Avoiding the writers’ up-front info dump

One of the many pitfalls novice novellists fall into is the up-front info dump.

Wright_BooksThat’s where the character arc gets interrupted by a blast of back-story, world-description, character biographies and so forth.

It brings the story to a screeching halt, and it was death to pace even in the old days of print. These days, with attention spans shortening, it’s certain doom. The book turns into another sort of dump, basically.

The reason it happens is because we think in block-sized concepts filled with simultaneous ideas. Whereas writing is a linear thread, as is reading. Translating one to the other is possibly the greatest single challenge faced by all writers – fiction and non-fiction alike.

There’s no single right answer to this, because the specific solution has to be engineered each time by the writer to suit what they’re doing. But key principles apply – in particular, ‘dribbling’ the necessary detail into the wider story or argument, so that the reader has enough at any given point to understand what’s going on, but not enough to disturb the pacing.

As always there’s a wide gulf between knowing a principle and doing it. My suggestions are:

  1. Identify the primary idea. In fiction, it’s the character arc – usually defined by a one sentence logline; in non-fiction, it’s the thesis – the underlying point you’re trying to prove.
  2. This primary idea guides the pace and structure and should also help identify what’s important. It doesn’t emerge by magic – it needs planning, even if the plan consists only of a skeleton and the author then writes ‘seat of the pants’ free-form material to fill the gaps.
  3. The author also needs some idea of what’s important, and what isn’t, to support that structure. What’s relevant? This, too, might need some planning.
  4. From this it should be possible to then identify the elements of back-story, character, world-description or – in non-fiction – evidence and sub-arguments needed to let the reader understand the main thrust.
  5. Just identifying this stuff isn’t enough – the author also has to identify dependencies. What does the reader need to know first, in order to understand the next thing? This gives an order by which the supporting information can be added.
  6. That, in turn should produce something along the lines of what you need. But the final trick is to be prepared to re-cast it if needed. Some authors call this ‘editing’, but the reality is that draft-revision is part of the writing process.

Does this work for you? What experiences have you had, struggling with structure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


17 thoughts on “Avoiding the writers’ up-front info dump

  1. Ursula Le Guin: “And then, more often than not, you find the first page, the first several pages, are just throat-clearings. Necessary preliminaries. Clearing stuff out of the way. Circling around, nose to ground… till finally you pick up the scent and you’re off into your story like a bloodhound on the track.

    So then when you revise you throw away the whole beginning.

    If you don’t trust me, trust Chekhov. He said you can always throw away the first three pages of a first draft.”

    1. Chekhov was quite right – and, I think, in more ways than my blog post covers. A lot of what writers put into the first pages of their first draft reflects the need to get comfortable themselves with what they are writing – with the rhythm, tone and styling of what they intend. Something, I suspect, that is true for all writers even if they have mastered the ‘info dump’ issue.

      1. In my 4th novel I followed Ursula’s suggestion. I threw away the first 3 pages.

        With my (now) publisher, when re-editing my previously Indie-published novels, I culled the first pages as well. Readers now enter into the story right away.

        1. I like to get into the story right away. I like series writers because all the “what happened before this” has been covered in prior books. William Dietrich and Bernard Cornwell and Jack Whyte give a few pages of back reference if you’re reading the book out of order but it’s succinct and not a waste of time and interest with background to the story. I can tolerate one page flashbacks here and there if they give insights into the character and meaningful in the evolution of the story line.

    2. I’ll usually dump at least the first paragraph with each scene change too (chapter). I don’t even know why I have to give myself a “wind-up” like that each time. Maybe some day I can put all the dumps together and they’ll make their own sort of odd story 🙂

  2. One of the very best data dumps I’ve ever read was in John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. George Smiley’s meeting with an old “friend” after the death of Control recounts the history and problems of the Circus after the disastrous events in Czecho. It gives you all the information you need to understand the complex world le Carre is taking you through, and it’s done as a story within a story. That’s my model!

  3. Matt, you make it sound so academic and ordered. I have to laugh because you are absolutely right. It’s just that I never sat down to walk through it like that. The results are still adequate for a first draft. But, seeing it laid out step by step just looked strange.

  4. In the current novel I’m writing I’m not giving you much on the character in the beginning of the book. You know she’s scared and on the run. The bits and pieces will come; eventually you get the whole picture. It’s hard not to dump more info at the start, but I think it will work out better.
    I have a friend who’s mentally challenged, but his writing is some of the best I’ve ever read. He’s a creative storyteller. The last piece he asked me to review had 2 full pages of “character dump”. In order to read this to the group so that there was a story and not simply a bio, I shortened it significantly and rearranged it a bit. I told him what I did right before the meeting started, but apparently his feelings were hurt. He asked for his work back and has never asked me to help again.

    1. It’s definitely better when the character andefinition unfold to the reader rather than being simply presented as if an essay. It’s better still if that unfolding can be worked into the plot somehow. Showing not telling, in short.

  5. I like info-dumps as a reader; ergo, I won’t do anything whatsoever to avoid it when writing. Chechov, King, Hemingway, et alii can’t deter me from following my way.

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