As an editor I have some pretty standard red flags I look for, but a REALLY common blunder is the dreaded information dump. Some genres are more prone to this than others. Science fiction and fantasy can be particularly vulnerable. How DO you keep the pace of the story and still relay about the prophecy, the starship, the dragons and the dragons prophesied to have starships?
Once again we have Alex Limberg guest posting with us. And if you’re already tired of him? Suck it up, Buttercup, because I LIKE HIM. He’s helping me through the holiday season so I can dig out of the pile of work that buried me when I got the flu.
So Alex is here to share ways to help fold in information so that you (the author) don’t inadvertently shatter the fictive dream. He’s here to give you some tips on how to relay the information required so the reader isn’t confused, but also maintain the spell you’ve cast.
Definitely check out his free ebook that lists and explains “44 Key Questions” about any narrative– if you get them right, you will have an awesome story. Aaaaaand, here we go. Take it away, Alex!
Some parts of storytelling are way more exciting than others.
For example, you get to page 724 of your grand novel, and finally Richard the Lionheart faces the seven-headed hydra right in front of the abyss and sends her to hell once and for all.
It’s the absolute peak of your story, nail-biting suspense, unbearable tension, action, risk, fear in the middle of a breathtaking scenery. Everything you have worked for so long, it’s all coming together.
Plus, Richard and your readers don’t even know yet that the seven-headed hydra can spit fire too. Boy, that’s gonna be some BIG surprise…!
On the other hand, some parts in fiction writing we hate.
For example, weaving in the personal history of Richard, so we get to know him better and root more for him.
Or bringing in very unobtrusively 200 encyclopedia pages of background knowledge about medieval England, to establish realistic background.
And where should you discreetly slip in the fact about the hydra’s failed gallbladder surgery?
Bringing information into your story is like forcing healthy vegetables down a kid’s throat: It’s necessary and the right thing to do, but the work sucks.
When it becomes obvious the author just wanted to insert information, that’s an information dump. What an ugly word!
But it seems like the word exists for a good reason.
Think about it: Somebody took an information dump. That’s when the information comes out and it’s too concentrated, and you can smell the author’s intentions 100 miles against the wind.
Imagine Tracy telling her husband over dinner: “I don’t love you anymore like I loved you 16 years ago when we married. Me and our son Philipp, who is 15, has outstanding grades and dreams of a career as a professional hockey player, lost all our respect for you when you drunkenly caused that car accident. I like cooking and painting and I’m afraid of being alone, that’s why I’m still with you, but I have an affair with our neighbor who is a certified animal trainer.”
The hand of the author becomes really visible here…
Fiction shouldn’t list facts like a newscast. If we wanted to read the news, we would go on the New York Times website (and some of us would actually buy a newspaper, or borrow one from the waiting room of our favorite doctor). In fiction, the reader wants to be gently taken by the hand and led into the carefully woven illusion.
But how can we do that?
They say Don’t give them fish, give them a fishing rod!, and so it shall be. There are a million ways to discreetly distribute some pieces of tasty sushi amongst your readers– you can and should be very creative with it! But start with these five basic ways to avoid an ugly pile of information:
1. Let Your Characters Say It
No, you, the author, got nothing to do with it; it’s your characters who are spreading all that good information like wildfire. Keep in mind the key rule though, so your readers don’t feel cheated on: Your character needs to have a reason to mention the information!
The two most natural reasons that come to mind are:
- He has to pass his info on to another character who doesn’t know about it.
Imagine a colonel who has to report some military information to his general about what just happened in battle.
- The character’s emotions are boiling over.
Imagine the accusation of an overworked co-worker to a lazy colleague: “I’m so sick of this! You never get your tasks done on time!” Or take enthusiasm: “Jim, you will never believe what just happened! I won the lottery!”
It’s a very natural and discreet way of smuggling some high-octane info into your story.
2. Don’t Tell the Show
Here it comes, the old Show, don’t tell!
While in some cases it is okay to say “Uncle Albert was tired,” it’s generally much more literary to let the reader discover herself how tired Uncle Albert was.
Describe the “dark circles” under his eyes, his constant yawning and how he forgets his keys at the office. Often it’s much more elegant to not tell about a condition or past events, but to show a couple of clues that hint at them.
3. Spread Your Info Thin
Small chunking over many pages or chapters makes your info a lot more unobtrusive than serving it in one big indigestible cluster.
It’s often convenient to let your reader have the info a little while before she actually needs it; in any case, make sure she doesn’t get it right before she needs it, because that would really look constructed.
Sometimes, a piece of info isn’t absolutely necessary to understand the story, but it gets the reader more involved emotionally. Because it’s not vital, you have more time to nicely gift-wrap it with a ribbon on top– but on the other hand, the longer you wait, the longer you leave out an opportunity to engage your reader further.
