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Monday, April 30, 2018

How to Dump Info without Info-Dumping




For a while I've been wanting to post an article on info-dumps, because they are so easy to do and so awful for a story. An info-dump is what it sounds like. A big ol' chunk of info that a writer splats out into the middle of a scene. They can bring the pacing of a story to a grinding halt while the audience has to sift through more information than they care to know about X, Y, or Z.

Info-dumps can literally be about information and facts, other times they are whole backgrounds and backstories about characters, or the entire history of a setting or object. Often this happens because the writer is convinced the audience needs all of the information in order to fully "get" and appreciate the story and characters, sometimes it happens because the writer simply loves the information on a personal level, other times the writer "discovers" the information when writing a first draft and hasn't bothered to fix it, and finally, it happens when the writer is a beginner and simply doesn't know better.

Science fiction author Shallee McArthur wrote a nice article on info-dumps and also taught a class on it at a writing conference. So today I asked permission to share it here:

I am a nerd. As a kid, I spent my summers doing science experiments in my giant white science book. For fun. And to this day, I get excited about things like sea slugs that absorb plant DNA and become photosynthetic. I get weepy about the space shuttle's last flight. It's why I write sci fi-- because I'm a nerd, and I love all that science stuff.

Here's the thing about writing sci fi: there's a lot of science in it. Which means there tends to be a lot of necessity for explanation, which leads to a lot of potential info-dumps. This isn't unique to sci fi, of course. Most authors have a lot of information to convey, and sometimes we have no choice but to reveal large bits of it at a time, potentially boring our readers just so they understand what the heck we're talking about.


I had some trouble with info-dumps in one of my novels, and it took me lots of revisions to get it right. And some of the biggest lessons I learned were actually from the movie Inception. There's a LOT of information they have to convey, but the movie never lags in its pacing. Here are the things I learned to apply in my writing. (Warning-- there are a few small spoilers if you haven't seen it before!)

1. Early in the story, weave as little information as possible to keep your reader engaged.

Inception doesn't start with Leo DiCaprio's character Cobb explaining the ins and outs of shared dreaming. We start with tension--he's trying to convince Saito that he needs to train his mind to not be vulnerable to idea theft. Here's the thing. We learn, in a few brief sentences of dialogue, that someone can steal your secrets through shared dreaming. And THAT'S IT. We don't know how it works, or who can do it, or the history behind why it was developed in the first place.

We know just enough that when we learn everything we're watching IS a dream, we get it. Maybe we don't understand why Cobb gets dumped in the tub to wake him up, but we get it enough to be invested and intrigued. It's the technique of weaving small bits of information into a scene so we get small bits instead of large chunks. And especially for the first 30-50 pages of a novel, that may be as much as you need.

2. Have a character who doesn't understand what's going on so someone can explain things to them-- and the reader.

Enter Juno--er, Ariadne. She's new to the team. She doesn't understand any of the history or the hows and whys of dream sharing. The team teaches her all the ins and outs, and as she learns, so do we. This neatly evades the "maid and butler" dialogue of "As you know, your subconscious is represented by all these people," and "Yes, Cobb, and they will attack us if they sense something is wrong in the dream." It's natural for Ariadne to be learning it, so it's natural for us to learn it too.

3. Don't explain everything at once--use small chunks in addition to weaving.

The first time Cobb takes Ariadne into the dream, we don't get all the information about how dream sharing works. We get small bits. We understand that the dream can be changed by the people sharing it, sometimes in fantastic ways, and that the subconscious of the person dreaming can become aggressive when it's messed with too much. And, very briefly, we see again Cobb's projection of his terrifying wife. We don't learn much about the other parts of shared dreaming, such as the use of chemists, or about what on earth is wrong with Cobb's deranged wife. These things are woven in later as scenes.

Which brings us to another point.

4. Information should always be revealed as part of a scene.

A.k.a, NEVER SIMPLY TELL THE READER. Paragraphs that say, "and this is the history of x, and this is how y works," are the exact definition of bad info-dumps. In Inception, every single bit of information is worked in as part of a scene. In other words, it is not just giving you information. It's developing character, deepening mystery, and furthering plot at the same time. It brings tension around the very information we're receiving, and we're so engaged, we don't even recognize it as an info-dump.

For example, the scene where Cobb risks going behind enemy lines to find Eames, we learn about how inception is possible, and we learn about the idea of a chemist and using dreams within dreams. All around this information is the tension of Cobb being potentially caught by people who want him dead. And then, when we have just enough information, we get some action as Cobb is chased through the streets of Mombasa. We are kept engaged because it's a scene in a story, not an aside of information.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Wordiness


A while ago I did a post on purple prose, and today I want to talk about one if its relatives: wordiness. 

