Monday, November 29, 2010

Countering The Info Dump

So, there you are, with a blank screen-sheet of paper in front of you and a shiny new idea whizzing through your creative synapses, and the ideas for this world and story come pouring forth in endlessly detailed descriptions which, by the time you read through them the second time, you realize are not important to the present scenes and developments.

Especially in the beginning of a story, I find it very hard to limit myself to facts and information important only to the present action of the story.

For example, if our hero is fighting his dragon nemesis, the interesting things to know might be the dragon's size, length of teeth, thickness of hide, and the hero’s quickness and cunning. The reader will at this moment not appreciate excessive descriptions of the dragon’s home cave, the hero’s religious affiliation, or, heaven forbid, the kind of tea he enjoyed for breakfast that morning – unless it causes him to be sick at the exact moment he would have dealt the death blow with his mighty sword.

Great stories give only as much information as needed for the reader to understand the present scene, don’t repeat information unnecessarily unless making a point, and assume that the reader remembers what s/he read in the chapter before. It wasn’t always like this; I just have to think of the beginning of The Hobbit, where Tolkien describes in minute detail the pipe-smoking habits of hobbits, which doesn’t in any way further the actual plot of the story, and to be honest made me put the book away never to be picked up again. Talk about ‘info dump’, which is the term for unloading unneeded information on the reader.

Not that I, as a writer, have never fallen into its deep, dark trap. Far from it. When writing, I’ve often found it difficult to decide how much information is needed in a scene; how much I’ve already explained or can explain later, how much I’ve hinted at and will this be enough for the reader to understand what’s going on, whether I need to get this piece of information out there earlier in the story to get a bigger surprise or aha effect.

Two things help me handle this plight. First, I nowadays write down details about world building, character information and plot development in a notebook before I sit down to begin writing the actual story. This way, I get my own initial impulse to info-dump out of the way, and won’t forget the little details that seem so important when I first think of them. Also, I then have a loose frame in which to have fun with my worlds, scenes and characters, and can more easily determine whether a tangent I’m drifting off on will be beneficial to the story or not.

The second thing I do is that I compare my novel to a new friend, whom I get to know better with every encounter. I don’t need to know everything about this person, stat. In fact, I don’t want to know everything right away - personally, I find it rather annoying when somebody I've just met unloads his/her deepest secrets, highest dreams or darkest worries one me. 

You cover the basics, test the shallow waters, before allowing yourself to dive into the murky depths of a new acquaintance. The longer you know somebody, the better you get to know him/her. That, I think, is a good comparison to the relationship book-to-reader. All the reader needs to know and understand is why the hero re/acts the way s/he does during the scene being read. In some cases, even, the reader does not need to know everything, for example at times when the protagonist doesn't know everything either...

So, that's how I counter my info-dumping tendencies. I'm sure there are many other ways, but these two are the ones I've found work best for me.

I still do it while writing a first draft, though not as excessively. And that's okay - it's what first drafts are for. Get the story written down, then worry about perfecting it. I just find it helpful to get my initial dumping-urge out of the way, because then I can actually dive into the story head-on and not worry about whether I'll remember that my hero is allergic to camomile tea fifty thousand words from now.

Edited to add: An info dump can be well done, as shown in The Artful Infodump.

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