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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.


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