Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Down in the Infodumps

You know what I'm talking about. Those big chunks of information that are essential to the story, but which most readers skip.

I'm currently writing a passage about a toxic substance. The reader needs to know what this substance does, how it works, and why it is so dangerous, because that sets up the suspense in several key scenes further down the road.

But laundry lists and textbook definitions aren't interesting. So these are the sneaky tricks I'm using to force the info down the reader's throat:
  1. I'm breaking the info into snippets of dialog. One character asks an important question, the answer imparts info. Dialog is active, not passive.
  2. I'm breaking up the info with conflict--two of the characters in the scene are flirting, and one is acting like a jerk.
  3. I'm putting in just a little less information than needed, and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks and make the logic jumps. Less is more, even when infodumping.
  4. I'm purposely leaving some questions unanswered. This turns exposition into part of the tension, making readers wait a bit for more info to fully understand what is happening.
  5. I'm keeping it brief. Readers care about the story, not about information, no matter how interesting it may be.

Also, when infodumping, use style. Bland, unexciting writing can make even the most revelatory disclosure boring. Some clever turns of phrase, or even a joke, can turn an infodump into a memorable scene.

All medicine goes better with a spoon full of sugar.


Adam Hurtubise said...

"I'm breaking up the info with conflict--two of the characters in the scene are flirting, and one is acting like a jerk."

So does that mean that McGlade is in this scene?


Jude Hardin said...

I'm curious. What is the substance?

A lot of times the reader doesn't need to know much, just that it's fatal or whatever. How much do we really know about Kryptonite?

Can we read the passage, see how you pulled it off?

Anonymous said...

Joe--e-mail me!

B.Sc. in Microbiology & Public Health. Published stories featuring forensic toxicologist. Have a friend who is a toxicologist. I can help.


JA Konrath said...

"Can we read the passage, see how you pulled it off?"

Absoultely. The book is DIRTY MARTINI, available July 6, 2007, for $24.95 from Hyperion.

The substance is BT.

McGlade isn't in this scene, but he's in the next one. For some reason I can write McGlade quicker than any other character. Perhaps because superficiality comes easily to me.

JA Konrath said...

Thanks, Mark. I'll be in touch if I have any questions.

Jeff said...

This is verg good advice. Thanks, Joe. :)

Daniel Hatadi said...

Numbers 3 & 4 are especially good advice. It's easy to forget that readers have brains of their own that they're not afraid to use.

Now to rewrite one of my scenes...

Confessions of a Starving Mystery Writer said...

I grew up in the South and when I was very young my Grandmother used to mix skanky medicine with sugar and a shot of Jack.

Now I don't know if that's how I acquired a taste for alcohol but it sure made me eager for the skanky medicine...

Great post.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

An old screenwriter's trick is to throw in all the exposition during an action scene. Seems like it wouldn't work, but, if handled correctly, it does...

Author-Gerald said...

You can always use the "asking questions of a teacher" ploy. Get the teacher, lecturer, or knowledgeable person to tell the dumb cop (or whoever) what they need to know, and - Hey Presto! The reader knows too.

Jude Hardin said...

"The substance is BT."

Ah. Bachman-Turner. I was overexposed to that in the 70s.

Truly toxic.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Rob...I agree...the info dump I had to do, I put in during a fight scene. None of my critique partnets even noticed it was there!

Bob Farley said...

I always think of how information like backstory, MSDS sheets (for hazardous materials, etc.) might be presented in a movie. Usually, they're extremely glossed over.

Jude Hardin said...

Seriously, these are good tips, Joe. I did quite a bit of research on animal rendering plants and mad cow disease for my first novel, and I handled the info dump the same ways as you are. I boiled thirty or so pages of research material down to one paragraph and a few dialogue snippets.

The writern needs to know all the details; the reader doesn't. Just enough to make it believable.

Kelly (Lynn) Parra said...

Good tips, Joe.

I had to do a lot of research for my book on drugs and the effects on users. I did my best not to info dump but used the effects in one or two lines of description. For example, eye dialation, wide eyes, fidgeting, and used slang terms.

It paid off not to use too much info. =)

anne frasier said...

i hate writing those scenes. i think it's because i can never get lost in the story because i have to be aware of technique. i can't just let it roll.

yep, i'm lazy.

JA Konrath said...

"Or you can just take the Dan Brown route and have some paper-thin character lecture another paper-thin character for chapter after chapter until you've regurgitated all the info you care to share."

That doesn't work. Readers would never buy it.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised nobody has suggested "show, don't tell." Don't tell me what the toxic substance does. Show it!

Suppose the antagonist plans to use a big does of the nasty ingredient. You could work in a flashback where he had to steal or otherwise acquire the substance, and in that scene he might spill a tiny bit. Show what the stuff does and hint at what would happen on a larger scale.

This was done quite effectively at the beginning of the movie, _The Rock_.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

"That doesn't work. Readers would never buy it."

LOL. Biggest laugh of the day.