For example, we don’t have to know that Walter White has terminal cancer in Breaking Bad. We already understand that he is producing meth and can follow the trouble he gets himself into.
But when we learn about his cancer, it lets us empathize and identify with him more– his decisions become easier to understand, he becomes a more multi-faceted character and thus the story engages us more.
You have more time to bring in information like this.
4. Harness the Power of the Media
From where does the most overwhelming flood of information descend upon us unsuspecting characters?
From the mass media, of course: TV, radio, newspapers and internet. You can let your readers know much just by letting the character watch TV or read the newspaper out aloud to his wife; and any info mankind never wanted can be found on the internet (except for why girls are so much into Justin Bieber). Just make sure your character has a reason to look for the info.
Likewise, make sure the info is available to the media and it’s interesting enough for them to broadcast or feature it.
That’s not too hard to do, because as author David Mamet famously said:
“The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.”
So don’t be shy about letting the media rule even over your little yellow press scandals, man-bites-dog style.
5. Plain description: Just Say It!
Sometimes it may be acceptable when the author simply states information.
How well this works will depend on the overall style and tone and the point of view of your story; it’s basically a question of distance between the author and his narration.
Look at the beginning of Suskind’s Perfume, for example: “In the eighteenth century in France lived a man (…) His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (…) not because Grenouille was second to these more famous villains in pride, contempt for mankind, immorality (…)” Plainly stating how it is, upfront.
This style reminds of some short stories, in which the narrator assumes a more zoomed-out position, because there simply aren’t enough pages to carefully spoon-feed information to the reader.
In general, this position is less elegant and artistic, but you can make a virtue out of a vice: If the large distance to your character seems believable and fits into your story, your readers will just accept it as “your style of choice”– a choice of speeding things up, that is.
Just be aware of your choice, should you decide to use this technique.
Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies) and he is now tired of talking about himself in third person. Create intriguing stories with my free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. I have worked as a copywriter in Hamburg and also lived in Vienna, Los Angeles and Madrid.
Ok, that was nice.
Now it’s your turn: How do you stuff that stupid information in there? Are your characters helpful or couldn’t they care less? Isn’t it a good feeling when the reader finally gets what he should know? Do you like information about information?
Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of DECEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
In my current WIP, information is shared with the reader as the characters tell stories around a campfire.
marialberg: I love that idea. I have something similar in 4 friends sitting around sharing the outcome of last year’s New Year’s Eve Resolutions which they’ve written down in envelopes and saved all year.
So much food for thought here. A great post to bookmark and return to read – several times
(You writing style is such a delight – always quiet comparisons to smile over like this one: “a million ways to discreetly distribute some pieces of tasty sushi amongst your readers”)
I’ve been carefully studying how best selling authors do this, particularly late in a series, when there’s whole books worth of stuff the reader may not know. I’ve found that they do it in nuggets. “Here comes so and so–he’s a mortician who checks out the mangled bodies of monster victims, and I knew by the glazed look in his eye that he had a case for me.”
Plot happens, and a sentence or two of information is supplied. Bam, the story moves on, and the reader follows just fine.
Well, can only speak for myself here. I only write the stories I fantasize about at night to fall asleep. So it’s stories I really enjoy “living”, which means I’m fully in the world, in the characters’ skin. The world comes so naturally then, because you handle like you handle the real world. I mean, imagine this: you (just like your character) meet a hot guy at the club. You see you BFF for coffee the following day. What will you tell her: a) Girl, I have a date with that muscular, tanned young man tonight, you have to help me groom,” or b) “Babe, I’m seeing that hot guy from the Musette tonight, you gotta help me look a blast.” The example is extremely simplist, yes, but it serves to make a point, I hope.
I absolutely love this, thanks for sharing. I am writing a screenplay on a murder story for an assignment and these tips were so helpful!
Good stuff, Alex! Information seeding is the kind of thing which can take a lot of time (and rewrites) to get right, but it’s so satisfying when you find the perfect way to do it, a way which is not only unobtrusive but actually furthers the plot/scene/tension as well. Sigh. Back to the redraft…
Timely and interesting post. I find that establishing historical context often results in what may be perceived as information dumps. Can the substance (is the information interesting) and the quality of the writing mitigate the impact of a dump?
Me too wanjookim – I’m doing a historical fiction and have the characters talking about what has happened – but my critique readers still say it sounds like an information dump. And it’s too early for TV or internet ! Oh well, back to draft ##
Great post, but as mentioned in the introduction, all kinds of tricky when you write sci-fi. I created a world and an alien species [no humans involved which made things a lot harder] and drip fed only those bits of information that fit the point in the story and /the pace/ at that point. Yay.
Some readers loved it and became completely immersed. Others just felt lost. -sigh-
I’m sticking to my guns, but I confess, that nice, fat info dump is really tempting at times!
