Saturday, January 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Avoiding Infodumps While Maintaining a Child's Voice

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Eight

This week’s questions:

1. Is the part of this excerpt that talks about Metrod City infodumpy (it's the first time in the story that this place is described in some detail). Are there any parts of this excerpt at all that you'd consider infodumpy?

2. Without seeing what came before this part, does this seem like a good place to add in some info about Metrod City, considering Dwyth's furious with his parents at this moment (he just ran away from them) and just wants to run away to the Wasteland?

3. How is the tone/prose - does it sound middle-grade? Does this sound like a twelve-year-old boy?

Market/Genre: MG epic fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Regarding this excerpt: Dwyth is a child in a tribe called Amnar who doesn't have very strong telepathic control over animals, unlike his fellow Amnarites. He also just learned from his parents that he came from the Wasteland, a place outside Amnar, when he was five years old and was adopted by them. Right before this excerpt he fled his adoptive parents' hut in a fury and is contemplating running away to the Wasteland to see if he can find out more about why he doesn't have this telepathic gift and if there's anything he can do about it. That leaves us where this excerpt takes off.

No, he couldn’t leave the tribe. The Surveyors, Amnar’s real smart birdbrain spies, would see him and alert the Amnarites, who would make him stay. They’d never let a twelve-year-old wander off alone. Especially since the Wasteland, the only land between Amnar and its ancient enemy, Metrod City, was dangerous. Metrod City was the home of the Metrodites, or Metalheads as the Amnarites called them.

An image of a jungle entered his head. Except instead of green plant life and tall redwoods, huge, towering silver metal structures loomed. Amnar didn’t have any metal, but according to his lessons, it was a shiny, hard, and usually silver substance. And Metrod City had it by the jungle-full. Huge hunks of it formed the city, and Metrodite warriors fought in machines built out of it. The Metrodites wanted to conquer Amnar and spread their metal city throughout Aglasia, but the Amnarites wanted to defeat Metrod City and grow jungles on the Metrodites’ land.

Dwyth shook his head, and the image dissolved. Other children probably never wondered about the city. They never seemed to be curious about it like him. They always wanted to destroy, destroy, destroy it. Maybe if Dwyth wanted to demolish the city as much as the other children, he’d have the Pull of a warrior.

Sure, Dwyth. Keep dreaming.

Aggressive shouts—from boys, it sounded like—came from just down the path. He should turn around and leave. But the boys were really making a ruckus. Something exciting must’ve been going on.

My Thoughts in Purple:

No, he couldn’t leave the tribe. The Surveyors, Amnar’s [real smart birdbrain] birdbrain usually means dumb, so it feels odd to pair it with real smart. Unless he's calling them dumb, then I'd pick one or the other. Both muddies the meaning spies, would see him and alert the Amnarites, who would make him stay. They’d never let [a twelve-year-old] I can't see him referring to himself like this, feels too self aware and distant wander off alone. Especially since the Wasteland, [the only land between Amnar and its ancient enemy, Metrod City, was dangerous. Metrod City was the home of the Metrodites, or Metalheads as the Amnarites called them.] Feels a little infodumpy to me because it doesn't feel like the narrator thinking about it, but the author inserting it

An image of a jungle entered his head. Except instead of green plant life and tall redwoods, huge, towering silver metal structures loomed. Amnar didn’t have any metal, but according to his lessons, it was a shiny, hard, and usually silver substance. And Metrod City had it by the jungle-full. Huge hunks of it formed the city, and Metrodite warriors fought in machines built out of it. The Metrodites wanted to conquer Amnar and spread their metal city throughout Aglasia, but the Amnarites wanted to defeat Metrod City and grow jungles on the Metrodites’ land. Since he refers to his lessons in this paragraph, I don't mind the infodump here. He's thinking about what's he's been told. However, I'd suggest pulling a little more Dwyth into it, such as having him refer to his own people as "them" or the like.

Dwyth shook his head, and the image dissolved. Other [children] Children usually don't refer to themselves as children, so this feels a bit detached. Perhaps students, initiates, friends, or some term that he'd use to refer to his peers probably never wondered about the city. They never seemed to be curious about it like him. They always wanted to destroy, destroy, destroy it. Maybe if [Dwyth] he if you want a closer POV wanted to demolish the city as much as the other children, he’d have the Pull of a warrior.

[Sure, Dwyth. Keep dreaming.] This feels like modern slang to me, which doesn't fit an epic fantasy setting.

