Info Dumps

In a recent blog post, I briefly touched on the topic of Info Dumps, that is, a long section of text that gives a ton of back story all at once. In that post I was suggesting to look at chopping down info dumps as a way to decrease the word count of an overly long novel. Now, since then, I have gotten the question:

Could you elaborate on how to turn info-dumping into story-telling?”

It’s a good question. After all, in any story there is going to be background information a reader needs to know. This is especially true in stories set in other worlds (be them fantasy, sci fi, alternate universes…) where the reader can’t know everything already (who’s in charge? how do they live? what is the weather like?) but it also happens in modern-day stories. Perhaps the majority of your readers will understand it being cold in winter, but who is your character? Who are their parents? How did they end up doing what they do? Depending on the story, all of that could be important. So how do you get all of that in without falling into an info dump?

1. Figure out if the information is actually important. As I pointed out in my earlier article, we authors tend to know the entire history of a character/world (or at least we should since it helps in writing a story). Perhaps you even know what the character’s favorite color is and what time they get up for work in the morning (depending how in depth your planning is and if you’ve filled out character questionnaires). All of that is important to you as a writer, as who your character is shapes a story. All of that might not be important to the reader, however.

Did your character have a pet they really loved as a child? All right. Does that pet come up in the story? Is it still alive and mentioned? Does the character not want another pet because of its death? Did it’s death strongly influence how the character is acting now? If so, you can bring it up. Does the pet never show up? Did its death not really affect the character at this point? If so, it might be an interesting bit of information to you, but it probably doesn’t need to be in the story.

2. Figure out if the important information needs to be known now. Perhaps the aforementioned pet is going to be important later in the story (it turns out that the mild-mannered pet your character’s had for 14 years can actually talk and will lead them into Never-Never Land) do you have to get all of the information about the pet innow? Of course you always want to mention important things before you actually need them in a story (otherwise you risk sounding something like, “Oh no, what’s that sound? I can’t go outside for whatever reason, so I’m going to send the dog I’ve never mentioned before but had for years! That’s totally not a cop out!”) but you don’t generally have to put in everything all at once. In one scene you can mention the pet. A couple scenes later your character can say something about how long the pet’s been around. You probably don’t need to give a long paragraph of all the information at once.

3. Figure out other ways to get the information in. The end of point 2 touched on this a little. Just like spreading information out, information doesn’t always need to be given in a chunk of narrative. Rather than starting a story:

“Jennifer was an average looking 17-year-old girl with blonde hair and brown eyes who went to school at Centerville High, the school she had been at for the past three years with her best friend Maya…”

You can work all that information in throughout the story. Even in the first chapter if you need it there.

“Jennifer pulled up to Centerville High and sighed. She’d already suffered through three years of the place, but obviously that wasn’t enough….

“Her best friend, Maya, ran up to her, ‘Happy Birthday! How’s it feel to be 17?’…

“Jennifer tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder…”

And so on and so on. All of the information makes it in, it just isn’t all one large chunk.

4. Don’t rely on narrative. Narrative is meant to tell people things, so it’s completely understandable that it’s easy to fall into an info dump when you’re using a lot of it. You’re talking about the Main Character’s job, and, Oh! How did they get the job? You should probably put that in…but if you do that, you really should talk about college…and…and…

Dialogue is a good way to stop yourself from info dumping if you’re finding it a problem, since it feels more awkward to do (people don’t generally give their entire back story in one long monologue when meeting someone–except perhaps Bond villains). But even with dialogue, you still have to be careful. Good dialogue sounds natural, trying to force information in doesn’t make for any better dialogue than it would narrative.

Try to say away from “As you know, Bob”s (“It’s been 11 years since we last talked, Bob, as you know. So why I’m saying so makes no sense, but I thought I’d say it anyway” “Indeed, I’m glad, after 11 years, we’ve been able to meet in San Jose, as you know, a town on the coast of California…”) and don’t force lead in questions (“Hey, Tony, how long have you had that dog?” *End of what can fit in a plausible answer* “Oh yeah? Well where did you get it?” “It really is special to you, isn’t it?”) It sometimes takes practice, but you definitely shouldn’t feel like a character is interviewing another to get necessary information in (Tip: Remember you can space it out. You don’t need to get everything in all at once).

