Have you ever been reading a novel when suddenly the author drops in a slab of background or technical information? And it knocks you right out of the story? Or maybe he/she tries to sneak in some info via dialogue, only it's really a monologue in disguise and… a character lectures us for half a page?
How can you fix that? Ace copy editor Jodie Renner reveals six fast ways we can sharpen our stories - while still dropping in all the information that the reader really needs.
Modern fiction readers won't stand for heavy-handed, clunky ‘information dumps’.
We want to be swept away by a compelling story. We don’t want to be stopped and filled in on a topic. It not only jars us out of the story, it also slows down the pace and bores us. If readers want to find out more about a subject, they can do that through internet searches.
Savvy authors know that we choose fiction to be entertained.
Okay, maybe you’re writing historical sagas like those of James Michener - or New York or London by Edward Rutherfurd. Their readers welcome background info on historically relevant times and locations. But if you’re not? Fiction is not the place for it.
Even if you are writing a saga, it's best to include the info in a natural, character-specific way, so it doesn’t come across like a history textbook. (How do you do that? See below!)
For the same reasons, a novel is not the place to get on your soapbox about a topic that's dear to your heart or makes your blood boil. Readers will feel annoyed, patronized or manipulated. They’re reading your story to be entertained - not indoctrinated.
Four reasons why an information dump is a really, really bad idea.
Here’s why most readers of contemporary fiction (folk like you and me) don't like having their story interrupted by author explanations:
- It takes them out of the character’s viewpoint, so the illusion of being right there in the story is shattered.
- It creates a jarring interruption to the story line, which you - the author - then have to re-establish, to hook your readers back in.
- Readers may feel you’re lecturing or preaching to them. That’s impertinent!
- And, of course, it’s distracting, annoying, and often boring.
Here are six ways to avoid an information dump.
These ‘pro’ techniques will help you to slip in vital information without interrupting the narrative flow. Try them and see:
- Your viewpoint character has to recall some critical information she once knew, and works to remember or find it.
- Your protagonist asks another character (or several) to fill him in on some info he’s fuzzy on. (BTW: be sure this happens in a conversational way, and keep that transfer of information as brief as possible.)
- Your protagonist is deliberately researching critical information on the computer or in the library. Show the reader what she learns by means of her thoughts or dialogue - but only what’s essential for the plotline. And show her emotional reaction to what she’s learned. How will that new info change the plot line - or her life?
- Your character is interviewing people to solve a problem. Show some of that interview in real time, with dialogue.
- She’s reading the newspaper or watching the news or other TV show, where she learns some new information on a subject.
- Use flashbacks
to give us information in depth - but animate them in a dramatic way,
and, to enhance the drama, present them as if they’re happening at the
It’s just not natural, and will bore the readers just as much as an author aside or intrusion.
In real life, no one likes to be lectured to in a casual conversation. Replace long monologues of information with questions and answers or a lively discussion, and keep the dialogue relevant to the scene question.
Here’s a key tip.
Be sure to insert some tension in that give-and-take. Have your characters argue a little (or a lot) about the facts or their significance.
When pro authors need to give their readers some background or essential information, they work it in as they go along, in natural, brief, interesting ways, unobtrusively - with lots of interaction plus drama or out-and-out conflict.
Above all, ask yourself the question: do you really need to impart that information? Is it (truly) critical to your story? If readers forget all about it one page later, does it matter? Will it affect their enjoyment of the story?
Leave the lectures for the classroom, articles, or manuals. The goal of fiction is to entertain!
Readers, what are your thoughts on this. Do you agree? Or disagree? And why? Writers, what techniques have you used successfully to impart information to your readers without interrupting the narrative flow? Please leave a comment below and share your ideas. Every comment will get a fast, helpful - and even erudite - response!
Besides publishing her popular craft-of-writing books under the series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), plus her just-out, handy, clickable e-resource, Spelling on the Go, Jodie Renner is a sought-after freelance fiction editor and author of numerous blog posts on writing captivating fiction.
Find Jodie at her author site www.JodieRenner.com, on Facebook and Twitter.
Posted by Jodie Renner. Posted In : Guest Posts