Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

How To Write By The Seat of Your Pants

If anyone out there outlines (and succeeds by this method), please leave a comment below because I would love to feature a guest post on the plotting method.

There is no one method that works for everyone.  You need to write in whatever way will get the book finished.  Some of us write by the seat of our pants, others need to plot everything out ahead of time, and others fall somewhere in between.  Today, I want to talk about writing by the seat of your pants because I am that type of writer.

Now for the post…

1. It all begins with knowing your genre.

And when I say “an idea”, I mean that is pretty much it.  There is not much more to it than that.  I write romances, so I know a couple of things going into any book.  I know there is a hero and heroine, there will be some obstacle they will have to face, and there will be a happy ending.  I’m sure other genres have their general rules of thumbs as well–some basic elements that must be in the story.  So that’s where you start.  What are the core components in your genre?

2.  Pick a plot.

This is the funnest part of it.  You get to select whatever plot you want to have, and this plot can be boiled to one sentence.  For example, I want to write a story about a hero who rescues a heroine from a stagecoach robbery.

3.  Pick your setting.

This is where your story takes place.  What country does this story happen in?  What year is it?  What month is it?  Etc.

4.  Pick your characters.

This is another fun part.  You get to select what your characters.  Since this is a “seat of your pants” style, characters can change their personalities within the first couple pages of the book, so I would be very broad.  I’d name them, describe their physical attributes, and give them free rein to develop as they will.  You can have an idea of how acts before you go in, but it’s not until they’re being written do you truly get to know them.

5.  Pick your opening scene.

This is where it all begins, and besides this scene, you won’t have much else in mind when you begin writing.  You might have snippets of other scenes that you “hope” get included but they can change or never see the light of day.  What you might also know is the end.  In romance, this is pretty easy.  The hero and heroine are happy.   But as a general rule, I don’t know how the hero and heroine end up happy or what the final scene is like.  I just know they’re happy.  So if all you really have is a vague idea of what the first scene is like, you’re right on track for this method of writing.

6.  Start writing.

Steps 1-5 take all of a couple minutes, but they are usually thought out well in advance, usually while you’re away from the computer and let your mind wander.

This step is where the real work begins.  Most of the time, it all boils down to writing down the first sentence.  I know that sounds like it won’t go anywhere, but I find as soon as I get that first sentence down, the next one flows along and then the next and so on.

7.  The first three chapters.

I consider these to be the most important ones because these are the ones that let me know who my characters are and I start to figure out how the story is going to go.  The characters are pretty much fleshed out (their motives, their personalities, their fears, etc) by the end of chapter three.  The rest of the story is not fleshed out, but there is usually an idea of where it’s headed and what twists and turns might pop up along the way.  However, it’s not uncommon for those plot ideas to change as you keep writing.

8.  The most important thing to do is to keep writing.

There is no sense in looking back to edit.  Light edits (such as changing someone’s hair color or favorite song) are okay to change, but extensive edits or proofing don’t work well until after the book is finished.  Why?  Because there might be a scene coming up in the book that will change something you already wrote.  Character A might decide they aren’t the villain after all, which means you will have to go back and change a couple of things they said or did to make them more sympathetic.  But the problem is, you won’t know what changes will pop up until you’re writing them.

So my advice, make a note on things that change but keep on moving forward with the story.

I will make an exception to this, though.  If the twist that a character throws at you is so big that it changes everything else that comes later in the story, go ahead and do some light revisions, rewriting, or move scenes around.  If you feel that your characters are falling in love way too soon (that there needs to be more build up to that moment), then by all means, go back and write some extra scenes in.  If you figure scene A would be better after scene B, then switch them around.  But I would not do any cleaning up (polishing the content) until after the first draft is done.

9.  Add more than you think you’ll need.

And as a rule of thumb, it’s easier to delete things than to add them later.  So if you find you are repeating yourself or adding things in that might not make the final cut, go ahead and put them all in.  You can always cut them out later.  I’m the kind of write who hates writing additional scenes after I finish the first draft, so I will throw in more stuff than I’ll need later.  I typically throw out about 3,000 or more words during the second draft process.  I rarely ever add word count to my book once the first draft is done.