5. Trust your readers not to be idiots. This could be joined with the first point, but personally, after years of editing, I think it bears repeating. You definitely don’t want to lose readers, but also trust that people reading your book tend to have a basic level of intelligence. If there’s something important put the information in, but don’t feel the need go too far in depth, especially if it’s something the reader is likely familiar with.

For example, perhaps not everyone has a bed, or has slept in a bed, but it is likely that the vast, vast majority of people reading your book will at least be aware of the basic concept. You do not, therefore, have to give a ton of information about it (“The bed has been made five years ago out of panels of wood that had been nailed together to make a frame, with slats between them and a mattress placed on top…”)

You can also tend to trust most of your readers to be able to draw some conclusions without spelling it out. “Jennifer walked to class as the first bell rang” will let people know that Jennifer is probably a student. “The teacher added a final 4 at the end of the equation before turning around” will tell people that Jennifer’s probably in math class (or at least a science class). Bits of detail that come naturally in a scene can serve just as well to get information in, you just have to trust your reader not to need things spelled out.

He said, She said

Not too long ago now, I wrote a post about Showing and not Telling. While it’s always a good idea to show people what’s happening than tell them it (makes for more interesting reading for one) I didn’t agree with the method my old high school English teacher gave me for trying to stop yourself from telling–don’t use “to be” verbs.

You can read the rest of that post here, but today’s blog is going to focus on a different hotly debated, often hated aspect of writing: The Dreaded “said”.

As someone who’s written a lot of  dialogue, I’m sure I have used more than my share of “he/she/I said”s, and I never much thought about it until I started seeing posts like this in the NaNoWriMo forums:

When I’m writing dialogue, it’s so hard to think of words besides ‘said’.
Does anyone have any websites that could give me, and other writers, lists of words that could be used besides ‘said’?

And, “300 Ways to Say Said” a post complete with a list of 300 words you can use in tags, from “he/she/it/I accused” to “he/she/it/I yowled

So, should you worry about using “said” too much in your novel/novella/short story?

Personally I agree with the post following the last of the list, “and ‘said’ is better in 99% of the cases.

All right, that answer might be a little extreme, but as a whole, I have to say I agree with the sentiment. There is a time and a place to use other words (is your character whispering, yowling, or screaming? Go ahead and say so) but like trying to avoid using “to be” verbs, avoiding “said” to the point where it makes your writing awkward is much, much worse than having a far share of he said, she saids around the page.

1. People are trained to skip reading “said”s. It’s an odd phenomenon, but it’s a real one. Tags are added to dialogue to make sure the reader doesn’t get confused about who’s talking. For example, if Bill, Tom, and Nancy are having a conversation, you can’t have something along the lines of:

“I’m here!” Bill said.
“Welcome.”
“Took you long enough.”
“Yeah, what took you so long?”

How would anybody know who’s talking? Did Tom say “Welcome” or did Nancy? Is the person who said “Welcome” also asking what took Bill so long, or is there actually a fourth person in the room?

Half of the reason we use tags is just to have the name there. Even without any extra words, it would make more sense if the dialogue read:

Bill, “I’m here!”
Tom, “Welcome.”
Nancy, “Took you long enough.”
Tom, “Yeah, what took you so long?”

That’s basically script format, but it at least tells you who’s speaking. Said is nearly the same equivalent. People glance at the tag long enough to see the name there, and the said tends to roll right off them. Put in other words, though, and their attention starts being draw straight to the tag.

“I’m here!” Bill exclaimed.
“Welcome,” Tom soliloquized.
“Took you long enough,” Nancy scolded.
“Yeah, what took you so long?” Tom contributed.

Maybe you aren’t using said over and over again, but suddenly the attention is on the tag rather than what’s actually being said…and that’s generally a bad thing. (For the record, all of those tags are suggested in the “300 Ways to Say Said” thread).

