In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, professional editor Jodie Renner fills us in on the dreaded author infodump, and why readers hate it.
When you’re revising your novel, be on the lookout for any obvious blocks of information or mini-lectures that you may have inadvertently wedged into the story here and there.
Author intrusions and info dumps come in various shapes and sizes, but whatever their form, they can be perceived as an obvious and clumsy attempt by the author to quickly impart some facts, clarifications, or personal opinions directly to the reader. It might even be considered lazy—it’s much easier to just insert a bunch of backstory in about a character in one lump than to find ways to artfully weave in that information through dialogue and thoughts, etc. But do we really need all that information on the character, anyway? Definitely not at the risk of turning off your reader, who’s just been wrenched out of the story to be filled in on details, opinions, or background info.
Or, say you’re really riled up about an issue that you feel people need to pay attention to. Maybe you want people to care about the environment more. Or stop eating so much junk food and exercise more. Or maybe you’re just passionate about something like gardening or Ancient Greece or figure skating or poodles or scuba diving. Should you use your fiction to convert others to your causes or enlighten people about your pet topics? If you do, proceed with caution! People read fiction for entertainment—to escape their boring or stressful life and get immersed in a fascinating story with great characters doing exciting things. If you really want to stop cruelty to animals or raise awareness about anorexia or talk about sailing or World War II history or French cuisine, make sure the info comes out in small doses, and in a natural way through a character who is passionate about that topic—and that it actually works for the plot and is believable for that particular character.
Some common types of author intrusions include:
Interrupting the story to explain facts or details at length to your readers
Readers like to stay immersed in the story, not be pulled out of it to be given a lengthy explanation of something as an aside by the author. This can include long, detailed explanations of a specific type of gun, for example, or stopping the story to describe in detail a castle or a family lineage or some historical facts or the customs of a different country or epoch. Yes, do your research, for sure. But pick and choose what you actually share with your readers, and blend the info in in a natural way, through dialogue, introspection and short expository (explaining) passages, preferably filtered through the viewpoint of the POV character.
Soap-boxing about an issue or cause
Maybe you’d like to increase consciousness about worthy topics such as the plight of whales or the lack of clean water worldwide, or unfair treatment of minorities, or lack of green spaces. You say, people really need to be made aware of the situation—we all need to sit up and take notice and do something about it! That’s true, but you could always write letters to the editor, or newspaper or magazine articles on the issue, or even blog posts. Or give talks at the library or to local groups. Or insert allusions to it here and there in your novel, as long as you have a character who is passionate about that issue and knowledgeable. It can work in small doses, as long as you don’t go on so long about it that it comes across as preaching. And it needs to fit naturally in the scene, with the character’s personality, politics and thoughts.
Giving the readers a history lesson or a lecture on a topic
Say you’re passionate about Aztecs and Aztec ruins and want to tell the world about this fascinating subject, so you decide to write a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of adventure story. You have a main character who’s an archaeologist, and because you can’t resist sharing your knowledge, you have this character giving impromptu detailed lectures on Aztec history to anyone who will listen. Not a good idea. Just drop in a few tantalizing tidbits here and there to pique your readers’ interest. If you get them curious enough, they can easily google Aztecs and find out a lot more on them. You could even add some info at the end of the story somehow, as an Afterword or Glossary or related links or whatever.
Dumping in a pile of backstory about a character
While it is a good idea to create background information on all of your main characters for yourself, be sure to avoid copying and pasting it into your story in blocks, like a mini-biography or a resume. I’ve edited novels where a new character comes onto the scene and the writer feels compelled to immediately write several paragraphs or even pages of background on that character, to introduce him or her to the readers. The problem with that is that the plot has just come to a skidding halt while you fill us in on this person. Secondly, why would we even care about all those little details when that character has just come onstage? Wait until we warm up to them a bit, then provide any pertinent info little by little as we go along.
Jessica heard her cell phone ringing. “Excuse me.” She grabbed it from her purse and flipped it open. It was her husband Richard.
Richard, who was 42, was an engineer for the city. He and Jessica had met while both college freshmen. Jessica was in Nursing and Richard was in Engineering, and they’d met at a dance arranged by the two faculties. They dated through college and married the year after they graduated. By then, Jessica was a nurse and Richard was an engineer. They waited a few years before starting a family…. yadda yadda.
“Hi, Richard,” Jessica said into the phone. “What’s up?”
Does the reader need to know all that backstory? Probably not. Certainly not all at once, in the second between the ringing of Jessica’s phone and when she answers it. Any of it that you feel is necessary can be introduced gradually through dialogue, thoughts, and short exposition. Jessica can be thinking about her college days or chatting with a sister or friend, or Richard can be talking to a colleague or golf partner, or Jessica and Richard can be talking to each other. But still, make sure the info fits naturally and organically into the conversation, and doesn’t look like it’s been planted there by the author to get the info across to the readers. Which brings us to our last subtopic:
Info dumps disguised as dialogue: AYKB – “As you know, Bob…”
This is where the author has one person telling another a bunch of stuff they both know, just to impart that information to the reader. Here’s an exaggerated example, to illustrate:
Ralph said to his brother, “As you know, Bob, our parents were both killed in a car crash when we were young, and we were raised by our grandparents.”
Readers today are too sophisticated to go for this type of heavy-handed information-sharing, and if you do it too often, it’s sure to lose you respect and credibility.
Or it can seem off even when it’s more subtle, as when one homicide detective says to another, “Serial killers have usually been abused as children, and their victims often have similarities.”
You get the idea.
How about you? Just for fun, can you make up an obvious, AYKB dialogue for us? Use the comment boxes below and go for it!
Copyright © Jodie Renner, June 2012
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers, mysteries and other crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website.