Also, with repetition, maybe something is stronger to write in at scene D but weak in scene F.  Well, all you have to do is delete that repetitive thing from scene F and your problem is resolved.  So in first draft mode, repeat your little heart out.  You just don’t know how things will work out until the story is all done.

10.  Don’t sweat the word usage.

Too many adverbs, adjectives, using the same words over and over again, etc?  During the first draft, the goal is to write the story.  So if you say the same word five times in one paragraph, that’s okay.  If everything is “magical” in a chapter, that’s okay, too.  If the hero is always grinning on a page, let him.  Trying to figure out the right word to use or a way to reword a sentence at this stage of the game isn’t necessary.  You can always do this when you’re working on the second draft.  The last thing you want to do in “seat of the pants” writing is to stop writing to figure out the right word for the way the heroine is walking.  In the first draft, she just walks.  In the second draft, she can stroll.

11.  Don’t question the characters.

This is hard but I’ve learned if the characters are changing the plot on me (and most of the time they do), then I need to trust they know what they’re doing and let them lead me along.  Whenever I have fought them on it, I end up getting stuck in the story or the story ends up with serious rewrites.  So when your characters do something unexpected, go with it.  Part of the fun of writing by the seat of your pants is that you get to be surprised.

12.  Highlight and go back to things you question.

While I do my first draft, I don’t search for things I’m not sure about unless I can do it in a minute or so.  If it’s something quick, like “what was South Dakota called before it became a state?”, I’ll take the time to search.  But if it’s taking a couple minutes, I highlight the word I have a question about and go back to it during my second draft where I’ll do the research I need to make sure I’m right.  Once you stop to research something, it hinders the “flow” of your writing.

13.  If you get stuck, jump ahead to a scene you are sure will fit in the story.

Usually, the tricky period in a first draft is somewhere in the middle.  I find the beginning and ending to be the easiest parts of a book to write, but I do get stuck at some point between 20,000 to 35,000 words.  I think it’s because I need to connect the beginning to the ending but want to make sure there’s a point to each scene I put in there.  Every scene must have a purpose.  So when I find myself in the “what the heck comes after this scene?” mode, I jump ahead and work on a scene I know is coming up.  (And by 20,000 words, I do have a couple of scenes I know will be coming.)  So if you know a scene is coming up, and you’re stuck on the place you’re at, go ahead and write that future scene.

14.  If you can, write more than one book at a time.  (Works best for multi-taskers.)

Sometimes when I am stuck and truly don’t know what to write, I work on another book.  I have an easier time when I work on 3-4 books at a time because I can switch to another story if one isn’t progressing as nicely as I’d like.  This method doesn’t work for everyone, but it works great for me.  It’s very common for me to take ten minutes to write in one book then switch to another one for five or ten minutes until I know what I want to write in the first one.  Why this method works for me, I don’t know.  But I am the type of person who can’t sit and do just one thing at a time.  It just drives me crazy.  Usually, I listen to music while I write or do housework because I’m doing two things at once.  So I think writing more than one book at a time works best for people who are multi-taskers.

15.  End the daily writing in the middle of a scene.

Some writers hate this idea, but I love it.  If I stop in the middle of a scene and I already know how it ends, I am in a much better position to pick up writing the next day than I am if I finish the scene.  The reason for this is because when I get back to my story the next day, I already know what I’m going to start off writing.  This helps me move forward so I can get an idea for the next scene because I usually figure out what the next scene will be by the time I end the one I’m currently on.

This doesn’t work for everyone.  It depends on what your style is.  I have a friend who would go crazy leaving a scene hanging.

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Final thought

Those are my tips for writing by the seat of your pants.  If you write by the seat of your pants and have a way of writing that I didn’t mention or is different from how I do it, please comment.  We all have our own way of writing, and the best way you should write is the way that works for you.  Don’t let anyone tell you there is only one way to do it or that you need to do it their way.  Whatever gets you to finish the book is how you should do it.