2. Instead of replacement words, you can tag things with actions. Going back to the first point, let’s look at the words replacing “said”. Ok, let’s keep exclaimed, Bill’s really excited, no reason not to say that. But the others? We can use action tags instead. So, rather than be stuck with “Bill said, Tom said, Nancy said, Tom said” you can have:

“I’m here!” Bill exclaimed.
Tom looked up from his work. “Welcome.”
“Took you long enough,” Nancy said.
“Yeah.” Tom frowned. “What took you so long?”

You still have the names close enough to the tags that you know who’s speaking, but you aren’t using awkward sounding words to keep from using a natural word.

Bonus: You’re showing people rather than telling them. Say you had “Tom scolded” rather than “Tom frowned”. You could do that, but what does scolding really look like? Is he shaking his finger? Frowning? Pursing his lips? ‘Scolded’ doesn’t have a strong picture attached to it. ‘Frowned’ does.

3. People aren’t always yelling/whispering/screaming… There’s a reason using replacement words sound weird when reading dialogue tags–and it’s not just we’re all used to the word said. Words that replace said are often strong ones. If someone is saying something quietly, whispered is probably a better word to use (it means someone’s speaking quietly after all). More than often, though, people tend to just say things. When was the last time you had a conversation where a person was exclaiming, shouting, and yelling everything they were saying in a normal conversation (i.e. not a fight or in a mental ward)? If your characters are having a perfectly nice conversation, but one person keeps whispering, or yelling, or scolding, I’m going to wonder exactly what’s wrong with them. Good if your character is trying to reach Hamlet levels of insane. Not so good if they’re supposed to be rational characters discussing where their friend went.

4. Too often, it feels like you’re trying too hard. As I talked about in my earlier article, “Hey Look! I’m a Writer!” Syndrome, trying to be fancy with your writing doesn’t make you look like a good writer, it makes you look like someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and thus are trying too hard. You shouldn’t be lazy or cavalier about your writing, but that certainly doesn’t mean you have to labor over every word to make sure it fits with every other artistic gem. Just like it’s perfectly fine to say “The sun rose” rather than “The golden orb floated into the azure sky” it’s perfectly fine to say “He said” rather than “He exclaimed with a fervor”. There’s a time and a place for poetic/flamboyant language, but using it just because you don’t want to be boring or think that’s what good writers do is almost always a bad thing.

And so, with everything else with writing, I always say, say what you mean, but don’t make your writing unnatural just because you think you need to be doing something else to be a “good” writer.

Too Much Dialogue

Today’s News: Read an interview I did with An Innovative Pursuit here about writing, Grey Areas, and upcoming The Bleeding Crowd.

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Another topic courtesy of the NaNoWriMo forums: How much dialogue is too much dialogue in a novel/short story?

For anyone who’s read my work, you’re probably assuming that my answer is “there’s never too much dialogue.” I’ll be the first to admit that I am a huge fan of dialogue. In fact, regarding my last short story published (“Frankincense” for those of you who don’t want to pop over to my biography), the acceptance letter for the anthology literally started:

” Well…normally when I read a manuscript that consists of 95% dialogue, I stop reading after about two pages and prepare a decline letter.  Yours, however, kept me reading…which is what a good story should do.”

She went on to compare it to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, so I’ll take it overall as a compliment, but you know you write a lot of dialogue when someone accepting your work feels the need to point out that it’s nearly all dialogue (personally, I think 95% is overestimating, but still…)

Every author I know has a different take on dialogue. Personally, I find it the most interesting (and generally easiest) thing to write. Many people find it the hardest  (I’ve more than once heard people complaining about how poorly they do dialogue). Editing, I can see that. For some people, dialogue comes naturally. For some it sounds stilted and unnatural. Based on our skills/preferences, it’s completely understandable (at least to me) that we each lean one way or another. We write more dialogue or more narrative.

More and more, though, I hear people talking about being worried they’re using too much/not enough dialogue in their writing. For example, this post in the NaNoWriMo Forums this morning:

So my novel is 75000 words and pretty much done.  Problem is, the last 1/3 is alot of dialogue…I dont think I can cut much of it without losing the vital information it posesses.  Is there something I can do to fix this problem?  I am trying to add alot of movement between words and descriptives to break it up but I still find myself worrying…HELP.

