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.