Monday, May 9, 2011

Dumping Those Info Dumps

by Jemi Fraser

Sometimes it's really bad...
Jemi clawed at the earth above her, desperate to escape before the air ran out. She'd never liked getting her nails dirty, even though her dad was an incredible gardener and she'd grown up digging in the dirt. His tomatoes always won top prize at the county fairs. And his petunias? Priceless.
Sometimes it's even worse and doesn't even have that first sentence to draw you in...
Jemi had never liked getting her nails dirty, even though her dad was an incredible gardener and she'd grown up digging in the dirt. His tomatoes always won top prize at the county fairs. And his petunias? Priceless.
Blech! Can't write any more! :)

I love RC's definition of an Info Dump: Halting the momentum of a story to lay out a large chunk of information. If the information is critical to the story, it should be woven in as skillfully as possible.

Skillfully weaving in backstory isn't as easy as it sounds. We have to give the reader enough information so they feel connected to the main character. If the reader doesn't connect, he or she isn't going to stick around to see what happens.

On the flip side, if we give too much information all at once, it grinds the story to a halt (see the hideous example above). Hopefully in the first example, the reader wants to know why Jemi is buried and how she's going to get out. No one cares about tomatoes, or her nails, or her dad. Even if that information is vital to the story (maybe the neighbour, crazy from all those 2nd place ribbons, has planted her to get back at her dad), all of this can wait.

Sprinkle the needed backstory throughout the first few chapters. Only reveal what you really must reveal, and only when you really need to reveal it.

There's nothing wrong with writing out all of your backstory so you know it. As writers, we have to know every aspect of our characters. We have to know how they're going to act & react. And we have to know why. So, go ahead, write them out, put the info in a file. Just don't put it all in the story! Pick and choose those details. Which ones does the reader really need to know?

So, how DO you include the pieces of information you need?

Weave. Sprinkle. Tease. Hint. Show. Entice.

Use dialogue, as long as the character isn't relaying information the other character(s) would obviously know. Include a few hints in the setting and descriptions. Use internal dialogue—sparingly—to let us see the character's motivation.

And remember—we don't need to know everything all at once. Just enough to tease us into wanting more!

So, do you have trouble with info dumps? What's your biggest challenge with them?


Lauracea (Sue R) said...

It's very difficult to get a fine balance, isn't it? I love your tips, weave, sprinkle, tease, hint, show (whoops!) and entice. All in little bits. My problem is I tend to repeat them just so I'm sure the reader "gets" it! Bad girl.

Jemi Fraser said...

Sue - That balance is tough! I used to dump it all at once, now I sometimes leave too much out! I'm working on it!

Linda Leszczuk said...

Hint and entice are my favorites but also sometimes the hardest to do well. The weave and show later on are easier.

Jemi Fraser said...

Linda - They are tough! I find it's easiest to do a whole revision round just looking for places to sneak in some of the information :)

Terry Odell said...

I normally overload the opening chapter(s) but I know those are for me. My 'rule of thumb': Does the reader need to know this? Does the reader need to know this NOW?

Think of back story as an IV drip--what you'd tell a stranger at a first meet at a cocktail party (before you've had more than 1 drink)

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jemi Fraser said...

Terry - that's an AWESOME analogy!!! We want that drip to be slooooow! It's not fun to be stuck talking with those people who want to share their own personal info dumps! :)

greenwoman said...

Such good advice! Info Dumps are a special peril of paranormal fiction, since you not only need character backstory but also worldbuilding. It becomes a little easier if you have a character who is not in the know, but you still have to beware of long passages of exposition.

And it always shows when a writer is too in love with the world they've built, or with their character. I find myself skipping pages ... never a good thing!

RSMellette said...

This is something filmmakers need to learn too. I can't stand when I hear dialogue that begins, "As you know..." If they know it, why are you telling them? Must be the writer couldn't figure out any other way to let the audience in on it.

Jemi Fraser said...

Green Woman - great point!! World building adds an extra challenge for sure. I skip pages too when the exposition gets to be too much. And sometimes I drop the book entirely - which is NOT what the author wants.

Jemi Fraser said...

RS - Another great point! I can't stand dialogue like that - in film or books. There's nothing worse that badly written dialogue!

Brenda Carre said...

This is a great post, Jemi. As I am currently traveling abroad, I am clearly in mind of how much information I need to get from point A to point B. Most of the time it is active information with small bits of history thrown in to spice up the dish. Too much information becomes information overload and not enough leaves me with that 'I'm lost' feeling. I think info dumps do that too. They impede the reader's journey into story.

Jemi Fraser said...

Brenda - thank you! That's such a good comparison. I only want to know what I need to know ... and when I need to know it.

I hope you're enjoying every single minute of your time abroad! :)

Sophie Perinot said...

Great post!

Info dump is double trouble when writing First Person POV because it can totally make your writing unbelievable and push your reader out of the story. Nothing is worse that a first-person protagonist "telling" (who exactly?), or thinking or even noticing things that she/he wouldn't in real life. For example (albeit a bad one but hey, this is spur of the moment), I walked to my kitchen sink, a double basin stainless steel number with a single-handled faucet, and put my coffee cup down. I mean COME ON the character sees the sink everyday and is hardly going to notice let alone share that level of detail. This is particularly a problem in my genre (Historical Fiction) where it IS important to weave in facts and meanings that may not be readily apparent to the reader without info dump and, in the case of 1st person, without having your narrator explain what a farthingale is when she's worn one every day of her adult life.

Jemi Fraser said...

Sophie - thanks!

I totally agree. Good examples. I also hate when the character looks in the mirror and thinks about what colour eyes and hair he/she has!

I think this is one of the reasons 1st person pov is so hard for me. I feel like I'm dumping all the info in a 'tell' mode and it just doesn't come naturally for me. I envy those who can work it so well.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

great post. I struggle with this too. Too much? Too little? I recently had to include more backstory after advice from my agent. It was difficult for me to know when it was too much. But not having enough can be just as troublesome!

Jemi Fraser said...

Terry - you're so right. The first story I wrote with a thought towards publication was SO full of backstory and description. It was awful!! The 2nd one swung to the other end of the spectrum. It's such a hard balance for me. :)