Avoid the Info Dump by Christopher Patterson
For those of you out there that are Science Fiction and Fantasy fans like me, especially if you have grown up loving a genre that has shaped imaginations around the world and created trends followed by billions of people, then there are a couple things that you know very well, things that you have accepted about the genre.
We know that sometimes we will pick up a fantasy or sci-fi book that just isn’t all that great, but the action is so cool, and the story would make a killer D&D adventure, so we read it anyway. We expect some crazy names—of people, places, new creatures and races we are being introduced to. Only in sci-fi and fantasy will you see a glossary attached to a story. We expect the unreal, magic, heroes, villains who are clearly evil, etc. And we expect info dump.
I love Lord of the Rings. I also love the Wheel of Time series (although, I will admit that I have yet to read the last several books). The Song of Ice and Fire is another favorite of mine. They are great pieces of literature that transcend the boundaries of genre fiction, have influenced many of authors in a very impactful way, and have brought entertainment to millions of people. One of the things that I notice about all three of these series, and a number more within my beloved genre, is they are descriptive. I know what everyone looks like. If the protagonist walks into a room, I know what that room looks like. I know how the food tastes. I know the backgrounds of every character—major and minor. They are ripe with explanation and information. And I like that. The problem…
… the majority of readers do not like it. You see, the majority of readers don’t need to know the whole back story of Thrak, the hard headed and grumpy dwarf—why he’s so grumpy and how he got that little scar on his cheek and the tragedy that he experienced as a young child. If you love playing Dungeons and Dragons, or any other role-playing game for that matter, you are probably thinking, “Why the hell not? Why wouldn’t I want to know this guy’s backstory?” I’m with you. But it doesn’t move the story.
Now, don’t think that I am criticizing these three authors. They have or are clearly doing something right, and I enjoy all three of them. But Tolkien, Jordan, and Martin I am not…and neither are you. Maybe we allow them to get away with being overly descriptive because of the epic-ness of their tales…or because of how foundational they are…or because they just do it better than anyone else. But we, the author trying to become like these three, cannot get away with.
Let me back up. Maybe we can get away with packing our pages with tons of description and backstory and whatever else, but it will limit our audience. You see, I never realized how much my stories get bogged down by description and back-story, until a professional pointed it out. The reader doesn’t need to know the whole motivation behind a minor character’s action. They don’t really need to know any of it. They just need to know that they acting and how it affects the protagonist. You, as the writer, are really the only person that needs to know why they act they way they do. You need to know their motivation.
As a side not, I don’t think I ever realized how much I would write—and save—that would never end up in any of my books. Maybe that’s why Tolkien wrote the Simarillion. He just couldn’t handle having all this stuff saved away somewhere.
Someone reading fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction, wants movement. They want action. They want adventure. I am not saying they don’t want introspection and suspense and themes that cause us to think, but they certainly don’t want those things if they cause the story to stall. I have been living by a simple method recently, sometimes doing it very well and sometimes not—by the way, this method is forcing me to outline and plan my writing ahead, which I am not very good at—called the Hague method.
Anyways, what are some great ways to reveal information about characters or situations without overloading the reader with description, stalling the story, and info dumping?
1. Dialogue. Get really good at writing dialogue. Conversations between characters can be a great way to introduce background information about a character or a situation. In fact, this kind of dialogue can be easily interwoven into action and conflict, therefore enhancing the story and allowing it to move forward instead of stalling it out with large sections of prose. Mundane description and backstory is boring. We’ve already established that it halts the movement of the story, but why? Well, it takes the reader away from the story. If we are doing our job as writers, the reader feels like they are a part of our story. A stop, a break into detailed description or gigantic backstory slams on the brakes. And it’s a sudden brake. Its not a gradual slowing that the reader knows is coming. It’s a hard, jarring stop. What better way to give the reader an insight into characters by revealing conversation?
So then the problem is the dialogue. This is one of my strengths, so I’ve been told. There are probably a lot of areas I need to improve in with my writing, but I do agree that my ability to write dialogue is pretty good. What I find with so many fantasy and science fiction writers is our dialogue seems off. So how should we write our dialogue? Think about how you would speak. Certainly, they may be certain phrases and words you wouldn’t use in this world that you have created, but just write as you would naturally speak.
And what better way to introduce why Thrak is so grumpy or how he got that scar by one character asking him? We can reveal so much through conversation. In fact, do we not in real life? Rather than writing paragraph after paragraph of prose giving a well-crafted backstory, introduce it in the dialogue.
2. Write a series of short stories about your minor characters. If you really want your audience to know why a character acts the way they act, or how they got to where they are, then try your writer’s hand at some short stories. Firstly, readers know what they are getting into. Secondly, you get a chance to explore a minor character’s actions and personality in much greater detail than a simple info dump, and at the same time add things like dialogue and action related to this story. Obviously, use the same story arc that you would use for your novel. And if your readers are faithful, and if they really enjoy your writing, they will read your short stories.
And as an added bonus, these short stories, as long as you write them as if they are stand-alone stories, can be a great marketing tool. Offer them for free on Amazon, or just email them to your mailing list. Use them as a carrot to hook readers. If they like your “free” short story, they will also enjoy your eBook for $4.99.
3. Don’t get too attached to what you have written. I know that is easier said than done, but necessary. The very first person I ever had edit A Chance Beginning—several years ago when a small press had offered me a contract—told me I had to cut the first three chapters. I was crushed, devastated, horrified. But I did it. I cut them out. And…it was better. I have learned that readers are interested in my story, not how fancy or intricate or intellectual I can get with my language. If something I write doesn’t move the story forward, it won’t work, no matter how much I like what I wrote. I mean, in reality you should like what you wrote. You wrote it. That’s why we have editors that we curse in the beginning and praise at the end. The story won’t change, but the words on the page will. It’s inevitable. And if you’re not willing to accept that change, then you have to be willing to accept the fact that a larger audience will never experience your story.
These are just several of many suggestions that I have for avoiding info dumping. All you have to do is a quick “info dump writing” search on the Internet and you will find tons of resources.
Avoid the many costly issues that I have had to endure. I am thankful for them and super thankful for the help from the folks at Wheatmark and the help I have gotten from my awesome editor Graham. My first manuscript was ripe with info dumping. And then it got better and better and better. There are probably a lot of things we need to avoid as a writer, but a big one is info dumping.
I hope this helps you in your writing efforts and I look forward to you all reading A Chance Beginning, Dark Winds, and the soon to be released Braking the Flame. HAPPY READING!!!