INFO DUMP BLUES
A recent discussion came up on one of my Facebook groups about info dumps. Some apparently like them while others don’t. Those that like them think they can be artistically done, while others don’t think they’re good under any circumstances. That inspired me to take another look at this, sometimes, controversial subject amongst the writing community.
BEFORE THE “RULES”
Way back when, during the formative years of books and essays, whoever took to pen and paper basically made up the rules as they went along. As writing became more popular, it became apparent that certain works drew more readers. These works appealed more to the audience because they were easier to digest. Eventually, someone, somewhere analyzed the prose and developed rules of writing to make reading easier.
Is what I said just true? Hell if I know, but it sounds like a good guess. I’m too lazy to look up the true story, but you have to admit it holds some logic, doesn’t it?
Before the rules, as we know them today, there the classics of literature, many of which we were forced to read in school. Some were used to model the rules we use today. Others became classics simply because they were great stories, despite how they were written. A good many were authored badly, but editors, by then, already had established certain crude rules and fixed them to a point, make them more palatable to the reader. Many of them were never altered because they were considered classics and to do so was blasphemy (including those that were translated from other languages). Today, many of these classics still pretty much suck to read as far as I’m concerned. Sorry if I’ve offended those who love the classics, but I personally can’t stand to read most of them. I pulled a few off the shelves and sampled. Wow! I was shocked at how bad they were compared to today’s standards. I won’t name names, but to be force-fed that stuff in school is almost a crime. Don’t get me wrong, the actual stories and what they stand for are timeless, but the way they are presented could use a good modernization in style. How to do that without changing the author’s voice would be a severe challenge.
With fewer rules back then, a common device was the info dump. Authors wanted to convey info to the reader, and that’s exactly what they did. They dumped a heap of info on the reader all at once. Then they continued with the story.
RULES ARE THERE FOR A REASON
Are these supposed “rules” arbitrary? Let’s look at it from a reader’s perspective. Since I am a reader, let’s start with me first.
I’m plugging along in a story that’s moving well. All of a sudden the action comes to a screeching halt. The author decides he (or she) wants to tell me a bunch of background info on this character’s motivation for never pumping his own gas. Okay… The reasoning drones on and on, paragraph after paragraph, until I skip to the end of the chapter. I don’t care. None of this has anything to do with the story.
Now let’s take you… the literate reader. To you, every detail is important, no matter how trivial. You sop up minutiae because you love words, the more the better. The whole point of literate fiction is description description description.
Most of us aren’t literate readers. We’re average readers that like to get to the point. The powers-that-be realized this a long time ago and created a “rule” that info dumps were not that great.
WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
First off, how important is that info, really?
Second, how elaborate does the description need to be?
Third, how soon do you need to tell it?
Fourth, is it just something you think is neat and want to add? If that’s the case, you’d better figure a way to make it key to the story, or dump it!
We all have certain interests, prejudices, favorites we love to add to color to our writing. That’s part of who we are. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is in adding those things in that don’t make sense, or adding too many of them. Those details bog down a story and bog down those info dumps. That’s one thing that makes them info dumps.
The best way to avoid an info dump is to parse it out. If you’ve decided all that info is essential, don’t slam the reader with it all at once! Parse it out as bits of narrative and dialogue. Spread it out through several chapters.
One device often used in thrillers and action/adventure stories is to use a prologue. In the prologue, a sometime in the past scene sets up the motivation for the present-day protagonists. Within that prologue, you can use those characters to convey a lot of that info dump.
What about character background?
In this case, parse it out a bit at a time by having the character reveal it little-by-little.
What about history of a building or area?
Keep it simple and short. One or two short paragraphs. Not a chapter! Just say enough to tantalize the reader. If they want to know more, they can look it up later. You don’t need to impress them with your historical knowledge. You’re writing a fictional story, not a history essay! I can’t tell you how many times my eyes have glazed over when a story has bogged down telling me history of a town, building or something I didn’t really care about. On the other hand, I cared more when the author kept it short and simple. In fact, I actually remembered it better.
Another point is, since these stories are fiction, when an author throws in historical details, I don’t know what to believe anyway, so I take all that effort with a grain of salt. Many authors throw in a bibliography or explanation at the end of the book for what is real and fictional. You can do that or just let everyone guess. In my adventure/thrillers, I plan to have the real/not real section at the end of each book. On the other hand, I’m not going to beat the readers over the head with details within the story either.
Just a few tidbits to help you on your way.