Exposition

A good friend raised a writing question the other day, regarding the matter of info-dumping. As a result we had an interesting discussion, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about it here. Before we begin, I’ll add the standard disclaimer: this is what I think, it’s one writer’s opinion. It’s what works for me … but Your Mileage May Vary. (YMMV).

Ahem …

One of the biggest challenges a writer faces, especially if that writer is a novelist, is the question of how much information you give your readers, how soon, and in what format. If you handle the technique well you’re going to satisfy the reader’s curiosity while still encouraging them to keep on turning the pages. If you handle it poorly – it’s known as ‘info-dumping’ — you’re likely to bring your readers to a screaming halt as they trip over an obvious authorial insertion or attempt to wade through enormous slabs of explanation. As a result you’ll probably bore them. Boring your readers is a cardinal sin. Don’t do it.

Okay. So first of all: what do I mean by ‘an obvious authorial insertion’? Well, by that I mean the author interrupts the flow of the action to explain something. It’s often done with the introduction of characters.

If you recall the previous discussion on point of view (POV), you’ll remember that authors often choose to dramatise a scene or a chapter through the eyes of a particular character. They use that character as the lens through which the action is captured. But what sometimes happens is that a new character walks on screen, and the author pops up to clue in the reader as to who this new person is.

For example:

Bill was busy tidying the back-office shelves. He hated tidying. Every time Sandra ordered him off the front desk and into the back-office he heard his mother’s carping voice nagging him to clean up his bedroom. Bloody women. Obsessed with tidiness, the bloody lot of them. How was he supposed to win Insurance Agent of the Month if she kept him off the front bloody desk, away from the customers? It was a damned conspiracy, that’s what it was.

“Hello,” said an unfamiliar voice in the doorway. “I’m looking for Sandra Smith. Can you help me?”

Debbie Jones was brand new to Bollinger Insurance. She was twenty-two and had just graduated from uni with a worthless BA degree. She wanted to be a writer, but in the meantime she had to work at whatever she could find.

Bill smiled at the newcomer. Now, this was better. Young, pretty, attractively confused. He might be onto something here. He put down his armload of old manilla files. “Sure. I can help you. My name’s Bill. And you are …?”

As you can see, the narrative starts in Bill’s POV. We’re experiencing the action through his eyes, with his thoughts and feelings colouring the scene. Then boom! A new character arrives, and the author jumps in to dump a brief bio on the reader to clue them in. This is a very clumsy way of doing things.

Incidentally – did you notice how much you learn about Bill without ever being told anything directly by the author? That’s the beauty of using a tight POV in your narrative. You’re giving the reader tons of information even as the story unfolds.

So, you want to avoid an overt authorial insertion. But what’s the alternative?

Well … you could get the characters talking to each other. Dialogue is a great way to pass along information to the reader, provided your characters aren’t telling each other what they already know purely for the reader’s benefit. This is called the “As you know, Bob …” syndrome, and isn’t well regarded at all.

Or you could have a third character, Sandra for example, calling a quick office meeting to introduce the newcomer. As the existing characters meet her, so do your readers.

Or you could wait a while before explaining who this new person is, and how they fit in to the story. Maybe this new character isn’t brand new to the company, maybe she’s a transferred employee from another branch. Maybe her new workmates get a bad vibe from her, so they ring around where she used to work and find out all they can about her from her old colleagues. Or maybe the company’s head of personnel tells them. Or someone could blackmail the head of personnel to reveal confidential information.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. Obviously, the more integral the new character is to the plot the more elaborate your introduction can be and the more gradual you can make the release of information about them.

The most important thing to remember, if you are introducing an important character, is not to overwhelm your readers with too much detail at once. Don’t dump an entire biography onto them. Eke the information out. Drop tantalising hints along the way. Let your readers discover your characters slowly, let the truth about them unfold through the continuing narrative. Show your readers who these characters are by what they say, what they do, and how other people react towards them. In this way tell your readers what they need to know about the characters only when they need to know it. Wherever possible, try to avoid a blunt authorial insertion. It’s the equivalent of a voice-over in a movie halting the action to explain a new face on the screen. This can work for comedic effect, but if you’re not writing a broad comedy then chances are it’s going to backfire.

