Writing a complex story? Then you’ll probably have to convey a lot of information about your characters, their backstory, your setting and much else. How do you drop in all that info elegantly, without boring the reader? Copywriter Alex Limberg shows us five key ways to do it.
Information dump is an ugly word. It sounds like somebody did something nasty on your desk – not good!
What does it mean? An information dump is when background information in a story is given in such a cluttered and obvious way that the intention of the author becomes very clear: To give information!
Imagine Mary telling her husband over dinner:The hand of the author becomes really visible here…
“I don’t love you anymore like I loved you 16 years ago when we married. Me and our son Richard, who is 15, has outstanding grades and dreams of a career as a professional hockey player, lost all our respect for you when you drunkenly caused that car accident. I like cooking and painting and I’m afraid of being alone, that’s why I’m still with you, but I’m having an affair with our neighbor who is a certified animal trainer.”
Fiction shouldn’t list facts like a newscast. If we wanted to read the news, we would go on a news website. But in fiction, the reader wants to be taken gently by the hand and led into the carefully woven illusion!
In this post, you will find answers to questions like How can you best mask the information your reader needs to know? What are the most convenient ways to hide clues in dialogue? and What kind of information can wait a little longer till you insert it?
Also, because I know it’s not easy to spot problems like information dumps in one’s own story, below this post you can find a free download offer, a checklist that will help you discover issues with any imaginable aspect of your story.
They say Don’t give them fish, give them a fishing rod! There are a million ways to discreetly distribute some pieces of tasty sushi amongst your readers – you can and should be very creative with it! But here are some key ideas and guidelines:
1. Let Your Characters Say It
No, you, the author, got nothing to do with it; it’s your characters who are spreading all that good information like wildfire. Keep in mind the key rule though, so your readers don’t feel dumped on. Your character needs to have a reason to mention the information!
The two most natural reasons are:
- He has to pass his info on to another character who doesn’t know about it. Imagine a colonel who has to report some military information to his general about what happened in the battle.
- The character’s emotions are boiling over, so he just has to trot out that information. Imagine the accusation of an overworked co-worker to a lazy colleague: “I’m so sick of this! You never get your tasks done on time!” “What do you mean?” “Here’s what I mean.” Or take enthusiasm: “Jim, you will never believe what just happened! I won the lottery!” “How come?”
2. Don’t Tell the Show
Here it comes, the old "Show, Don’t Tell"! While in some cases it is okay to say “Uncle Albert was tired,” it’s generally much more literary to let the reader discover himself how tired Uncle Albert was. Describe the “dark circles” under his eyes, his constant yawning and how he forgets his keys at the office. Often it’s much more elegant to not tell about a condition or past events, but to show a couple of clues that hint at them.
3. Spread Your Info Thin
Small chunking over many pages or chapters makes your info a lot more unobtrusive than serving it in one big indigestible cluster.
It’s often convenient to let your reader have the info a little while before she actually needs it. In any case, make sure she doesn’t get it right before she needs it, because that would look constructed.
Sometimes, a piece of info isn’t absolutely necessary to understand the story, but it gets the reader more involved emotionally. Because it’s not vital, you have more time to nicely gift-wrap it with a ribbon on top. But on the other hand, the longer you wait, the longer you leave out an opportunity to engage your reader further.
For example, we don’t have to know that Walter White has terminal cancer in Breaking Bad. We already understand that he is producing meth and can follow the trouble he gets himself into. But when we learn about his cancer, it lets us empathize and identify with him. His decisions become easier to understand. He becomes a multi-faceted character and thus the story engages us more.
4. Harness the Power of the Media
From where does the most overwhelming flood of information descend upon us? From the mass media, of course: TV, radio, newspapers and internet. You can let your readers know a lot just by letting the character watch TV or read the newspaper out aloud to his wife. Any info mankind never wanted can be found on the internet (except for why girls are so much into Justin Bieber).
Just make sure your character has a reason to look for the info.
Likewise, make sure the info is available to the media and it’s interesting enough for them to broadcast or feature it. That’s not too hard to do, because as author David Mamet famously said: “The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.”
So make sure the information that your character tunes into is dramatic.
5. Plain description: Just Say It!
Sometimes it may be acceptable for the author simply to state information. How well this works will depend on the overall style, tone and point of view of your story. It’s basically a question of distance.
Look at the beginning of Süskind’s novel Perfume, for example:
“In the eighteenth century in France lived a man (…) His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (…) not because Grenouille was second to these more famous villains in pride, contempt for mankind, immorality (…)”That’s plainly stating how it is, upfront.
This style reminds me of some short stories, in which the narrator assumes a zoomed-out position, because there simply aren’t enough pages to spoon-feed information to the reader carefully. This position is less elegant and artistic, but you can make a virtue out of a vice. If the distance between the reader and your character seems believable and fits into your story, your reader will just accept it as “your style of choice” – a way of speeding things up.
Just be aware of why you are doing this, if you do it.
So there you have it, information about information.
Now it’s your turn. How do you like to gift-wrap your information? Or drop an ‘information dump’ into your story without making a mess? Any more tricks you can think of, to give the reader vital info without alienating them? Hit us up in the comments! Every comment is guaranteed a fast, helpful reply.
Alex Limberg is from Austria and the founder of ‘Ride the Pen’, a creative writing blog that dissects famous authors (their works, not bodies). His blog offers detailed writing prompts. Make your story great by checking for information dumps and many other weaknesses with his free e-book that gives you ‘44 Key Questions’ to test your story.
Alex has worked as a copywriter in a Hamburg advertising agency, with camera and lighting in the movie business and has lived in Los Angeles and Madrid.
Posted by Alex Limberg. Posted In : Guest Posts