Avoiding info dumps
This week I figured I’d change things up a bit and get away from the doom and gloom about publishing challenges, although I don’t think those challenges will be going away anytime soon. The best advice I can give is that you ensure what you’re writing is the best it can be to help attract an audience.
One of the biggest challenges in writing is making sure you provide your readers with the information necessary for understanding the story. This includes orienting readers to your setting, the situation, the characters, and the story’s background. This is especially important where the settings and backgrounds may be unfamiliar to the reader, as in genres like sci-fi and fantasy—but it’s not limited to those. It’s essential to bring your readers—regardless of their own backgrounds—into your story.
Now that we’ve established what must be done, the problem becomes how to do it best. I’ve seen many new believe, or assume, that they must tell the reader everything in the beginning to set up the story before they actually get into the meat of it. They seem to think the reader won’t understand what’s going on otherwise.
Consider this analogy: You go to a car dealer to buy a new car and the salesman tells you that before he even shows you a car, you have to read the complete owner’s manual (half an inch thick) so you’ll understand everything about it before seeing it. How would you react to that?
Now, you pick up a novel and find that the first thirty or fifty pages are nothing more than descriptions of the setting and characters and background on the story before anything important happens. Will you make it to the end of those pages before you put the book down? I suppose it depends on how good the writing is, but chances are if nothing much happens in the first 30-50 pages, you’re not going to want to continue.
Maybe this set-up thing doesn’t happen at the beginning of the story. You’re reading along and the characters are trapped somewhere. One of the characters knows this place and its history, and he proceeds to tell the others (and the reader) all about this place for many pages before he tells them how to escape. Does that work for you? I didn’t think so. Or what about the tech guy who has to explain how the darn thing works instead of just doing it. Yeah, I know, we see that in movies and TV shows, but it’s usually done for humor, and someone usually tells the techie to get on with it. That’s not the issue I’m talking about. I’m talking about the one where the writer just drones on for the reader with endless prose and exposition for pages and pages and the story’s forward movement runs at a snail’s pace.
I’m not saying that you should dismiss descriptions and eliminate background information in your story, but you need to balance it. Many times the information is essential. The key is not to dump it all in one spot. You should always ground your reader in the story initially, but don’t put in more than is absolutely necessary at first, and don’t do it at the expense of the story. Get the story moving, keep it moving, and dole out the non-story-moving details a little at a time.
A few months back I talked about THE #1 WRITING MISTAKE, which was starting the story in the wrong place.
Info dumps are often tied to that problem, but info dumps can occur anywhere in the story. What do you do, though, if your story requires some extensive outpouring of information at some point? Many stories do. How do you deal with it?
While there are several solutions, foremost in your mind should be keeping your story moving. When some sort of info dump (meaning some extensive explanation or background) is needed, one way to achieve it is via a flashback that shows the reader the necessary information and keeps the reader grounded in the story’s events.
Another technique is to intersperse the information with actions or to include it in interactive dialog. By that I mean one character can be explaining to one or more other characters, who in turn interact and ask questions. What you want to avoid, however, is lengthy, straight telling in this way. You can make it a story the character is telling, but make it interesting by adding some tension, excitement, or have one or more revelations that justify the reason for the info dump in the first place.
Of course, you should avoid big info dumps where possible by spreading out the information over the course of the narrative instead of dumping it in one spot. When it comes to sci-fi and fantasy, the reader understands that a certain amount of exposition is necessary in an alien setting in order to set the scene and situation properly. Even then, letting the reader discover your world a little at a time usually makes the story more interesting. This is where your skills as a writer come into play. You must satisfy the reader’s desire for knowledge without making it the story boring with info dumps.
There are two things you should avoid at all costs. The first I already mentioned: keep the info dump small and interesting. Second, avoid, “as you know” dialogue where the characters know the information and are merely spewing out information for the reader’s benefit.
Sci-fi author Nancy Kress, in one of her workshops, used the analogy of a long-distance swimmer. A swimmer dives in and begins with strong strokes to get started. So should your story. Only after the swimmer has been moving along for a while is he allowed to ease off to rest (and you to dispense some of your information) before he begins swimming again in earnest. If the swimmer eases off too much, he will drown, and your story likewise will.
