Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Don't Take a Dump on your Readers--How to Avoid Information Dumping

Jamie stepped into the subway, threading through a cluster of businessmen standing near the door, and made her way to the emptier space near the back. Looking at her reflection in the window, she blinked at the brown eyes that seemed glazed and dull. Her brown hair hung in limp strands around her pallid face. For fifteen years she had worked the same job. She was a receptionist at a paper company. Eight to five. Monday through Friday. On weekends she had some friends she got together with if she was in the mood, but that seemed more and more rare these days. Growing up, she had had such promise. Her parents cherished her, and her siblings were her best friends. She did well in school, and got straight A's in college. But in her senior year as an undergrad, everything had changed. The car accident stole everything from her.

Whew. Now that I've got the character set up, I can get on to the fun stuff! Right?


I mean seriously, that was boring to read, right? I'll bet you skipped most of that. Optimistically, you skimmed it. That's because I dropped a giant, stinking load of information on you, and thus suffocated you under the banal string of automated descriptions that should have gotten you interested in the back story of my character. Instead, I basically said, "I'm giving you back story now!" Like a good reader, you'd probably try to swallow the horse pill of information to digest for later, but where's the fun in that?

Information dumping is one of those things that agents and publishers especially hate. They don't want to be told about the character's past. They want to experience it. And if you're a writer who's been in the game for more than a few days, then you probably know this. But how to avoid it? There's usually a lot of information you have to get to the reader, and if you're creating a fantasy world then good luck! Because even the greats struggle with feeding information on a silver spoon instead of shoving it down your throat.

I'm no expert, but there are a few things I've picked up along the way. I built a fantasy world, after all. I've had to talk to other writers and circumvent information dumping many times.

1.) Tell the story outside the character's head. This is an interesting one, and I can't claim credit for figuring it out on my own. I have my husband to thank for this. See, in the early stages of writing Lunula, I came to my husband with a problem. I needed to tell the lore of my world and my character right off the bat. It was crucial that readers know that Wynn was a witch of light, and that she was being chased by a warlock. And I needed the readers to know the story behind it.

Originally, I had her contemplating the story in her head. Boring. Predictable. Information dumping. My husband read it and shook his head, stating that I'd never get published if it started off that way. And then he came up with an absolutely brilliant idea. Since the back story happened to be lore that all citizens in my world knew, he suggested someone else tell the story. And then we came up with the idea of someone in the town square putting on a marrionette performance. My character is occupied with other things, but she can see and hear the story being performed by the puppets. My readers thus got all the story they need, and it was in an interesting way:

A crowd had gathered around a puppeteer’s stage, and I had to ask several onlookers to move. I stood at the edge of the puppet show’s audience, waiting behind an older man and his ancient mare to speak to the stable hand. The crowd hushed as the performers began.
            “In the beginning of time,” a sonorous male voice began, “the Fates gathered to create our world.”
            I tilted my head and caught a glimpse of the seven puppets that represented our deity. They clopped back and forth on a wooden stage, the back of which hid the puppeteers. The common depictions of the Fates were three black-clad beings of differing heights on the left, three slim, white clad Fates of equal height on the right, and a gray-clad, towering Fate in the middle.
            “The Fates of chaos and Fates of order, ever at war, but always necessary for the balance of life, bickered over their weapons of control.” One of the Fates of chaos gave a white-robed fate a bonk on the head. Several children giggled. “The median Fate, always seeking balance but limited in power, decreed there would be born, every one hundred years, one gifted weapon for each: a warlock for the dark and a witch for the light.”  
The man in front of me moved toward the stables just as I realized what the story was really about. There were many tales of the Fates, but of course this is the one I had to be hearing. I urged the two horses forward and tried to block out the performance, but the puppeteer’s voice rose.
            “And so the witch of light and warlock of darkness were born,” he said ominously. “One with the gifts of good and right, and the other,” I could hear them switching out the puppets, “given the powers of darkness.” The children oohhed and aahhed at the figures on the stage. I couldn’t resist—I had to see what I looked like. My puppet was slender and supposedly beautiful, with flowing blond hair over the faceless wooden head. She wore white, of course, and the performer made her movements delicate and fluid. The warlock wore black, with messy, chaotic black hair spiking up from his more masculine head. His dark robes flowed behind him as he moved restlessly back and forth across the stage.
            “Miss?” the stable hand asked, bored.
            “Oh.” I turned my attention to the horses. “I need two stalls.”