They can overlap, but they are different. Purple prose may include wordiness, and wordiness may turn into purple prose, but it is possible to have one without the other. 

Wordiness is taking more words than necessary to say whatever it is you are trying to say. 

And like purple prose, it's also a phase of writing that I think writers naturally go through at some point. It could be in middle school or high school, or it could be in your 50's, but most of us have likely courted wordiness at one time or another. 

(Remember in school when you were trying to fill up a 5-page essay with a 2-page topic. Yup.)



So let's go through the characteristics of wordiness with some examples to help us discern it and understand why it's a problem.

Now, to me, wordiness is usually a sum of issues, instead of just one thing here and there. Not all of these characteristics are inherently bad, but it's usually the combination of them or the way they are used that's the problem. Contrary to the meme at the very beginning, you don't have to go through and literally cut every. Single. Excess. Word. --Though some people may tell you to. Believe it or not, I think there are times where "unnecessary words" are exactly what you need, and I started a post on that once . . . I really should finish it and publish it on here. Anyway . . . 

Redundancy


Redundancy comes about for a couple of main reasons:

1 - the writer doesn't trust the reader to get it the first time.

It was April 6th, and today was Cindy's birthday. She'd been looking forward to this day for weeks, because it likewise happened to be her cousin Mimi's birthday, and they were going to celebrate all day together. Both Cindy and Mimi were born on April 6th; they shared the same birthday. 

Here the writer (my alter ego ;) Maybe I should make up a persona for my bad writing) is worried that the reader isn't going to pick up on the fact that Cindy and Mimi share the same birthday, which is pretty miraculous (at least the writer thinks so), so they write it multiple ways within a matter of sentences.

Look, the first mention of it was pretty straightforward. You need to trust that the reader has the ability to make obvious logical connections. We don't need to be told same exact information within a matter of sentences. The only time this might be okay is if you are trying to explain something very complicated or unfamiliar to the reader. Here, we know what a birthday is. We get it the first time.

2 - the writer doesn't trust implication

Some of the most powerful writing comes from implying. Big things can be implied, but more importantly, little things don't need to be said.

Once Kip sat to the right of her, Alice took her hand out of her jacket pocket and took his hand with hers, with his left hand in her right hand. 

The audience really doesn't need this much specificity and detail to understand what is going on. Just say, "Once Kip sat to her right, Alice took his hand." Where her hand was before probably isn't important. "Took" implies she used her hand, so we don't even need to say it. He's sitting right of her, so it's assumed by default that his left is in her right. 


Long Multi-Syllable Words and/or Uncommon Words


There is a phase that most writers go through where they think that the fancier the word is, the more sophisticated of a writer they are. They might grab the thesaurus and find the most complicated word to say the simplest thing. Dictionary.com's "word of the day" feature is great at doing this sort of thing, which sometimes drives me nuts. Don't pick overly complicated words that no one is familiar with to say something that can be said more simply. 

Sure, some of these words are great for academic papers, but not for storytelling. 

The field that Steve stumbled upon was prodigiously verdigris with anthophilia circumnavigating every inflorescence.

Overusing multi-syllable words and uncommon words makes the writing more complicated than it needs to be, and the tone becomes too pedantic. You can break this rule in special circumstances, but usually . . . not.

Filler Phrases and Unnecessary Words


This one can be a little tricky because a lot of times we aren't aware we are even using them. 

In my personal opinion, during that period of time, the stone had turned orange in color and sparkly in appearance.

All opinions are personal, so you can delete that word. Also, depending on the scene and character, you may not even need to say "opinion"--that can be implied. "Period" suggests time, so you can delete "of time." Orange is a color, so you can delete "in color." "Sparkly" refers to appearance, so you can delete "in appearance."

Style by Joseph M. Williams gives some good examples of these phrases to watch out for. Here are just a few:

Free gift (all gifts are free)
Each individual
Future plans
True facts

And also:

Due to the fact --> Because
Despite the fact --> Though
Concerning the matter of --> About


Passive Voice


I'm a big believer that passive voice isn't always wrong. However it should almost never be your go-to. If you aren't familiar with passive voice, rather than explain it all over, just read about it at Purdue OWL.

Passive voice naturally takes more words to say something than active voice does. And if you are using passive voice regularly, there's probably a problem. It also adds all those to-be words, which can relate to wordiness too.

The door was kicked down by me, swiftly without many motions, but a whole lot of decisiveness was used by me, that was apparent to everybody. 


Bonus:

Watch out for words being unintentionally repeated too close together. That can contribute to wordiness.