So that’s introducing characters. What other kinds of information does a writer need to include in a story, or novel? Probably the main area you’ll run into trouble is when you’re scene-setting, world-building, in genres like fantasy, historical and science fiction. That’s because the backdrop of the story isn’t default modern Sydney, or LA, or Berlin, or a period of history recognisable in shorthand to a modern audience. If you’re writing in a contemporary setting, or a setting with which most people are comfortably familiar, there’s very little an author needs to explain. You and your readers are already on the same page, with a single frame of reference. Cars, planes, trains, dollars, pounds, kilometres, department stores … there’s your common language. Of course there’ll be some explanation and description, but both reader and writer are in the same world.

But what if your story’s set in Ancient Greece? Or on the planet Veep? Or in the mysterious kingdom of Loopdaloop? What then?

Well, then you’re faced with the task of explaining this brave new world to your readers without sounding like a university lecturer. And that can be damned tricky. It’s a massive balancing act, knowing how much information is enough for the reader to understand the context and world you’re writing in, to see it and smell it and believe in it because you’ve created it so vividly … and how much is too much, so you come across like an over-enthusiastic tour guide brochure and the concept of story is buried in trivia.

Whether you’ve invented this new world all on your own, or you’ve researched its real-life background until you could qualify for an Honours degree, the biggest danger you’ll face as a writer is the temptation to tell the reader everything you know … whether it’s relevant to the story or not.

Resist, resist, resist. Nothing puts the brakes on for a reader harder and faster than coming across three pages of lavish description containing no dialogue or action or forward momentum of any kind. Sometimes three paragraphs can be enough to irritate, or worse cause your readers to put your book aside. The trick is to develop the knack of creating atmosphere with small, telling details that give just enough information for readers to create a vivid, authentic picture in their minds … while still maintaining the story’s momentum. If you’re writing fiction you must keep rolling on. Of course, there is a spectrum of pace in writing. Not every story must be told at break-neck speed. But there should be a sense of narrative drive, a feeling that the story has purpose, energy, is carrying the reader forward to a definite destination.

Don’t derail that journey by throwing down roadblocks of solid information. Don’t succumb to the temptation of lecturing your readers on the landscape, the political history, the last two centuries’ economy, the biological development of the local wildlife … don’t succumb to explaining or describing anything that doesn’t contribute to the narrative’s drive. And if you absolutely must say something about the biology of the local wildlife, make sure it’s a crucial plot-point. Make it important. Make it mean something. Don’t waste your readers’ time.

Here’s the thing. At some point in the writing process, either in your outline, or as you write the first draft, or as you rework subsequent drafts, you need to separate the information wheat from the chaff. There’s what you need to know to make sense of the world, and there’s what the readers need to know to make sense of the story. More often than you might think, those are two different things.

Make up your mind which is which. Then, armed with the list of facts your readers must have, look for ways to relay them that don’t just involve another authorial insertion. Make imparting the information part of the action, part of the puzzle the characters have to solve. Or let them discover it as the readers discover it. Let a knowledgeable character talk about things, but in a way that doesn’t sound like a lecture.

And remember: every time you break into the action to describe a place or event you’re bringing the story’s momentum to an abrupt halt. I’m not saying you can never pause to smell the flowers, then describe the perfume. I’m saying use the technique judiciously, and be creative and expedient all the other times.

If you think of story information like a bag of bread crumbs, think how to work towards dribbling those crumbs out a little bit at a time instead of upending the bagful in one big lump. Don’t info-dump. What you’re hoping to create is a reader who, by the time he or she gets to the end of your story, knows way more about your world than they ever realised. Because you’ve educated them so craftily, so subtly, that they’ve been learning as they enjoy the action of the story. They’ve turned every page, eager to find out what happens next, and never once felt they were being lectured or confronted with roadblocks to their enjoyment. And yet … you’ve been educating them about your world.

One of the reasons readers keep on reading a book is because they want to find out what happens next. There’s a mystery to be solved, questions asked that have yet to be answered. If you continually tell your readers everything at once, without ever teasing them with hints and possibilities, delaying their gratification, the need to know, your work will be flat and without excitement.

Telling your readers stuff is very important. How you tell them is the difference between competent but dull prose, and terrific, vivid, exhilarating story.

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