That's just a little snippet, but as Wynn is distracted trying to get a stable, she can't help but overhear her own story being told by the puppeteers. I've gotten quite a few compliments on the scene...and its not even really mine! Thanks honey! But the basic idea here is to tell your character's back story outside their head. A home movie in the background, overhearing friends talking about them, etc. There are lots of ways you can play with this, and they are all more interesting than an inner monologue.

2.) Don't do it all at once. If you need to tell the back story in the character's head, then try to break it up. In my first paragraph there, it would have been much better to just pick one of those back details, and then leave it hanging. I could have then introduced more later. For example, maybe she is offered a ride home, but she resists because of her fear of riding in cars after her car accident. The person who offered her the ride might then say something like, "Oh I'm so sorry. I forgot. Your accident."

Introduce the details in snippets. Not only does this avoid dropping a figurative deuce on your audience, but you also lead them along and keep them interested. Sometimes less is more.

3.) Don't do it in the beginning. Like I mentioned above, publishers and agents absolutely hate information dumping in the first chapter. For some reason this is like the automatic axe to your work. If they see a bunch of paragraphs of story and no action, they're pretty likely to just move on. But what if you really need to introduce your character's tortured inner soul? And stuff.

Put it off. Seriously, it's much more interesting to everyone if you keep your character and even your world cloaked in some mystery.

By the way, I'm terrible at this.

I always want to launch into my character, and their background, and the world, and all that good stuff. Because really, we worked the hardest on all that! It's what we think is most interesting. But alas, to readers, what is most interesting is the action. Usually. So going back to advice number 2, go ahead and reveal a few things. But you can't just lay out all your cards in the first chapter--don't even feel obligated to tell us what century it is if you don't want to. Show us, certainly, but don't launch into an inner monologue in the first chapter. Reserve that first one for action, and lots and lots of showing. More show, less tell. If you really MUST drop a load of info somewhere, save it for later when you've already got us engaged.

4.) Don't forget to write it. Wait, but I thought you said don't write information dumps? That's not what I'm saying here. What I mean is don't forget to be a writer when you write it. Don't just list off all the stuff that happened like I did in that first paragraph. Once again, if you really must put forward a chunk of information (and its going to happen. That's just part of writing), then write it well. Pay very very close attention to this part so that it is your best writing, and not your monotonous writing. It can be hard to be interested in a list of ingredients that will later make up the spicy KAPOW of your book, but try. Make that dump smell like posies.

5.) One character at a time. I can't tell you how many times I've read a fellow writer's work and thought to myself, "There are too many people here." Having too many characters in the beginning is bad enough. But if you're information dumping for all of them?
Too much, man. Too much. I mean, it just drowns the reader in information. If your readers feels like they should pull out a pad of paper and make a chart to keep track of who has stormy blue eyes, and who has the back story with the killer squirrel, then you the writer are doing it wrong. It's okay if you have lots of characters, but give them a red carpet of some kind. One at a time. Focus your camera on one guy at a time, and slowly give us his back story so that we can get to know the character and actually care about his background first. Easier said than done, but its worth the effort.

So there you have it! My five tips for avoiding information dumping when you can. And honestly, this is a personal pet peeve of mine. I'm not saying I never do it, because I really do...all the time. I have to constantly check myself and rewrite things that ended up being too much at once. It's one of those things that, if given proper attention, will take your writing to the next level.

How about it? Do you have any tips for avoiding the information dump? Any examples from your own work? I'd love to hear from you!

1 comment:

  1. Point 1. Yes, I did that! I needed to tell the creation myth of the fantasy world, so I had some performers acting it out at a fair.

    Points 2-5: Yes.

    Here's my tip: There's an extremely good chance that the reader doesn't need what you want to info dump. You may need it in your head, and it will inform your writing, but the reader doesn't need it at all.

    A genuinely useful article. So rare.