Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Revision Workshop: Day Fourteen: Eliminate Unnecessary Infodumps

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Fourteen of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. As we enter this stage, we should feel pretty good about our plot and characters, and understand what and why they’re doing all those exciting and interesting things in our novels. We’ve been focusing on the what and the why for a while now, so it’s time to give a little attention to the where.

Now that we’ve deepened our world, it’s a good idea to weed out any areas were we’ve gone too far. Building a story world takes a lot of effort, and usually a lot of research. After doing all that work, it’s understandable that we’d want to share all the cool things we’d uncovered or created for this story. Unfortunately, we can get a little too excited and all that information bogs the novel down.

Today, let’s go on a hunt for infodumps and trim back what we don’t need.

1. Identify and Eliminate Unnecessary Infodumps

There’s a fine line between conveying information and dumping information. If it’s information readers need to know to understand what’s going on at that moment in that scene, it can usually stay (even if it needs a little trimming here and there). If it’s there to explain an aspect of the story, world, or characters, but that information isn’t relevant to the current scene or state of mind of the character, it can usually go. Be ruthless. Infodumps slow down the pacing and can make a novel drag.

A quick test for infodump is to look at the information and ask: is it for the character’s benefit or the reader’s benefit?

(Here’s more on infodumps)

Here are some common places infodumps like to hang out:

Introduction of characters:
Cut out any information that goes into histories or behaviors that aren't relevant to the scene or state of mind of the character.

Beginnings of scenes: Cut out any information that explains what readers are about to read. Summing up what happened between this scene and the previous one is also a common infodump. Unless what happened off screen is critical to know, skip it.

Walking into a new place: Setting the scene in a new location is good, but cut it back if it starts to go into great detail about things the protagonist doesn’t care about or know, and would certainly never think about at this moment in time.

History lessons: This is probably the most common infodump—be it history about a person, a place, or an item in the novel. Whatever it is, the story stops to tell readers all about it and why it's important.

Insights into characters:
Characters reflect, and sometimes that’s good, but when they start musing philosophically about the past, the future, or what some detail means, it might be time to hit the delete key.

Common red flag words:
Because, knew, since, realized.

2. Identify and Eliminate Unnecessary Infodumps Through Dialogue

Not all infodumps lurk in the text, so check your conversations for information stowaways. Common dialog infodumps include:

"As you know, Bob" conversations: Infodump-as-dialogue's biggest offender is one character explaining in detail what both characters already know. Get rid of anything that starts with “As you know…”

Catch-up dialogue: Characters catching each other up on what happened can't always be avoided, but cut it where possible. Save it for when one character finds out critical information the other characters need to know, and it would feel odd in the story to not have that character tell the others. A good example here is where the other characters will need to know that information later, but having them just “know it” would feel like a mistake.

(Here’s more on infodumps through dialogue)

Problems Found?

The easiest way to fix an infodump is to cut it, but that's not always feasible. But it's a good first step, so try cutting it and reading the page or scene. If it reads fine without the infodump, leave it out. If cutting the infodump makes what's happening unclear, then look for the critical details that have to be there. What specifically matters to understand that scene? Add those details back in slowly, but revise so it’s something the POV character would notice/think/say/feel/convey. Infodumps are least intrusive when they’re in the character’s voice.

Infodumps should flow naturally with the rest of the scene and feel like they belong there. Try:
  • Keeping it in the POV's voice and letting her have an opinion about what she’s talking about.
  • Naturally triggering it by what's going on in that scene.
  • Keeping it short so readers aren't overwhelmed with information.
  • Letting it do more than just dump information.

As we wrap up today’s session, we should have a leaner manuscript that smoothly slips information to our readers and makes it feel like part of the narrative.

Tomorrow’s Step: Clean Up the Description and Stage Direction

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. "Is it for the character's benefit or the reader's benefit?" What a great test. Thank you!

  2. Working with newer writers, I've found that those info dumps are often for their benefit, not the reader's or the characters. They are figuring out something about their world but fail to recognize it shouldn't be part of the narrative.

    1. Exactly. It's fine for a first draft when we're still figuring things out, but don't forget to cut them out on later drafts.

  3. I have an interesting 'infodump' situation: my novel is set in a parallel 2020 in which the world has been changed by the Vikings settling in North America. At the moment there is the 2020 plotline, plus various scenes from the Viking arrival in 1000 AD, through other key episodes that show the evolution of the family in 2020 - such as the Vikings meeting with Columbus in 1492 and the avoidance of 1stWW. I keep wondering about working these into the 2020 story but that feels contrived as everyone then knows the world's history - but the reader doesn't. At the moment, the backstory is a bit like the family saga meeting historical events. A recipe for disaster?

    1. I should have said that the historical chapters are told in the style of short story by an ancestor of the 2020 character.

    2. Not necessarily. It really depends on how you do it and how readers like it. If the historical flashbacks are there JUST to show the history, then odds are it's not interesting since it'll just be a dump. But if the historical pits have a plot and conflict all their own, and they mean something, and readers will be intrigued by those characters and what's happening, it could be a nice aspect of the book.

      If they're short and interesting, it could also work. I read a book recently (We Are the Ants) that had little snippets of how the world ended all throughout the book (it was relevant to the plot). They were quite entertaining, even though they were random and didn't move the plot. But they made the plot more interesting because they WERE relevant.