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Packing Heat 107: Infodump

Packing Heat is a podcast I've been putting out since 2008. My goal is to help other writers stay motivated, and to encourage them to take their writing to the next level. You don't need special gadgets to listen; Packing Heat plays in your browser, like YouTube. Or you can subscribe (and leave me glowing feedback) at iTunes!

Time management

I’ve been finding it helpful lately to tell myself, “If I start doing this task now, I’ll be done by (insert time), rather than, “I only need to work on this for ½ hour.” Something in the wording is a really big mental shift. Maybe it’s focus on the completion rather than the time working is what’s doing it for me. I’m using it to make myself show up for exercise mostly, but it also works well if you decide you want to get in half an hour of writing. I think it also gets around the tendency I have to not start something if I know I have to shift gears in an hour to do something else.

Newbie mistakes #3

There are certain tendencies I see often in newbie writing. Info-dump is one of those things. It's common in all genres, TV, and film.

Info-dump is a combination of backstory and exposition.

Backstory is all the stuff that’s happened in the timeline of your novel before the actual story begins. It’s the history of your characters and events.

Exposition is telling/explaining rather than allowing the scene to unfold through action.

Sometimes the info-dump is called the, “As you know, Bob,” moment, because it involves two characters talking about something they both already know and would have no logical reason to discuss, but the author hasn’t figured out any other way to feed that information to the reader.

Here’s an example of info-dump I just made up:

 “Sit down, ma’am. Pull yourself together. Do you have any idea who might have set off your burglar alarm?”

“I don’t know. It could have been so many people. It seems like people are always jealous of me. My whole life I’ve been the subject of envy, envy that turns to ridicule, to hatred. My sisters stopped speaking to me except on Christmas, and that’s only because our mother would notice something was wrong if they didn’t. Every relationship I’ve had has always ended up with the guy stalking off in a jealous rage, because he’d decided that I like my job better than I like him. As if—not a single co-worker is even remotely cordial to me. They all think I’m a brownnoser!”

I purposely didn’t make this info-dump horribly, horribly wrong. The voice isn’t so bad. The anecdote about the sisters and Christmas, that’s actually pretty good, because it’s beginning to get specific (and specificity and detail are good! They are what make stories come alive.) But then for the last couple of sentences I broadened out again into generic “relationships” and “co-workers”.

Three Solutions for Info-dump

Make a story intro:

Marilyn was never the epitome of popularity. All of her relationships to date have ended up with the boyfriend stalking away in a jealous rage. Her co-workers talk behind her back and call her a brown-noser. Even her own sisters don’t speak to her, except on Christmas, and only because it keeps their mother happy. So when she found her burglar alarm disabled and the word “bitch” spray painted on her living room wall, she wasn’t exactly surprised.

For this particular story, I don’t care for the “intro” method, but it worked really well in my PsyCop series.

The beginning of Among the Living:

Once upon a time if you told doctors you heard voices, they’d diagnose you as schizophrenic, put you on heavy drugs, and lock you away in a cozy state institution to keep you from hurting yourself or others.

Nowadays they test you first to see if you’re psychic.

Challenge the Info:

Have the listener argue with the character who’s infodumping. It could provide voice and tension to have the infodump constantly interrupted and challenged.
“Sit down, ma’am. Pull yourself together. Do you have any idea who might have set off your burglar alarm?”

“I don’t know. It could have been so many people.”

“It would be more helpful if you could narrow it down to a specific person or persons. Save the taxpayers a little money.”

“It seems like people are always jealous of me. My whole life I’ve been the subject of envy, envy that turns to ridicule, to hatred. My sisters stopped speaking to me except on Christmas, and that’s only because our mother would notice something was wrong if they didn’t.”

“So you’re saying you think one of your sisters did this?”

“What? No, of course not; my sisters live in Phoenix.”

Pitch it!