Aggressive shouts—from boys, it sounded like—came from just down the path. He should turn around and leave. But the boys were really making a [ruckus.] This doesn't feel like a word a kid would use Something exciting must’ve been going on.

The questions:

1. Is the part of this excerpt that talks about Metrod City infodumpy (it's the first time in the story that this place is described in some detail). Are there any parts of this excerpt at all that you'd consider infodumpy?
Some of it does feel infodumpy, but the main paragraph doesn't bother me because he refers to what he's learned in school, so that gives you a solid reason to dump the info. And it's short, so it doesn't drag the story down. It's not a bad example of where a bit of explanation works fine. Some of the other phrases do feel like the narrative to explain a detail, and that pulls me out of the story.

I think it would feel less infodump if Dwyth's reasons for thinking these things were a little more grounded in his goals. For example:
The Surveyors, Amnar’s real smart birdbrain spies, would see him and alert the Amnarites, who would make him stay.
Dwyth knows who the Surveyor's are. He'd not pause to explain that they were Amnar's spies. That would be like saying, "The CIA, America's spy agency" would stop him." He'd also probably not call his own people by their name like that. (unless everyone in his town actually calls them that) You might try getting the info in there that doesn't feel like you're stopping to explain. Such as:
The Surveyors would see him. Those birdbrain spies would alert the Amnarites, and they'd make him stay.
He can use the term as he normally would, but you add a little internalization using his judgment about that term to help explain it to the reader. It flows more naturally because it's not a definition, it's his opinion.

(More on infodumps and keeping them in the context of the story)

2. Without seeing what came before this part, does this seem like a good place to add in some info about Metrod City, considering Dwyth's furious with his parents at this moment (he just ran away from them) and just wants to run away to the Wasteland?
Yes and no. If he's thinking about Metrod City, then yes, but from your overview of the scene, it looks like he's thinking about running away to the Wastelands to find out more about his lack of powers. If so, I'd expect him to think about that, not Metrod City. What does the City have to do with his biological family or his lack of powers? He thinks the answers lie in the Wasteland.

You'll have plenty of time to describe Metrod City if/when he goes there. But here, you might consider ways in which he can think more about the Wasteland and the challenges he'll face if he runs away. That would allow to get all the information in, but still keep it in context to the scene.

If the City needs to come into play here, then look for ways in which this is the next natural step in his thought process. Why would he need to go there? What does he gain?

(More on describing with the character's POV)

That emotional level feels weak in this snippet. I think the focus shifted more to explaining the details than how Dwyth is feeling about them. But merging the two gives you opportunities to do both. The Wasteland sounds scary, and if Dwyth is considering running into it out of anger, his fear is likely to start creeping in as well. Maybe he's trying to talk himself out of this, thinking about all the dangers. Maybe he uses the benefits of Metrod City to psych himself up to run away and go there.

Consider what the details you want to show about the Wasteland and Metrod City mean to Dwyth. Is he really just reciting from his lessons or does he have an opinion about these places?

3. How is the tone/prose - does it sound middle-grade? Does this sound like a twelve-year-old boy?
The prose has a middle grade tone to it overall, but the narrative sounds too distant third to me to be a twelve year old boy. Dwyth refers to his age, children, his city and people by name vs them and they. I hear an adult perspective, not a child one.

(More on tapping into the child emotions)

You could give it a stronger young boy voice if you phrased things a little more in his POV. It could still be a distant third, but think about how he'd refer to the things he knows. Maybe it's not "other children" but "his classmates" or "the other initiates" or whatever they might be. Toss in a little internalization to show his younger opinion or view of things. Warriors fighting in metal machines seems like something a young boy would feel strongly about, so maybe that's a good detail to expand on. Does he think this is cool? Something he wants to do? Something that scares him or feels wrong? How does this boy feel about his world? Getting those opinions in would help strengthen that child voice.

(More on developing character voice)

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

1 comment:

  1. The storyline of Dwyth planning to go to his birthplace and what will happen there is interesting. I find it difficult to read the 8 sentences of section 2. They don't flow smoothly. Janice's advice is good. You can leave some of the description of Metrod City to when he arrives there. So maybe you can take 2 sentences out of section 2 and move them to when he is in front of the City or while he is already walking to the city. Janice gives you so many good comments, so just follow them and make it better. But all in all, from what you gave us about the storyline, I find it exciting to read. Best wishes with the novel.

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