Here are a handful of techniques you can use to supply information and to avoid large information dumps and exposition.
(1) Reveal it in dialogue, with the caveat against “as you know” given above. One technique to impart information that one character knows but others don’t is to use a question-and-answer run of dialogue. But don’t go overboard or do it too often it turns into “as you know” dialogue because it’s obvious to the reader what you’re doing. Avoid long explanations and keep things natural. Readers don’t want to be lectured to.
(2) Reveal information in a character’s thoughts or in a combination of thoughts and exposition in a close POV. Again, do this in moderation. Long monologues or thought soliloquies are just as bad as, or worse than, a straight info dump because it comes off as a cheap trick. Done in moderation, though, this can be a great way to SHOW the information as well as reveal some things about the character’s background by how the character thinks about the information.
(3) Have the POV character experiencing the setting for the first time. First-person and close third person can work well for this because you’re showing the reader. This can also work using an action scene. Done carefully, this gives the reader the information first-hand. While it may still be an information dump, the reader will not see it as that. By showing it as a scene, you can throw in terms that would otherwise require explanation but whose meaning will be clear enough in the scene. However, if the character is already familiar with the setting, then you have to keep the descriptions minimal or it won’t feel natural.
Some of these techniques overlap one another, but by varying your approach, you’ll give the reader the information, let him experience the world, and bring him close to your character.
Now, you want some examples, don’t you?
Well, go to my website www.ricktaubold.com and click on the NOVELS tab at the top. Under that select the More Than Magick-excerpt. In those pages, you’ll find several examples of how I give out information while avoiding info dumps and (hopefully) make it come naturally from the characters.
SIDE NOTE: If you’re wondering why in this blog I use examples mostly from my own writing, it’s not a matter of ego or vanity or because I think my writing is the best. It’s simply because copyright laws (as they should) limit how we can use other people’s writing. While some might consider the use of excerpts here for instructional purposes as “fair use,” the courts do not always agree on that constitutes fair use and what doesn’t. Rather than take chances, I only use material I make up or own the rights to. Of course, I could make up new examples, but that’s time consuming.
As I’m working on the second “Mosaic” novel, there is one place where I wanted to use a large info dump. In the first novel (for those who have read it), the reader sees that the Tozier family has multiple skeletons in its closet. There the main characters, Chloe and Zoe Tozier (and the reader), are not given much of the history and background of their Tozier ancestors. In the second novel, some of that information is relevant to the story. The girls, Zoe in particular, want to know all about their family’s seedy ancestors.
My first problem is that this constitutes several pages of background material. It’s interesting and revealing, but it is lengthy (4700 words, 15-20 pages). I decided to have someone who knows the stories to tell them. No matter how one does it, there’s a strong risk of turning it into a lecture, even if you put in some breaks where the girls ask questions.
Why don’t I follow my own advice and bring out these background details gradually along the way? Well, without revealing too much of the plot, let’s say that there is a limited window of opportunity to reveal the information because the action picks up soon after.
So, I have a dilemma. While I, the author, made the information interesting to me, and the characters are fascinated by it, how much of it will the reader be interested in? Further, how much of it is necessary to the story? In other words, if I omitted the background information, would it make a difference? Would doing so leave plot holes or unanswered questions in the reader’s mind? If I decide that some of it is necessary, how do I condense it and cut the nonessential parts without making it a fragmented mess and making the telling come off as forced or unnatural?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer here or in any given situation. The author must make these decisions and possibly only after the first draft is completed will it be possible to determine what should be changed or cut. Always remember that not everything the writer finds interesting will interest the reader.
Another dilemma exists, though. Not all readers are the same. Some love a rich plot with lots of descriptions and background details, while others like things tight and to the point. Just as there are no definitive rules that tell us how long or short any given story should be, there are no definitive rules that tell us when to use or not use information dumps or how long they should be.
The best guideline I can give is that you, the writer, will have to decide whether you are rambling or telling the story that needs to be told and are doing it in the best possible way. Beta readers can be an immense help here, but be prepared, as I just said, to deal with differing readers’ tastes. You cannot please everyone, so it’s up to you to find a balance that maximizes the enjoyment for your particular reading audience while supplying essential information for the story.
One final comment: Every story is different. A technique that what works for one may not work for another.