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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Info Dump - How NOT to do it

Hello Fellow Writers!

I'm so lucky that the very talented multi-published (and fellow Ellora's Cave author) Lily Harlem has offered to share her essay on the dangers of dumping loads of information smack in the middle of your novel. Beware - the Info Dump!

Rarely excusable or well-written, the info dump is often disguised as amusing dialogue. Seldom can info dumps be forgiven regardless of the cleverness or wit involved because they are intrinsically boring. They are often dull because they relate past events, generally to set up conflicts. Conflicts are good (no conflict, no story, right?) but if backstory is necessary, weave it in or write a prologue, with the information in an action scene. In other words: show, don't tell.

Info dumps receive frequent and disdainful comments from both readers and writers. Bad examples of the info dump abound, but are found most frequently and offensively in sequels. I shall not embarrass their authors by naming them here, except for one author who is beyond shame because he's dead. In the Foundation series, Isaac Asimov uses articles from the Encyclopaedia Galactica to provide readers with backstory and information he wanted the reader to know but couldn't easily or artfully weave into narrative, action, dialogue tag or dialogue.

Narratives, by the way, comprise the very dullest info dumps especially when disguised as introspection. If you write one at or near the beginning of a book chances are you won't sell it unless your track record justifies the sale.

The most annoying and insulting info dumps occur in romance series or miniseries and will often include a saccharine scene in which the heroines of the previous books get together for a lunch or a coffee. The girl chat will include showing off their adorable babies and recounting the plots of past series books. This recounting is the info dump, and it is insulting in the extreme due to its lack of disguise. "Remember when Trey fought the bear? Oh, I was so scared that I went straight into his arms! And that was the night that Adora, here, was conceived." Heroine bounces baby on her knee. Baby coos. Reader barfs. Book hits wall.

Not only are these passages icky but they're unnecessary. We don't need to know about Trey, the bear and Adora unless the bear appears as an antagonist in the current book. But let me point out examples of well-written info dumps. The entire first chapter of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is an info dump. Written from the point of view of the British prime minister, the chapter does an admirable job of providing the reader with the information s/he would need to understand and enjoy the sixth book of her seven book series. The writing is witty and the technique well-executed. Not to mention the author’s credentials and past sales will hit the spot in the ‘guaranteed good read’ department.

In Definitely Dead, Charlaine Harris gives us plenty of information to ground us in the world of Sookie Stackhouse, her companions and her loves. But Harris takes her time providing us with the information we need to understand Sookie and her life, using two chapters to weave in the data we need. There's plenty of dialogue and action to keep the reader interested in the sixth book in the series.

Cassandra Clare puts a massive info dump deep into City of Glass, Book Three of The Mortal Instruments trilogy. But, because we have become so immersed in her world and her characters, the info dump, disguised as a significant character's reminiscences, is not only welcome but riveting. The information is important to the reader, revealing numerous secrets we really want to know about characters we've come to love. Emotion infuses the memories, and in a great book, emotion is always key. Clare's info dump fascinates rather than repels because its revelations are provided after the reader has become deeply invested in the story and the characters.

In summary of this rule: When you provide backstory, weave it in with care. Write "snippets, not chunks."
Reportedly, there are entire books published that are nothing but info dumps. Series authors who use an entire book to set up future books in the series leaving vast numbers of threads hanging. There’s no real ending… books, even in a series, must have a satisfying conclusion of some sort.

Remember, info dumps are usually boring, and beside the point, at least in a romance. Romances are about two people falling in love. Stray from that notion and you're writing something else. You may turn out a wonderful book, but it won't be a romance. When writing romance, try to keep your lovers on every page as much as possible, interacting with each other, dealing with their conflicts and creating a lasting, loving relationship.
Lily Harlem is an award winning author of erotic romance and lives in the UK with a workaholic hunk and a crazy cat. She writes for Ellora’s Cave, Total-E-Bound and Xcite as well as featuring in numerous UK and US anthologies. Her stories are made up of colourful characters travelling on everyone’s favourite journey — falling in love.

Thanks Lily for sharing your thoughts with us! What do you guys think - have you had problems with either reading or writing info dumps before?

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic reminder to me, especially with my new WIP. Thanks for such a great article!


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