Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Avoiding Info Dumps

Nancy J. Cohen

An info dump is when you drop a significant amount of information on the hapless reader. This can take various forms. As my editor’s recent comments indicate, even I am not immune to this fault. So what different formats might this problem take? Check these out:

Overzealous Research

You love your research, and you can’t help sharing it with readers. Here are two examples from my current WIP. The first paragraph is the original. The second one is the revised version.

Example One:

“The company built houses and rented them to the miners and their families. Single men would have shared a place together, eight to twelve of them in one dwelling. The homes were shotgun style. You could see in through the front door straight back to the rear. Since the miners worked twelve hour shifts, they weren’t all home at the same time. The rent was taken out of their paychecks.”


“The company built houses and rented them to the miners and their families. Single men often shared a place together. Since they worked twelve hour shifts, they weren’t all home at the same time.”

P1020994  P1030005

Example Two:

“The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the waters of the Colorado River between seven states and Mexico. Getting it to the farther regions of our state proved difficult. Thus was born the Central Arizona Project Canal, or CAP as we call it. This required pipelines and tunnels to move the water. That can be costly, which is why our cities obtain most of their water supply from underground aquifers. Groundwater is our cheapest and most available resource.”


“The Colorado River Compact of 1922 divided the resource between several states. The Central Arizona Project Canal, or CAP as we call it, uses pipelines to move the water to the far reaches of our state. That can be costly, which is why many of our cities obtain their water supply from underground aquifers. Groundwater is our cheapest and most available resource.”

P1020905 (600x800)


Laundry List


Any kind of list runs the risk of being tedious. Here’s a litany of symptoms you might get after being bitten by a rattlesnake:


“You’d have intense burning pain at the site followed by swelling, discoloration of the skin, and hemorrhage. Your blood pressure would drop, accompanied by an increased heart rate as well as nausea and vomiting.”

As this passage wasn’t necessary to my plot, I took it out. Be wary of any list that goes on too long. Here’s another example:

He counted on his fingers all the things he’d have to do: get a haircut, buy a new dress shirt, make a reservation, call for the limo and be sure to stop by a flower shop on the way to Angie’s house.

Do we really need to know all this, or could we say, He ran down his mental to-do list and glanced at his watch with a wince. Could he accomplish everything in one hour flat?

Dialogue

Here’s a snatch of conversation between my sleuth, Marla the hairdresser, and her husband, Detective Dalton Vail:

“I’m going to talk to our next-door neighbor, who happens to be the Homeowners’ Association president,” Dalton told her. “Wait here with Brianna. Since my daughter is a teenager, she won’t understand the argument you and I had yesterday with the guy.”

“Yes, isn’t it something how he made a racist remark?” Marla replied.

“I thought it was kind of Cherry, the association treasurer, to defend you.”

This dialogue could have come from Hanging by a Hair, my latest Bad Hair Day mystery. But why would I have Marla and Dalton talking about something they both already know? This is a fault of new writers who want to get information across. It’s not the way to go, folks. Show, don’t tell. In other words, show us the scene and let it unfold in front of us. Don’t have two characters hack it to death later when they both know what happened. Now if one of these participants were to tell a friend what went down, that would be acceptable.

HangingbyaHair

No doubt you’ve run across info dumps in your readings. Can you think of any examples or other forms this problem might take?

18 comments:

  1. I think the worst example was in a book where the author was describing his characters taking a plane from point A to point B. He described the airport, gave the reader flight schedules and flight numbers, why taking flight A was better than Flight B ... clearly, he'd taken that route and we were going to relive it with him.

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  2. Yes, one of the things my editor has me delete are directions and what she calls "travelogues."

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    1. And as I was editing yesterday, I took the delete key to the description of getting from the Denver airport to the mountains above Colorado Springs--readers like to get a feel for the setting, but unless there are actual plot points in the trip ... snip.

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  3. Thanks for discussing this valuable "do not do" subject. Recently, I was told i'd included an info dump, which I quickly deleted. I see it would have been classified under the "laundry list" type of info dump.

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    1. Your readers will be glad you deleted it. One of my critique partners today pointed out the same passage as my editor and said it needed trimming. They're both right.

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  4. In my experience as a manuscript editor, info dumps are used by writers who haven't structured their stories properly — they've made them so dependent on backstory that any action in the moment has to be immediately put on pause so the writer can explain how the characters in the scene got to that moment. To them, I say: "Why not just tell the backstory as forestory, and starting with an inciting event?"

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    1. Excellent point, Jim! Some of my clients start their story way too late, then spend the first third of the book going back in time to catch the readers up on all the critical stuff that should have been told in "show, don't tell" real time by starting the novel earlier.

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  5. Backstory and flashbacks kill forward momentum and hurt the pacing. They should be kept to a minimum, or as you say Jim, shown in the forward action.

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  6. Oh I am so prone to do this...so thanks for the reminder to watch my writing.

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    1. You're very welcome. We all need reminders of the writing basics.

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  7. I'm an OR (overzealous researcher). My first draft tends to be too nonspecific, so then I go on a wild research jag, and dump all kinds of detail in to make the settings or object come alive. Then I have to go in and prune out where I've overdone it!

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    1. That can be a problem because we hate to cut out some of this fascinating material!

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  8. Nancy--
    chacun a son gout, as the French say. In example one, I happen to prefer the original--I especially regret the loss of the "shotgun" reference to the style of house. It helps me understand the living situation of twelve or so men.
    I do like the change in example 2, but: why do you say "obtain" their water instead of "get" or "take" their water? Is this nit-picking? I suppose, but "obtain" just strikes me as being at odds with your otherwise crisp, straightforward prose.

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    1. Good point, Barry, I can easily change the word "obtain." As for the rest, my editor felt the whole paragraph could go. At least I left something in.

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  9. Well said! Using examples you showed rather than told about info dumps.

    Now for the inevitable exception. Most geographical descriptions I find utterly snoozy. But when John Steinbeck does it (Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden) I'm on the edge of my chair. Maybe it's because he's so passionate about landscapes. The land is like another character. That said, it's an exception that proves the rule.

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    1. True, John. And we must always keep in mind that any description should be from our character's viewpoint as seen from his perspective.

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  10. Excellent post, Nancy. And your examples are great for clarifying each point. I worried about that last example, with the husband saying to his wife, "since my daughter is a teenager,..."! (Like she wouldn't already know her daughter is a teenager!) Then I realized it wasn't a dialogue you'd actually written and sent off! Whew! I knew it couldn't be! ;-)

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