I recently received this tweet: “Would love your thoughts on "info dump" vs character talk/thoughts. Where's the line/difference? In the readers head?”
This was a good enough question that I decided to write a bit on the topic.
There is better and worse ways to do almost anything. Most modern-day writers learn early that showing is better than telling. Hasn’t always been that way, but current readers tend to prefer witnessing events rather than listening to a disembodied narrator explain the story. As I have previously explained there are three basic tools at an author’s disposal to tell a tale. Like the hammer, screwdriver, and wrench in a handyman’s toolbox authors have description, dialog, and thought (or reflection.) Most good stories—particularly in genre fiction—use all of these in fairly equal measure. Too much of one or the other shifts the tone and style. Too much description slows a story down and causes readers to skim to the “good parts,” too little and readers feel they are reading a summary, or are blind and are not immersed in the story. Balancing description and dialog is very important to creating a portal to another world. Done just right, it allows readers to step unimpeded into your world and dwell there.
As with all tools you can use them in the prescribed ways or creative new ones. A screwdriver can be used to pry apart objects, a hammer can beat in a screw, and a palette knife can be used to paint with. Dialog can be used to describe a landscape, or develop character. And description can be used to develop character by how the point of view character interprets what they see.
Thought is a different matter. Thought is the Swiss army knife of literature—it can do everything. A character can recall conversations, sights, experiences and more. Thought is so multipurpose that it can become a crutch and its easy solutions to all problems as addictive as a nasty drug habit. When ever anything is difficult or awkward to covey, thought is the obvious answer. This is why internal-thought is the bright spotlight that attracts the pesky info-dump.
Info-dumps are back-story information delivered in an artless or otherwise awkward manner that has little to do with the story action or plot, but often necessary for the reader to know. The info-dump is a terrible problem and afflicts invented-world fantasy writers more than any other genre because they have so much more to explain. Years ago, fantasy authors included prologues that were nothing more than massive info-dumps designed to get the reader up to speed and get the boring stuff out of the way. Anyone who went to see The Fellowship of the Ring at theaters may recall the long intro voiced by Cate Blanchett. This is a perfect example of the get-you-up-to-speed-style of prologue info-dump. Over time fantasy authors learned to integrate the back-story into the tale they were telling, but the propensity to cheat is always there, and thought is often the temptress that lures many a writer astray.
So fine, just don’t do info-dumps, right? Here’s the problem, all thought is exposition—something writers are supposed to avoid—but you have to include thought to balance a story and provide the necessary insight to a character’s mental state. So how do you allow for a character to think and reflect and yet not slip into info-dumping exposition, and how do you tell the difference between good thoughts and bad?
First, let me explain that there is no hard and fast rule in writing. Authors—like most people—have the tendency to speak in absolutes when it comes to something they are intimately familiar with. A carpenter might tell you never to use a hammer to beat in a screw, and then you’ll see them do just that. Writers are the same way. We will insist one should never do this or that, and then do the very thing we labeled as forbidden. The reason is everything has its place and time—even “ly” adverbs in a dialog tags. That said, allow me to pontificate on what you should endeavor to do, and don’t be at all surprised if you see me contradicting myself self in my books. The key here is knowing you’re breaking an otherwise sensible rule, verses having no idea the rule exists. It is the same as crossing the double yellow line to avoid a deer, verses wandering back and forth between lanes thinking someone did a really cool and gigantic modern art along the “lines” of Barnett Newman. At least until a tractor-trailer comes along.
The key is keeping to the character’s PoV and not contriving it. For example when a character wakes up, their first thought is usually not where they were born and how they came be living in a boarding house in New Jersey, but rather to wonder what died in their mouth and the need to get to the bathroom. As a result the dividing line between good thoughts and bad is context, and the way to overcome nasty thoughts is most often a simple matter of developing patience.
Authors, especially those who have yet to write their first full-length novel, don’t grasp the size of the playing field. They feel this need to present everything immediately. They are certain the reader will not enjoy the book if they don’t instantly know all the cool stuff that’s planned. The proclivity is similar to a child having a friend over for the first time and pointing out all the nifty things in their room, pushing on to the new game they got for the Wii only seconds after showing off the snake in the aquarium.
