Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Information Dumps

Laura's comment yesterday about 100 pages of research equaling 1 page of narrative reminded me of one of my writing pet peeves/things I used to do a lot:

Information dumps

This, I feel, is one of the bigger problems for new writers. You have all this background information that the character needs to fulfill the quest or the reader needs to understand the story and, in the rush to get to the "meat" of the tale, you let the reader know absolutely everything up front. This has the unintended consequence of making the reader disappear faster than pizza at a Weight Watchers convention (brownie points for anyone who knows the comic I stole that from).

Same thing goes for all of the research we do as writers. It's all necessary for verisimilitude, but those reams of research may only serve to make sure one comment by one character makes sense to someone who knows the topic better than you do. For example, I chopped an entire page and a half from a friend's WIP because it was an information dump (she thanked me for it, by the way). All that (necessary to her story) background is better spread throughout the story, rather than up front.

I tried to do the same thing in SON OF MAGIC and CALLARION AT NIGHT. You never get all the info right at the get-go and, in fact, there's (hopefully) enough vague tidbits that you keep reading to find out if your questions get answered/that offhand comment in Chapter Three plays out in Chapter Seventeen and so on.

Information dumps can work, however. J.K. Rowling was asked, at one point, if she'd ever have Ron and Harry read Hogwarts:A History. She replied that they'd never read the book because then she couldn't use Hermione to explain everything to both them and, by extension, the reader. It's a brilliant way to get the background information out without resorting to massive blocks of text that makes the reader's eyes glaze over.

This is rare though, and most writers who attempt to do end up resulting in the dreaded info dump. The lesson to take away from all this is to only let your character and readers enough to drive the story forward. Otherwise, what's the point of writing it?


Natalie said...

I think info dumping is definitely harder to avoid for new writers. My first book had a full twenty pages of info dump at the very beginning. Once I cut it the book was stronger but still not strong enough. I am learning that too much explaining makes a story weak.

L. T. Host said...

It's so hard to know how much is too much. I ran into this problem big time with my first WIP, the fantasy. My world had rules that I had to get across to the reader, and I got yelled at a lot in my crit group for lecturing. But then I got yelled at because no one really understood how things worked. It was tough.

But now, in my new WIP, I have more freedom, as I said last week. I think it depends on the genre how much info readers are really expecting, and therefore where their threshold is to be "dumped".

Susan R. Mills said...

Great post! I had a couple of info dumps in my completed ms. I've worked hard at getting rid of them. I found, much to my surprise, the info wasn't necessary to move the story along.

Joshua McCune said...

An agent critique on one of my earlier pieces was that information wasn't revealed quickly enough... go figure. The infobits that are harder for me to synthesize are definitely the one relating to plot bread crumbs. I'm never quite sure if I'm leaving too many or too few for the reader to follow.

There are definitely places where I find myself wanting to explain a character's BG a bit too much. I usually only catch this on edit #2 or 3.

Conclusion: Character bread crumbs are easier to sweep away than plot bread crumbs for me.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I find that my pattern is to do the info-dump in the first draft. That gets all the details down on paper that I'll probably forget in the time it takes to get to the revision process.

Then when I'm editing I see what's needed and chop the rest. I figure it's much easier to take out than it is to put back in. Granted, I end up writing a lot of superfluous stuff, but that's okay with me.

Laura Martone said...

Big problem for me. Still working on it. When a beta reader told me that my style was very Dickensian, I knew I was in trouble. After all, he padded a lot because he was paid by the word. What's my excuse?

Matthew Delman said...

Laura --

There are worse "classic" authors to be compared to ... Hawthorne and Melville come to mind. I'd take that as (somewhat) of a compliment.

But that's me.

Laura Martone said...

Oh, Lord, yes. I might've been really miffed if I'd been compared to Hawthorne. Thomas Hardy, fine. D.H. Lawrence, okay. Even Dickens was a fave of mine growing up... but Hawthorne was so awful that Mark Twain was inspired to write whole essays about how awful he was.

Course, the film version of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS was pretty darn good, IMO.