Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Managing an Info Dump

There are times when you simply have to give the reader a wodge of information, also known as exposition, also known as an Info Dump. How best to go about it?

The obvious response is to include it within the dialogue - A asks B questions, B answers, giving A - and the reader - the necessary information. There can be several problems with this approach:

1. The amount of information needed means the exchange has to go on for pages - remember that dialogue plays out in roughly the same amount of time on the page as it would in real life.

2. A can look like an idiot as they keep having to give little prompts: Go on, what happened next, and then? It's like those interviews on TV where you keep cutting to shots of the interviewer nodding away (these are even called 'noddies' in the business).

3. If A is also likely to know the information they look even more like an idiot. You sometimes see it on programmes like Time Team when one of the experts interviews another expert: So, when did the Romans leave Britain? Around the UK you can hear people shouting at the TV saying, You KNOW that.

So what to do instead?

1. Be up front.
Have A asked the initial question, then allow B to give all the information needed in a big chunk. Yes, people don't usually give long monologues in conversation, but there are occasions when people shut up and listen and it's often better than chopping the info into speech sized pieces.

2. Use summary.
'So, did the Romans use concrete?' A asked.
'They were masters at making concrete,' B said with a smile before launching into a long monologue about how Roman concrete was stronger than any concrete used until the end of the C20th, how they used special materials from volcanic regions to make the strongest concrete, and how the formulae had only recently been uncovered.

3. If your viewpoint character knows the information, then put some of it into their thoughts rather than in dialogue.
'So, did the Romans use concrete?' A asked.
'They were masters at making concrete,' B said, wondering if A was genuinely interested, or only being polite. Roman concrete was stronger than any concrete used until the end of the C20th because they used special materials from volcanic regions to make the strongest concrete. But would A be interested in all that? Or even some of it? 'They've only recently discovered the formulae the Romans used,' B said, watching A to gauge their reaction.

If you've decided against hiding the info dump in dialogue, there are alternatives:

1. You could have A read a newspaper/magazine article which contains the information. This would mean you'd have to write it through A's eyes.

2. You could print the newspaper/magazine article in its entirety. Then the reader decides what they make of it - you often see this when A is stupider than B, so B then has to explain the significance.

3. You could use the authorial voice to give the information. If you take this option, then make sure the authorial voice is nuanced just as you would a character's voice. John Irvine is a good example of a writer using the authorial voice to give information. Dan Brown is not.

I think I've used most of these techniques in my time - just remember that the reader needs to be entertained as well as informed.

Anyone in Bristol/S. Glos? I'm speaking at Patchway Library on Thursday 13th at 7.00 - Details here!


Lizzie Lamb said...

Sarah, your blogs come directly to my pc every morning. I've printed them out and saved them in a special folder (!) Reading your blogs is like having a writing tutor at my elbow and I just wanted to say thanks for all your hard work. Do you ever venture as far 'north' as the Midlands [I live in Leicester and organise the RNA Chapter]as I'm sure we'd love to come to one of your talks. I'm working on my first novel and hope to have it finished by January 2012. Fingers crossed and best regards, Lizzie Lamb

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing I always keep in mind is the Just-in-time production method. It’s self-explanatory but at its simplest what it means is that good, components, stock, whatever is delivered as close to the date that they are needed as possible. It’s a part of a lean manufacturing process. And that’s how I’ve always handled info dumps. I make sure that the reader knows just enough to get him to the next page. Tell him what he needs to know when he needs to know it. My real trick though is to not give them as much info as they think they need and let them fill in the blanks which they’ll do without thinking about it. I expect I get that from being a poet before becoming a novelist; we poets are most niggardly when it comes to divulging information. But I think a lot can be learned from good flash fiction too. How much do you really need to know?

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

All good advice, Sarah... But I do think the best advice is to try to avoid having to give large dumps of info' in the first place by drip feeding the reader in earlier chapters - if at all possible.
Nice post and lots of food for thought... Good luck with the writing.

womagwriter said...

I think info dumps are one of the hardest bits to write. Good to get some new ideas of how to handle them.

Alison Morton said...

Insightful as usual, Sarah!

I used the internet. Character A read some of the info on the equivalent of Wikipedia because she was curious about what B had said in the previous scene. She had a little think about/reacted to what she had read. Next time she saw B, she knew enough (and so did the reader) to develop the next layer of info relevant to the plot.

Took me a long time to get there, but it seems to work...

Sarah Duncan said...

Lizzie, thanks for those kind words. I venture to all sorts of places when asked...

Jim, I agree with you that the just in time method is the one to usually go for, but sometimes you simply HAVE to get some factual info across in a whoosh.

Pat, drip feeding is good, but chunks are - on special occasions - the quickest, best way to get info across.

Womagwriter, took me several novels to develop my techniques for the info dump.

Alison, that sounds a good way of weaving the info dump into the story seamlessly.

Diane Fordham said...

Good post Sarah - very useful. Thank you.

Gwen Kirkwood said...

It is true there is always something new to learn in writing, as in life. I have written 15 sagas, mostly in series of 3 or 4. Getting the info over without boring past readers, or frustrating present ones, is always a problem. I appreciated your views and suggestions on this.

Sarah Duncan said...

Diane - you're welcome!

Gwen - I've not written a series, so not a problem I've experienced personally, but I can see how difficult it must be so I'm pleased the post was useful to you.