Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

Workshop: 

Reworking Info Dumps

By Lazette Gifford
2007, Lazette Gifford


Sometimes one of the hardest parts of writing is getting essential information into the story without resorting to 'As you know, Bob' references (where one character tells another something the other character already knows) or creating info dumps of data (text-book like explanations of something from your story).  Working essential information into a story is an art form all its own -- and being able to tell what is, and what isn't needed, takes practice.

Often, the problem arises when an author becomes too involved in the background research on a subject related to his current novel, and in the joy of learning something interesting, forgets that the reader hasn't picked up a fiction book about a man and woman trapped in a cabin in the Rockies with the intention of learning the minute details of how a snow storm forms.

With very few exceptions, the author should always remember that the first goal is to entertain the reader -- and while the author might still be able to impart some knowledge through the book, it can't be in the form of a lecture. 

The difference between a boring info dump of material and an interesting scene which provides essential information is the interaction of the information and the on-going storyline.

The trick is to introduce information in ways that add layers of detail without boring the reader.  Let's start with a look at something you might find in a mystery novel.  The main character is going to talk to someone about a murder.  We can start with a set of information which needs to go into a scene.

  • Hot weather
  • Mr. & Mrs. Thomas
  • Suburban community with expensive, but not ostentatious, housing
  • Cul-de-sac of nearly identical white houses
  • Mrs. Thomas in the yard
  • Mrs. Thomas wears long-sleeved shirt

Here is one version:

I drove across town, cursing the heat.  I found that Mr. and Mrs. Thomas lived on a cul-de-sac with identical well-kept white houses.  Mrs. Thomas worked in the yard, dressed in blue jeans and a long-sleeved white pullover.

This is short, quick and to the point... but it's boring.  There's no connection between the data and the world of the story.  The main character is observing the world, but he's not a part of it.

So let's try working the data into something more interesting:

I blessed the air-conditioning in my car as I drove across town, at least until I saw the heat gauge rising, and had my worries reinforced by the sight of three different vehicles pulled over with their hoods up and steam escaping the engine like djinns let loose into the world.  The drivers looked pissed and sweaty.  This wasn't a day for car trouble, so I cut the AC back and opened the window instead.  As long as I kept moving, the breeze felt good across my face.

Arriving in the pricey little suburb of Ocho at just after one in the afternoon, I found that I still had trouble finding the cul-de-sac on which the Thomas's lived.  I finally pulled slowly along the little curve of the street, checking the numbers on the nearly identical, white houses.  The yards looked as though they had been spray painted on, with every rose bush perfectly drawn, and not a leaf or weed out of place.  I wondered if the local residents ever got confused about which home was their own.

I spotted Mrs. Thomas kneeling by a planter in front of her door, assiduously moving the little rocks around the plants, as though they had somehow gotten up and moved out of position during the night.  She wore tight-fitting blue jeans and a white pull over that clung nicely to her chest, though I thought the long sleeves looked hot in the sweltering August heat.

Some people assume info dumps are only present in science fiction and fantasy tales, but -- as the entry above shows -- they can be a problem with any sort of story.  An info dump is any set of information that is presented as something like a list (the first entry) and not worked into the fabric of the story.  It can come in the form of anything from a description of the countryside to a series of events.

There are times when a short info dump, or skipping some information altogether, can be far better than drawing the material out over several paragraphs.  This is especially true in scenes filled with action or suspense.  You do not, for instance, want to stop in the middle of a starship battle to carefully explain the technical aspects of how a proton canon works.  If you have made the battle interesting enough, the reader really won't care how it works -- they'll just want to see it in action.

If a character is going through a checklist of things that he must do, for instance before he can fire the starship engines and lift from a world, don't go through the checklist with him step-by-step, even if you have carefully worked out all the intricacies of how your ship works, and know that this order of things is essential.  It doesn't matter -- it's still boring.  Let him start and finish the list as quickly as possible.

Tom looked at the two dozen buttons on the board before him, and began to meticulously work his way through them, from the in-ship communications systems, all the way down to firing the engine.

Or here's another case of going through a sequence of information:

Mark took out the several sheets of notes he'd taken over the last few days and read them, one-by-one, starting with the information from the police, and ending with the quick notes he'd jotted down after talking to Jerry.

The last example is especially good if the reader has gone through the meetings with Mark and knows everything he has collected in those notes.  If he has collected some 'clue' along the way, now would be the time to draw that connection by having him realize the link in the information he's gathered.  If he is not going to find a clue, is there a reason for him to go over the notes at all?

Always consider parceling out the info dump information over a number of scenes, rather than including it all in one lump.  However, there is one time that you may want to give a lot of information at once, and this is when you purposely want to hide something important in with a plethora of lesser news.  You might even purposely make something look more important than it is.  Why is Mrs. Thomas wearing a long-sleeved pullover in weather like this?  Or is it more important to know that she was moving the rocks?  If the reader learns that she has an old scar on her right arm, and is self-conscious about it, they may not even think again about the rocks again... until the detective makes the connection and finds a treasure in diamonds buried there in the rose bushes.

However, even in the case of hiding something important in a larger group of facts, the information presented has to be entertaining.  Whether giving the information in a short term or long term balance is dependent on the story.  However, even choosing to do so in a short term presentation is not an excuse for an info dump.