And on the other side:

Do you think it’s either bad style or very off-putting to readers if there are whole pages (or 2 or 3 pages at a time) with no dialogue? I often find I’m following events involving one person on their own, and I realise it’s been three pages since anyone actually SAID anything.”

Now, I admit I’ve been trying to put a little more narrative into my writing, but then, personally I don’t like reading too much narrative, so I probably (read: definitely) still lean on the dialogue-heavy side.

So, when should you worry that you have too much dialogue (or too much narrative)? Or should you even worry?

Based on the odd compliment for Frankincense, it seems too much dialogue could hurt you when it comes to submitting your work. Though I never had a problem with a ton of dialogue in submissions (it would be a bit hypocritical to…) I’m sure others in acquisitions and agents might dislike it. While that can come from just about any part of your writing style (it’s why you should expect those rejects I was talking about in yesterday’s post) you definitely don’t want to find yourself in the reject pile before the agent/publisher of your choice has actually had a chance to look at your work.

So, like everything else when it comes to writing, it comes down to weighing the pros and cons.

Dialogue Pro:

– Dialogue tends to move more quickly due to its quick back and forth nature. It’s simple to explain things without taking too much time and losing the reader’s attention

Narrative Pro:

– Narrative moves slowly (or more slowly than dialogue) and gives you a chance to really dig in to important things. People don’t tend to get into long intricate explanations (unless they’re Bond villains) and thus you can do things with narrative that will sound awkward in dialogue.

Dialogue Pro:

– Dialogue gives you a chance to develop multiple characters at once. One of the quickest ways to tell who someone is is to hear them talk. What kind of grammar does the character use? What words? Is he/she polite or swear like a sailor? A couple of lines and people can tell a ton without long-winded paragraphs about your character’s back story.

Narrative Pro:

– Narrative gives you a chance to see the world through your POV (Point of View) Character’s eyes. Of course this doesn’t work so well in omniscient third person, but as that style hasn’t been popular in the better part of a century, generally you’re relating the story, or at least each scene, through one character. This is especially true in first person. Dialogue has to be more truthful than narrative. You write what is said. How your POV character interprets things, however, shows up in narrative. Are they the type to take every little thing as sarcasm? Do they think the way their boss just winced means they’re getting fired? You can show how they react much better with narrative.

Dialogue Con:

It’s easy to get into “As you know, Bob” situations with dialogue. For those of you who don’t know/don’t want to risk the time black-hole that is TV Tropes, “As you know, Bob” is a term that describes those awkward bits of a dialogue where it’s obviously the author trying to get information in the reader needs to know, but what the characters would never be talking about, since they both know what’s going on. For example:

“How is Cathy, your sister, doing?”
“Just fine. As you know, she fell off a building lately, but fell on a circus tent and thus didn’t get as hurt as she could have.”

1) Why would the first speaker need to clarify that Cathy is the second’s sister? The second speaker knows that. And 2) Why would the second speaker need to explain something that the first speaker already knows (Cathy’s fall)? It’s awkward and could be taken care of with a line of narrative along the lines of “It had been three weeks since his sister, Cathy’s fall…”

Narrative Con:

It’s much easier to fall into “laundry lists” with narrative. For example:

“Tim and Nancy went to the store. It took about 15 minutes. They walked up and down the aisles. They found milk. Then they checked out…”

Now, part of that example’s problem is the repetitive sentence structure and what not, but hopefully you see where I’m going. There’s no need give a play-by-play account of what’s happening, but it’s so easy to do when writing narrative. Unless one of your characters is supposed to be long-winded and boring, it will just feel awkward for something along the lines of:

“How was your day?”
“Well, I went to the store. It took me about 15 minutes to get there. Then I walked through all the aisles…”

And the list goes on and on. Will I keep trying to add narrative to my writing? Sure. But I’m not going to worry about the proper ratio for it. At least in my opinion, the genre of your novel and the situation of each scene is going to dictate how much narrative is needed just as much as my preference for dialogue. Rather than worrying about a ratio, or if people aren’t going to be happy with this much narrative or that much dialogue, weigh the pros and cons of each for what you want to happen in the scene. After all, if Frankincense is any indication, good writing will come out above any ratio of dialogue to narrative. It’s just about getting it to be good.