Reblogged this on authorkdrose and commented:
As usual, wonderful stuff from Kristen Lamb’s blog- this time from a guest post!
Reblogged and I just signed up for the branding class. I have a real problem and need to somehow start over kind of, unpublish some stuff and rebrand completely. Looking forward to it.
You give a lot of information, but you make it interesting. I love the examples. Great information. I feel like you’re on our side! Thank you,.
Reblogged this on Swamp Sass and commented:
Yes, once again re-blogging from Kristen Lamb. She posts things writers need to know. Her blog is a great resource and since I’m frantically finishing this second novel… I offer this as fantastic advice! Thank you Kristen Lamb and Alex Limburg.
I’ve found I really don’t think about how to get the information in any more. The more I write, the easier it is to get a feel for what the story needs.
Yes, like with everything else in writing and in any skill, when you have practiced it long enough, it goes from conscious competence (doing it well, but still having to think about it) to unconscious competence (doing it well on autopilot).
To all the beginners: You just have to practice it long enough and keep going, then it’s inevitable you will get good at it!
One way is to slip in info is during otherwise dramatic situations.
A guy telling his life story? Boring.
A guy being tortured telling his life story instead of the info the torturer wants?
A guy telling another guy’s life story, which he shouldn’t even know, to prove how effective his spies are?
A guy pretending to be another guy, being asked for the other guy’s life story, which he doesn’t really know?
Use tension, conflict, and suspense to make the scene more interesting.
It’s like you are distracting the reader while at the same time keeping things interesting. Great examples!
And thanks to everybody who provided more tricks and examples on how to smuggle in info. Some great ideas in the comments, shows once again that Kristen’s readers are very knowledgeable.
Nicely illustrated. Thanks.
Reblogged this on Emily Arden, author and commented:
Battling with backstory? Some useful things to think about when sneaking some of that backstory into your writing…
Loved this! Thanks for sharing.
I cheat a bit on this, because my MC is a detective. I try to show as much as possible, but it does help that 1. The client has to explain their problem (or at least a version of it); 2. The MC asks a lot of nosy questions; 3. The sidekick has to report on his side investigations.
The story pacing also helps spread things out, as they are following clues a bit at a time.
I love mysteries!
Have I said lately how much I love you and your wonderful Blog of Information? Thank you, and, I love you and your wonderful blog!
Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.
This is an excellent blog post, by Alex Limberg. I enjoyed his writing and his sharing of experience and information. Thank you.
One of the best compliments that I ever received about my historical fiction is that it felt to the reader as if he or she was actually watching the scene. Often I try to do scenes from the aspect of different characters and then combining their reactions through the eyes of the protagonist of the scene. It helps that I have watched a lot of drama on TV and loved drama class!
Reblogged this on Writing and other stuff and commented:
I tried getting his 44 question ebook for a while now. I keep checking my spam folder and other places in my gmail but no dice. Anyways, very good info here. Thanks and keep them coming.
Thanks! Shoot me an email to alex at ridethepen dot com, and I will send the ebook to you.
Great post Alex – love the tips and have used all of them at one time or another! I only differ one one point : I operate on a need-to-know basis in my fiction when the reader /or fictional character is really hungry for the info , I supply it – if they never get hungry for it I leave it out.I don’t put it in earlier. I write Children’s and YA – so some tricks I’ve used are Show and Tell in the classroom/the good old waking up from a dream sequence and trying to remember important points (can use dramatic irony here and have the reader ahead of the protagonist) / imagined conversations with others or experts(nearly always employing humour)/popular lyrics that one character has an ear-worm problem with/humour – a LOT of humour/delivering info in scenes of heightened tension – you know advert break style/ in fact copying adverts in general by making info fun/Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) style first person stories inside first person stories with a willing listener/cracking clues – so mystery whodunnit style and slipping in the info as the clues are looked for – any way that’s just some of the tricks I’ve used – keep up the goos work. Sarah
Cool, that’s a great list, Sarah! A little shopping list to dig out of our pockets when we run out of ideas.
The character being hungry for an information is a simple and effective method to do this. You just have to make sure you justify WHY he wants that info so badly.
Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
A great post on inserting information in a story.
A friend shared this post and it’s so timely because I’m on my third draft. I think I sprinkled my info sparingly in the first two drafts but I’m finding I’m putting *more* in the third. Maybe because I know more now. I’m afraid I’m going to be taking a lot of it out in the 4th!
The tip about sneaking the info in before it’s needed so it doesn’t seem constructed by the author definitely has my mind whirling and thinking about revisions. Never would have thought of that.
Thanks for the great post!
Glad it helped.
And yes, throw out any info the reader doesn’t need. They are there to be thrilled by you, not informed.