Taking your time, focusing on the story, and allowing back-story to bubble up naturally returns the best results. So let’s look at the difference in good and bad thoughts and their uses.
Harvey walked in and Martha remembered how the two had met all those years ago at the Silver Dollar Diner. That was back in 1993 when he was a law student and she a waitress.
Harvey walked in and Martha thought he looked awful. She hadn’t seen him in twenty years, and those years had not been kind.
Neither of these treatments are terrible, but I hope you can see that the latter is more realistic. It doesn’t explain very much about their pasts, but—and this is the thing—that information isn’t important. If it is, then there will be more appropriate places to deliver it, as in:
“You were such an arrogant ass back then,” Martha said."The big Harvard Law student, all full of himself."
“Of course I was.” Harvey made a show of standing straighter. “But all I knew back then was that you were but a lowly waitress at a diner that didn’t even sell pie.”
Often the difference between telling and showing in dialog and thought is a matter of the author’s skill in hiding the body.
The problem with info-dumps are that they are often very boring, and artificial. The boredom causes a reader to skip ahead or worse put the book down, and any unnaturalness destroys the all-important suspension of disbelief. The solution is to focus only on what a character would actually think, and what a person thinks about is almost always what they just did, are doing, or are about to do. Then, in order to convey the necessary bits of info, you merely line their path with issues that force them to think about those things you need to reveal. Let’s say you wanted to let the reader know your main character hated cats…
Martha lay on the hammock thinking how she loved summer days, hated cats, and was indifferent to butterflies.
The first thing Martha saw when she returned home was the ripped arm of her new couch and remembered why it was she hated cats.
The first sentence lacks context and feels odd. Not only that, but it will be instantly forgotten by the reader as it is simply too fleeting to take note of. In the second, an event is created to support the causality for the thought to pop up. On the other hand if the goal is to show how Martha is scatter-brained, then the first is a far superior manner to achieve this than say…
Martha who was always scatter-brained thought all sorts of things while lying in the hammock.
Thoughts are then best used to develop a character first and provide description or back story second. Doing two things at once is a fine way to write in general, but also a lovely way to hide exposition.
What kind of man took a cat for a walk? Martha studied the Persian Long-hair in his arms and not for the first time wondered if cats might be demons in disguise. The owner with his bright yellow smiley-face t-shirt looked the sort to kidnap preschoolers from playgrounds.
Here Martha’s phobia of cats is integrated within descriptions of the cat, and the man, as well as a good deal about Martha’s character, based on how she sees the world. The subtext here is that Martha hates cats, and is generally cynical about people. With all that is going on the “info-dump” about her hatred of cats, is near invisible to the reader, but memorable nevertheless.
Info-dumps are bad things but often necessary particularly in fantasy novels where so much needs to be explained. What should be understood is that a lot can be left unexplained. Readers don’t need to know everything. I never explained the term “By Mar” in any of my novels, even though it was used often. I trusted that readers would figure it out, and I wasn’t concerned if they didn’t. In real life, people often say things we don’t understand, or make references to people or places we know nothing about, but we don’t always stop them and ask for clarification unless that point is crucial to the story.
“I went to see a Leon Hern concert last night and while I was there I met this guy who was selling his car. It was perfect, just what I was looking for.”
No one knows who Leon Hern is (because I just made him—or them—up,) but it doesn’t matter. The focus is on the car, not the concert. The reader doesn’t need to know who Leon Hern is—at least not at this point. If old Leon is important, then you can make a few more references to him later on, sprinkled in the story, and eventually the reader will get a general idea.
Another pop song came on the radio—this one by Leon Hern—and he switched the station.
Spreading ideas out, not lumping them, avoids dumps. Disguising them in actions and dialog sweeps them under the prose rug. Not bothering to explain everything grants a sense of a wider world and a familiar reality. And giving characters a legit reason for thinking about something provides you with the ability to write good thoughts that keep the plot moving and feel true.
It should also be noted that there are times when characters—like real people—really will sit down and discuss/recap/explain/think about something at length. This does happen, just make sure the scene has its foundation and motivation in the plot and isn’t artificially tacked on.
Hope this has been helpful.