Wordiness can come from trying to be too dramatic, which is often where it veers into purple prose, which is the wrong way to render a dramatic moment.

It can also come from a writer thinking the more words he can use to describe something, the better. Again, like purple prose, that's not how it actually works.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Minor Viewpoint Errors




I've covered point of view and viewpoint penetration before on my blog, but I wanted to do a simple post about common viewpoint errors because they are something I see a lot from new writers.

Let's build from the ground up.

The common "rule" these days (or decades) is that you should really only be in one viewpoint character's head at a time. This means that if I'm writing from Rosie's viewpoint in the opening scene, that I stay in her viewpoint for the entire scene, chapter, or in many cases, book. She is the viewpoint character, and therefore, everything we see and experience should be what she sees and experiences, and if it deviates, it's considered a viewpoint error.

Here is an example.

Rosie scraped frost from her windshield in the freezing winter air. She felt as if her very eyeballs would freeze. Can't wait for spring, she thought. She should have come out sooner and started her car, melt all the frost off so she wouldn't be late.

"Hey Rosie!" It was Ms. Trumble, Rosie's talkative neighbor.

Rosie pretended not to hear.

Ms. Trumble came closer, pulling her coat tight around her. She could feel the icy wind against her neck and hoped she wouldn't catch a cold like Rosie had last month.

"Hey," Rosie said halfheartedly. She continued to scrape.

Yup, there it is. A line about what Ms. Trumble is thinking and feeling. If we are truly in Rosie's viewpoint, we shouldn't know exactly what Ms. Trumble is thinking and feeling, because Rosie doesn't. Everything should be from Rosie's point of view.

So the error?

Ms. Trumble came closer, pulling her coat tight around her. She could feel the icy wind against her neck and hoped she wouldn't catch a cold like Rosie had last month.

(Note: It is possible to have the viewpoint character interpret or guess at another character's feelings and thoughts based on body language and how well they know that person, which is slightly different than this example.)

Viewpoint errors can be sneakier than this. Remember how I talked about blocking a few weeks ago? If the viewpoint character can't see something visually from the angle he is standing and looking, it can't be on the page. So here is another error.

Mack sat in his cubicle. He hated working customer service, but he'd needed a quick job, so here he was, listening to stupid people day after day, phone call after phone call.

"Mack!" Stephanie popped her head around his cubicle wall.

Mack's heart skipped a beat.

Stephanie had worked adjacent to him for weeks, but they hardly talked.

Her phone went off. She looked back at her desk where her phone vibrated next to her mouse.


If Mack is sitting in his cubicle, and Stephanie's is right next to him, he can't see her desk to know that her phone is next to the mouse. It's a viewpoint error.

But perhaps the most common viewpoint error I see has to do with how the writer references the actual viewpoint character. For example:

When done scraping enough frost off, Rosie put her hands in her pockets. Her blue eyes looked into Ms. Trumble's brown ones.

Rosie can't see her own eyes. So using "blue" is considered a viewpoint error. You have to figure out how to get that information to the reader in a different way. At least weave it in a way where it would be natural that Rosie would have a passing thought about the color of her eyes.

But it can get even sneakier.

"That Michael fellow ask you to marry him yet?" Ms. Trumble asked.

Rosie reddened.

Rosie can't see herself blush. So that's a viewpoint error.

She can, however, feel herself flush.

"That Michael fellow ask you to marry him yet?" Ms. Trumble asked.

Rosie's cheeks went warm.

See? Because we are in the scene as if we are Rosie, we can feel what she feels, but we can't see our own face (Rosie's).

If you think this sounds too nit-picky, trust me, it's real, and professionals are aware of it.

Must you always write that consciously? Well, yes . . . if you want to write professionally. . . . and even if you want to break the rule, you need to be conscious enough to know where and why you are breaking it.

Minor viewpoint errors can be difficult to learn how to see, after all, nothing is grammatically wrong with the sentences. But once you learn them, you can't unsee them.

If you are new to this concept, you might be wondering what the point is and if it really matters that we said "Rosie reddened." The idea is that we want the audience to be fully immersed in the story, to feel as if they are the main character and that they identify with the main character. Viewpoint errors take away from that. Other than that, they are simply considered amateur.

I'm not as stingy about this stuff as some others are, but the reality is, if you aren't following this rule, I need to be able to see why. If you are serious about writing, this is something that needs to be mastered if you are writing in first-person or third-person.

If you are writing in straight-up omniscient, where the narrator is taking us into people's thoughts and minds left and right in a scene, that's different. But again, it's so unpopular in the modern day and age that many people will still chastise you for it. I'm not against omniscient, but just be aware that if you are going to write that way, it needs to be intentional, and you will probably get flack for it even when you do it right. If that's the way you feel you need to write a story, personally, I'm open to that.