Omit the info-dump completely! Have the character clam up and act mysterious where the info-dump once was, and then find a few spots where you can dole out the information bit by bit throughout the story. The process of story writing does not need to be linear. You can leave that info-dump where it is in your initial draft, then go back in edits and spread that background information throughout the story.

Your Assignment

Can you find an info-dump in one of your stories? Think of one or more creative ways you can handle your background information other than the three ways I’ve mentioned here.

Listen at Packing Heat, 16 Minutes


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 10th, 2010 02:22 pm (UTC)
God. Infodump. You make it sound so easy. :p

Think it is one of my banes... and maybe I have a persecution complex, but it seems as if alternate world writers (scifi, odd fantasy, some paranormal?) have a particularly hard row to hoe? Writing scifi, I absolutely struggle with how to fit the info in and (importantly), how to decide which of that really important background is actually... necessary. :/

Anyway, thanks for pointers on this topic!

I have a real question for you though. Is it acceptable to put some of this in the blurb and leave it out of the text proper? (I've done that with one of my on-line stories as a way to clarify the setting right off, but wonder about published stories.**) It's like your 'make a story intro' but confining it to the back-of-the-book blurb.

**to clarify, this story was an AU where I could just never figure out how to incorporate a very direct piece of vital information into the storyline (a "why would my characters discuss something so obvious to their world?" kind of thing.)
Jun. 10th, 2010 09:05 pm (UTC)
Of course I'm totally curious what the AU thing is.

I'm intrigued by the idea of putting that nugget of info in the blurb, but I suppose that technically the book should stand alone from the blurb. I really like the idea, though, of having a key piece of info and basically inferring that key thing for the whole entire book. I think that could really work well. (That's me, though. I love subtext.)

One thing you could do is a "20 things" exercise. Write down 20 ways in which you could convey that key thing without exposition. The first few things you write down will be really obvious, and then it starts to get hard. Maybe it feels silly and useless, and you write down a bunch of unusable stuff...and then the gold happens.

In Hemovore I had a big problem with exposition. I got rid of it by printing the story out and yellow-highlighting all the expository parts, and being really strict with myself to not let them stay.
Jun. 10th, 2010 09:45 pm (UTC)
but I suppose that technically the book should stand alone

I suspect a publisher would agree -- and given that I don't always read the blurb before starting in, I suppose that makes sense.

Meh. The AU was for a 'slavefic' (of sorts, though it kind of messes with the standard tropes of the 'genre'). The blurb goes: In what might have been the middle ages, had neither Alexander the Great nor Jesus the prophet died, the Greek State is a powerful economic force in southern Europe, and slavery is a profitable and well-entrenched social institution. Nygell, a Lord of the Northern Isles, is given the gift of a Grecian slave by the King. Nygell wants no such responsibility.

But I didn't want to get into talking about just what year it was....nor Jesus or the rise of the Grecian State, even though both were referred to obliquely. The blurb helps explain several apparent anachronisms that I didn't want to give much print to. It may actually be that the story stands alone, but it sure helps to read the blurb from the outset.

Anyway. Just sharing cos you said you were curious. Not wheedling for editorial advice, you answered me jes' fine! Thanks! In the end, that's what good authors do, learn to make these decisions well.

I like the idea of 20 ways to ... especially for another knotty prob I'm having in another in-prog story. :)

I'm amazed by how exposition (and other information) that seemed so VITAL when I wrote it just looks dumb and extraneous when I read it a year later. A year is a long time to let a fic sit though. But maybe with continued experience, one just gets better at doing it right the first time.
Jun. 11th, 2010 01:04 am (UTC)
It seems totally possible to weave that backstory in. People could reference three testaments of the bible, for instance. I might brainstorm each important point and find key spots to reinforce each one separately rather than thinking of the backstory as one giant issue.

Also, if you think of backstory like a tub of Betty Crocker frosting--it's fine to plunk it down in one big glob on your first draft, but spread it around in your subsequent edits if you want the whole cake to taste good ;-)
Jun. 11th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
*grinning at frosting image* :)))
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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