If your character is at someone's home, don't describe the person, house, and weather all at once.  Stretch it out over the scene, or over several, if possible.  Your readers will better remember if the woman's hair is red and the sofa brown if they are not both described in the same paragraph.

Also, if your character walks into a room, don't list out the interior as though she's taking inventory.

Jane stepped into the living room, noting the brown sofa and chair, lace curtains, old-fashioned lamps, and lack of television. 

You can easily make a scene like this into something which works with the character, rather than just observing it.

Maria stepped aside to let Jane into the living room.  Sunlight through the lace curtains fell in oddly shaped spots of light and shadow on everything, making it hard to pick out the individual pieces.   Until she crossed the room, Jane couldn't tell the sofa and chair were a matching chocolate brown, and not splotched in odd colors as the light indicated.  Two lamps with satin shades stood on matching end tables, with doilies beneath them.  The room could have been her grandmother's living room, thirty years ago.

Except even her grandmother had had a television, and there was none in sight here.

It's more than things that get dropped into info dumps.  Information of any sort might end up in such a passage.  History, either short term or long, often shows up as an info dump, and it can prove to be more difficult to expand into an interesting scene.  In many cases, however, the information doesn't have to be presented in a single, history-book lecture.  Information about past history of a person or a country can be parceled out in ways that actually makes it more relevant to the story by tying the past events closer to something present in the plot line.  After all, if the past has nothing to do with the present action of the story, there's no reason to relate it all.  As writers, we sometimes want to show the readers everything about this wonderful world we created... without considering how so much of it will sound like a rather boring, history lesson.

Many writers, especially in fantasy, want to start their books with just such a history lesson, and tell how the people of the Lands of Berto had fought long wars with the people of the Island of Salina.  The author will often assume that unless the reader knows the fractious history of the two lands, they won't realize the significance of the Salina ship sailing into the bay and people daring to come ashore for a meeting.

So they write three pages, or more, of history about how the Island had been settled by the people of Berto, how they'd gone to war within a hundred years, how they plundered each other's ships, raided villages along the coasts of both the mainland and the island, and in general did not really get along well.

The problem is, even if it makes it past the publisher and is in the book, a good many people will skip the prologue anyway. 

Besides, there is a far better way to impart this information to the reader than the Prologue History Lesson.

Rohan stood on the dock and watched as the Salina ship made port. The last time he'd seen such a ship, he'd met it with sword in hand along with several hundred others of the King's Best, holding them off on the coast to the south.  He'd lost his shield-mate in that battle, but the Salina had lost over half the invasion force.  They'd pulled back -- but everyone knew they would come again.  They always did.

But here they came, but this time with no weapons in hand, no swords at their sides... and the sight made Rohan shiver more than he ever had in battle.  The world had changed.

Wouldn't that be a far more interesting way to start a book, rather than with a dissertation of facts:  Two hundred years ago, the country of Berto founded a colony on the island of Salina (etc.).

The rest of the history about Berto and Salina could be parceled out in small pieces, building a background that is more likely to be remembered by the reader because it is integrated with the story arc rather than a separate passage.  Giving the history at the start, or in large chunks anywhere in the novel, isn't apt to stay with the reader as well as it will if you tie it into the current storyline.

One last, common form of info dump comes as descriptions of people, including the point of view character, though it is especially prevalent when introducing secondary characters.  Writers often fear the reader won't remember the characters unless they are fully grounded in what the character looks like... but that's not true.  It is far better to create a 'tag' that identifies your secondary character than a list of attributes, and to note only essential features.  Tags might be a nervous gesture, an unusual scar, a repeated word, or anything of the like which is different from any other character in the book.  Readers are perfectly capable of imagining a tall, raven-haired woman, without listing out her exact height, weight, facial shape, etc.  In fact, readers are quite capable of filling in the many gaps of a description, and do so in ways that make the person interesting to them. 

Save your information for the really important things your readers need to know... and be certain you relate it in an interesting enough way that they remember what they need to in order to enjoy the story.

YOUR TURN

Imagine you are writing a novel where the room in which you now sit is a vital part of the story.  Make a list of five to ten things from the room that you would include in the scene, and then write a non-info dump description.  (Hint:  Even if you list them, that doesn't mean they must go into the scene.  Part of the art of writing information is to leave out the nonessential parts.)

Example:

1.      desk

2.      books

3.      cats

4.      stuffed animals

5.      camera

6.      file cabinets

7.      clothes dryer

8.      computer

Stepping through the door into the tiny office, his first reaction was a feeling of utter chaos.  Books, teddy bears, scattered papers and envelopes, and a computer shared the too-small desk -- along with a long black cat who had stretched out with one back leg dangling over the keyboard.

The rest of the room proved to be no better, with every crevice and corner filled with books, papers and more stuffed animals.  And more cats, he realized, as one lifted his head from the top of a book case, giving him a lazy, blue-eyed stare.

 

Try doing this exercise with a number of different factors -- history, character description, or technical information -- and work on the knack of writing information into a scene.  In this workshop, I've only written the material into short scenes, but remember that one of the effective ways to avoid info dumps is to spread information out over a large section of the story.