But if you are writing in first-person or third-person, most of the time, you should be in one viewpoint at a time.

These days, many people argue that you can only switch viewpoint characters at the start of a new scene or chapter. I don't necessarily agree with that. I think it's possible to switch mid-scene and be fine, as long as you are smart about it, and remember to only be in one viewpoint at a time. Unless you really know what you are doing and have established it at the beginning of the story, 99% of the time you shouldn't be head-hopping--jumping from one viewpoint to another to another and back again. One viewpoint character at a time.

I hope this short post cleared some things up for you, if you've ever been criticized of viewpoint errors. Otherwise, I hope it was a nice refresher, or reference to send others to.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Maximizing or Minimizing Your Setting



As I touched on in my last post, setting is more important in some stories than in others. For example, if you are writing a wilderness survival story, setting might be an important component--a life-and-death component. In other stories, like many sitcoms for example, it's really not much of a key player. But whatever the case, it must (almost) always be present. After all, life doesn't happen in a void . . . unless of course you are writing a science fiction story.

Obviously in any story that has a strong "man vs. setting" conflict, setting is going to be important. This includes wilderness survival stories (think The Hatchet), but it may also include westerns, frontier stories, war eras, adventure stories (think Indiana Jones), journey stories (think The Hobbit), dystopian stories (Hunger Games) and plenty of others. As I mentioned before, back in the day, there was a whole genre called "local color" that was about capturing what a particular setting was like to live in and visit.

But the story doesn't have to be about the setting for it to play a significant role. Sometimes the role of setting is simply to transport the audience. Harry Potter isn't really "about" Hogwarts . . . but everyone who reads the books wants to go there. Once Twilight got big, Forks, Washington suddenly had plenty of tourism.

Setting can help with the tone of the story. A murder mystery set in Chicago is a lot different than one set behind-the-scenes at Disneyland.

But whatever setting you have, when it comes to writing, it's usually a good idea to expand your sense of setting in some way. It will make the story feel more authentic and the "world" feel bigger. It will transport your audience better, and help them experience the narrative.

David Farland teaches a great technique about this. He says in the movie industry that with big budget films, they never want to use the same set piece twice if they can help it. For example, in a story about a king, one scene might take place in his bed chamber, another in the throne room, another in the dining hall, another in his personal hunting reserve, another in his courtyard. This expands or maximizes the setting. It let's the audience see different aspects of the "world" and keeps the film visually interesting.

The same can often be done with novels. Some stories naturally require that you maximize setting. In The Hobbit, we are following Bilbo travel through Middle-earth to face Smaug. We'll see the shire, but we'll also see forests, and mountains, and underground tunnels. Other stories may not necessarily require that, but almost beg for it because of their worldbuilding. The world is so interesting that the author really should find a way to have the character move about so the audience can behold it.

But even on a small scale, setting can be maximized to some degree. In The Office, almost the entire show takes place in the office (thus the title), but even that setting is somewhat expanded. We have the main room, but also Michael's office, the conference room, the break room, the warehouse, the parking lot, and some scenes take place in the elevator, on the stairs, or on the roof. Then we know Vance Refrigeration is nearby, they sometimes go to Poor Richard's, and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

Look for ways to add "set pieces" to you story to make the world feel bigger.

On the other hand, in some cases that are probably fewer and further in between, you may need to minimize your setting. See, big budget films may be able to film on a different set for each scene, but low budget films can't afford to. Some sitcoms have essentially the same three or five sets for the whole show. Luckily we don't work off the same budgets as films as fiction writers. However, we do have budgets of a sort. Words. Every time you introduce a new set piece, you'll probably have to spend some words describing it. You may end up spending more words on setting than your story can afford. Stories like The Hobbit can afford to spend more words on setting since that's largely what the story is about. Others may not be like that, and spending too many words on setting might slow the pacing of the story.

If your story is very long or you need to write short, then repeating set pieces for scenes will help cut down on length. Also, repeating set pieces can give the setting a stronger feeling of familiarity and may even be cozy or homey. After all, who doesn't want to revisit the four poster beds in Gryffindor tower, wake to breakfast in the Great Hall, and stroll by the lake and pumpkin patch in the afternoon?

It might be helpful to keep in mind that historical fiction and speculative fiction usually require a good chunk of words on setting in particular because of worldbuilding, which might influence how much you would like to expand or condense for your story.

Whatever the case, it may be more helpful to be consciously aware of how to maximize and how to minimize.