The Information Dump and Life’s Ever-Changing Landscape

by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I struggle with backstory. Apparently my characters require a great deal of explanation resulting in my critique group citing I’ve once again created an information dump. They advise, “Just weave the information through the story, bit by bit.”   Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Well, not for me.

For those unfamiliar with an information dump, it is an extended form of telling rather than showing. A chunk of information “dumped” on the reader. Some can stretch for paragraphs, pages, or heaven forbid take up entire chapters. Your reader at this point may start flipping pages, decide the laundry needs tending, or worse yet put your book down never to be picked up again. Such are the pitfalls of an information dump. Following are a few of the tools I’ve discovered to address this issue.

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Is all the information necessary?

Most times after creating an information dump I’ve found I’m simply clearing my throat, and in edit the information can be cut entirely, or simplified to a few words.

For instance, I may need to know every native plant, and exactly where they are located, on the Island buried in the middle of a Louisiana swamp. My readers however, need only know the name of the tree with snaking gnarled roots, and creeping vines sprouting up along the path leading my protagonist to possible doom. Then again, even that bit of botany may be unnecessary.

Is it taking place in the moment?

This particular question has caused many a debate. My previous ways of placing the information in the moment were through a characters flashbacks, or dreams. My logic being—in the moment, it’s in their head, their memory. You can see where I might get in trouble with said logic. A writing mentor once explicitly instructed, “Never, never begin a story with a dream, and when you do use dreams make certain the dream is bookmarked (before and after), in the present moment.”

Can it be placed in the moment through dialogue in an existing scene, or by creating a scene in order to relay the information?  

By using dialogue between my characters I’ve successfully shared past memories, and yes, even dreams, while maintaining the rule of—in the moment.

For instance do my readers need to know Sarah begot Diana, who begot Dorthea, who begot Leona, etc., in order to eventually get to the pertinent point? The point being, my protagonist’s lineage is tied to a famous Voodoo Queen.

Instead her Grandmama could simply invite her for coffee and say, “Te’Ona, it be ‘bout time ya knew where ya blood comes from.” Grandmama could then take out the family bible where all the births are listed (incase Te’Ona needs the information for future story building).

Dialogue is also a useful tool in showing, not telling your readers personality traits.

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Can you provide information and sense of place all in one scene?

Queue the second half of my title, Life’s Ever-Changing Landscape.  During a recent trip to my home state of Louisiana I was feeling a bit well, ancient. All of my childhood haunts were either gone or altered. We’d drive down a certain street so I could show my husband a particular building only to find it wasn’t there, or had been turned from the movie theatre of my youth to office spaces. Waterway’s where I spent time frogging were not longer passable, clogged with debris, or invasive plant life. My favorite tree in the park no longer stood. Yet, at each juncture I still explained the landmark’s significance in my life. “The tree was my touch stone when things were going poorly at home. Now that I think about it, that tree lives on in many of my paintings.”

Upon returning home I found myself doing the same thing while driving with my grandson, Max. We passed an empty building, and I found myself saying, “There used to be a coffee shop in there. I’d take your mommy, and your aunts most every weekend. It’s where your mommy first started writing, and sharing her stories with us.”

I hope these few tools help, in information dumps you find yourself creating. I personally continue to find myself in the midst of writing what I feel are amazingly informative information dumps. But now I know how to utilize them for my own purposes of moving the story along, allowing it to take me where it wants to go. Because it isn’t solely the landscape around me changing, it’s the evolution of my writing life as well.

What are tools you’ve used to avoid information dumps?