your reader.

And now for a laugh. How not to impart information through dialogue.

"Susan, even though you're twenty-six and I'm twenty-seven when we were growing up in Regina Saskatchewan everyone thought that we were twins because you skipped a grade," Pamela frowned grumpily. "And now that we're both mothers and you have a two year old girl and I have a three year old boy, people still think we're twins because you colored your hair the same as me even though your skin doesn't look as good with deep brown hair as mine does."

"You're just jealous that I have longer legs than you and that I'm three inches taller and my dress size is two sizes smaller." Susan frowned deeper than Pamela. "And you're also jealous that I have a beautiful Cape Cod house while you're living in the trailer that our Grandmother Jessie from our Mother's side left to you when she died last November."

"Ah hah!" Pamela pointed at her younger sister. "You're jealous that our Grandmother Jessie left something to me. You've always been jealous of me. I bet it drove you crazy when Tom, your old boyfriend, married me instead of you."

Yeah, don't do that. Dialogue can be a great way to give out information, but try not to make your reader want to throw your book into the blender and hit puree.


Unknown said...

Haha, info dumps drive me crazy! Every time I critique a first chapter for someone I end up having to suggest cutting half of it. I'm sure mine will be much worse.