by Ryan Lanz
Dumping is rarely appreciated anywhere, and inside your novel is no different.
When I started writing, I can remember feeling the urge to clue the reader in on every tidbit of information on a character/setting, including the culture, people, landscape, type of plants that grow there, every holiday, flavors of tea consumed, what type of bear is best (a Jim Halpert reference), etc.
I’m exaggerating a little, but not by much.
For some reason new writers often feel the urge to tell a lot of information and backstory, usually at the very beginning. At such a crucial point in the story, that is probably the point where you want huge blocks of information the least. Heavy info-dumps also drags down the pacing, and it can cause the reader to skip over sections until it seems like something is happening again.
So what’s the solution?
Here are some ways to convey the same information but in ways that are easier for the reader to digest:
Convey information in dialogue
This has to be used lightly, otherwise it’ll sound too purposeful. It’s easy to go overboard with this, but if you give a good enough motivation, you can convey a lot of the setting in dialogue. For example:
“We haven’t had a bite to eat since the king shut them castle walls. I wouldn’t mind if he went hungry for a night or two. Still, it’s better than getting an arrow in the chest.”
From just that bit of dialogue, we already know some flavorful things about the setting and even some about character. We know the character lives in a feudal system, probably back a few hundred years ago. We know that the person speaking is probably in the lower rung of society and that the king is probably not well liked. We also know there is some sort of conflict that might have happened should the gates be open.
Compare that to starting out the scene like this:
In 1727, King Thomas had ruled for 17 years in the town of Mulberry. Two days ago, he commanded the defensive gates shut against the marauder hordes of Charles the fifth. In just one day, unrest in the town grew to a fevered pitch. Charles the fifth had his army fully camped and didn’t seem to mind waiting until starvation did most of the work. His favorite means of war was the archer, stationed all along the barricaded city.
You get the idea.
Sprinkle in the information
You can lightly sprinkle in details about the setting throughout the story. Instead of discussing the 200 year history of a statue at the beginning, have the characters walk past it, wondering what it is. Then later, you could have it come up again in a different way, such as a newspaper article. Rather than flesh out the rich detail of a mansion, describe one facet to lay the groundwork, then pick out other tidbits as the character walks throughout, has dinner, dances in the ballroom, and retires to his chambers. It may sound like a simple strategy, but it can help a lot.
Consider waiting until later in the book. Your reader doesn’t have to know everything right away. That’s one of the common misconceptions I had as a new writer. The reader doesn’t mind leaving some things to mystery for a while. In some instances, that’s a good thing.
Leaving it out
Yes, yes. I know. Your book couldn’t stand losing the vast genealogy of your character or the list of the past dozen dukes who had held a particular sword. I thought the same thing too. The brass tacks of the matter is that really the only thing your readers care about is your character and what pertains to him/her within the specific storyline.
Some genres are more forgiving than others with this, true, but we’re speaking in generalities. For example, if you mention a stone tower as ridden with moss, vines, and collapsed stones, the reader gets the idea that it’s old and abandoned. No need to go into the history of what happened unless it’s pertinent to the story. Heck, that could later turn into a novella or bonus material for your author website one day.
I’m not saying that you need to trim down to the bone, so to speak, but consider what the reader needs to know and when. Today’s readers are a smart group; they’ll pick up on subtly. One test you could consider doing is handing the first chapter (after trimming off the info-dumps) to a friend and simply asking whether it all makes sense. If the reader is happy and not confused by the lack of information, then ask yourself if it was necessary in the first place.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.