Thursday, June 18, 2009

Information Dumps and How to Avoid Them

Uriah Heep--Charles Dickens ‘Information dump’ is one of those terms that’s so descriptive, I could tell right away what the editor was talking about the first time I heard it.

You know how it is…you’re writing and you’re probably trying to get this character clear in your mind and so you describe him. Ad nauseum. Here’s an info dump on Uriah Heep (pictured): He had orange, Tang-colored hair, a pointed chin, and a tall stature. His whole demeanor was suffocating and cloying in nature. His jerking, clumsy walk and repulsive manner was decidedly off-putting. He was tall and pale and his … blah, blah, blah.

The problem is that readers don’t really like to have a huge amount of information dumped on them all at one time. But gosh, it’s easy for us writers to pen it in. We’re trying to picture our character and want to recreate this picture for our readers.

At the same time, as a reader, I don’t like being introduced to a character and not have at least a general impression of him. Is he old or young? Is he educated? Attractive? What’s his relationship to the protagonist? If I can’t find out this information quickly, I start shuffling through the pages to try to find a description so I can at least have an idea who this guy is.

So…what can we do? What’s just the right amount of information and description and what’s the best way to share it with the reader?

The best method seems to be a combination of direct and indirect characterization. With direct characterization, you provide the reader with the information (this is the blond hair, blue eyes, devilish grin part.) Direct is the ‘telling’ approach. With indirect characterization, you let the reader draw their own conclusions: based on character dialogue, his internal musings shared with the reader, and other characters’ observations about him (the ‘showing approach.’ )

Showing is definitely the more time-consuming of the two, but I like it better. It’s a great way to mislead the reader, too—nice if you want to make them think a character should be admired and then later have the character’s true colors show.

On a personal note, this is my first blog for Ink Spot. Thanks to everybody for welcoming me into the group!


Galen Kindley--Author said...

I think you’ve isolated the answer, Elizabeth. Readers need enough info to get started, enough to have a rough, “mind’s eye sketch” of the character. Then, if need be, you can do more sketching as the scene develops and the character warrants. In addition, of course, the showing part will also fill-in where needed

I understand that showing is the holy grail of writing, and it is sacrilege to ever dissent, but, aren’t there occasions where it’s just simpler, and smarter, to “tell?” As you point out, showing takes a lot of work and words. Maybe if authors—where it made sense--just told the reader that X is X, and moved on, both reader and author would benefit. Dunno, just sayin’---but not telling. (g)

Best Regards, Galen

Lisa Bork said...

Welcome, Elizabeth! I'm thinking about some of my favorite series characters now and trying to picture them in my head. Some are more clear than others. It would be fun to compare impressions with other readers. Thanks for the post.

Alexis Grant said...

Ha -- I have the opposite problem, as a journo who was trained to describe in one short, phrase -- I have to force myself to add more description to help out the reader! These are some great techniques you suggest here.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Hi Galen,

I'm with you. As a reader, there are SO many times I prefer the author to tell and not show...just come on and give me the facts: what does this guy look like? I guess there's just a point where too much info is too much info and we need to be cognizant that editors' thresholds for description is low.

In action scenes you'd definitely want more quick telling and less showing, imo.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Lisa, thanks for the welcome! That's a good exercise you mention. Funnily enough, some of the characters that are most vivid to me are from books I read when I was much younger: Nancy Drew (with her titian hair), Trixie Belden (with her sandy curls), etc.

Like Alexis, I have a background in journalism--maybe this is a reason we automatically lean toward quick, summary-style descriptions? You're right, though--they don't work for books.


Anonymous said...

this is an important subject and I think you've done a good job with this post and pointers. I'm editing a book right now for a rookie author who spends the entire opening loooooong chapter dumping all the "back story" on the reader before starting the actual story line. It reads like a booooring history book. I'm having him start the book with (what is now) the second chapter and work the back story in a little bit at a time through the thoughts, memories, and words of the characters.

You might also appreciate the post I have up today on the Blood Red Pencil Blog. It's about authors "butting in" to the story with their own voice to deliver information instead of letting the characters do it within the context of the story.

the Old Silly From Free Spirit Blog

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Your rookie friend is lucky to have you help him out, Marvin. There's not an agent or editor out there who doesn't want a story to start out with a bang...the back story dumps are really, really boring.

I'll check out "Blood Red" this morning...thanks!


Alan Orloff said...

Welcome to the blog, Elizabeth! A very nice first post.

Info dumps are something all writers need to watch out for, and they're not restricted to character descriptions. It's easy to get carried away and want to include every great fact discovered during the many hours of research--all at once. Better to filter it in and make sure the information is crucial to the story.

That's the key--the info exists to move the story along, not the other way around.

Cricket McRae said...

Great post, Elizabeth. And welcome!

The balance between telling and showing in character is vital. And I agree with Alan, too, that information dumping can happen in terms of backstory, research, etc. A friend once told me that as writers our job is to lay the framework; the reader will fill in the rest. However, what they fill in will be different depending on who they are.

Once I asked four first readers to tell me what a particular character looked like after they read my ms. I'd described her in a distinct way, but every single one of my readers came up with a different description than the one I laid out -- and they were all different from one another, too. Two readers said the character reminded them of someone they knew, and they filled in physical details from that. Another said he imagined her as being a lot like a popular television character.

G.M. Malliet said...

Welcome, Elizabeth! You're off to a great start.

What Cricket says -- "what they fill in will be different depending on who they are" -- is exactly true, I think.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks for the welcome Alan, Cricket, and G.M.!

Alan, you make a very good point. Backstory and research are other areas where writers tend to dump lots of info at once.

Cricket, that's very interesting about readers filling in the blanks. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I've definitely done it as a reader--a character will remind me of someone and become that person in my head as I'm reading.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Welcome, Elizabeth!

N A Sharpe said...

You have a lot of really good points in this post. It is often preferable for the reader to form his own opinion about certain aspects of the character, and with the "aspect" you really need to be wary you are not overwhelming the reader with too much information at one time that is not really pertinent to moving the story forward.

Great post!

Nancy, from Just a Thought…

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks Sue Ann and Nancy!

Nancy, you're right...put it in the readers' hands and let them form the character in their minds. Obviously it becomes a much stronger image for them when we're not overwhelming them with our descriptions.


Terri Thayer said...

Nice to see you here, Elizabeth. Congrats! Nice post. I love when people tell me what my characters look like.

Cassandra Jade said...

I don't know if you've ever visited the webook website, but there are a lot new writers starting out there, and one of the biggest problems is the reliance on info dumps in first chapters. Thanks for the great advice on how to move on from this. It is going to be very helpful for so many people.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks, Terri and Cassandra!

Cassandra, I'm not familiar with webook....I'll have to check it out. Thanks!