Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Information Dump

 by Tracy Kiely
We all know when we are in the midst of an information dump. Our palms begin to itch, our gaze wanders, and we begin to squirm. The sensation is not unlike being cornered by that certain relative – you know the one – who insists on telling you every detail about her life.
In real time. 
It usually goes something like this:
“So last Saturday, Bob and I decided to try out the coq au vin that everyone is raving about from that new restaurant – you know the one – that cute little bistro on Main Street. It used to be that horrible Italian place that served that awful lasagna. The owner was that big sweaty man with the limp. He probably wouldn’t have such a terrible limp or sweat so much if he bothered to lose a few pounds. Judy said he drank, and I think she’s right. There’s simply no other excuse for that lasagna.
“Anyway, so Bob and I had a 12.30 reservation. At the bistro, not the Italian place. We left the house at 12.15 – no wait, that’s not right. It was more like 12.10, now that I think about it. You know how terrible traffic is this time of year. Why, last week it took me nearly an hour to drive to the hairdressers. Can you believe it? An hour! Judy said she once was stuck in traffic for thirty minutes trying to get to the bank. They really need to put a better traffic light in downtown, but I think the real problem is all the tourists. They love nothing more than to drive around, sightsee, and cause problems.
“Anyway, so we got to the restaurant at 12.20 and guess what? Our table wasn’t even ready! But who do you think I saw? Mary Fisher! You remember her, don’t you? She had that terrible accident a few years back and now has to drink all of her food, poor thing.”
Of course, by now you’ve intentionally split your glass of wine down your shirt to give yourself an excuse to run away rather than hear how poor Mary Fisher drank her coq au vin.
Were it only so easy when reading a book.
With authors, there tend to be two kinds of information dump. The first is the “Let Me Impress You With My Extensive Knowledgeable Dump.” These kinds of dumps are by far the more annoying of the two, as they usually have nothing whatsoever to do with the story and only serve to as a venue for the author to lecture you on a favorite topic. One minute you might be reading a cozy mystery set in an ancient Irish castle and the next minute you find yourself reading several jam-packed pages outlying the subtle differences between the mating rituals of the African Forrest Elephant and the African Bush Elephant. I have been guilty of this one myself. I once wrote a scene that took place in the British Portrait Museum. I ended up writing ten pages about the portrait of Richard the Third and the completely (in my opinion) flawed theory that he killed his nephews and buried their bodies in the Tower of London.  (For the record, I believe that Thomas More libeled Richard to curry favor with King Henry VII and that it was Henry who killed the young princes. Read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and we’ll discuss).
The second kind of dump (I really should have thought these terms out a little better) is the “Let Me Explain All of This To You Now Because I Really Need To Get This Out So I Can Move On Dump” and it is far more common. Most writers have fallen into the trap at one point or another. Usually it happens because an author will have a lot of information that has to be conveyed before she can move on with the story and she just wants to get past it. Or she might be nearing the end of her mystery and needs to give a final summary of who did what and why. The trick however, is to dole it out, not dump it over the readers’ heads all at once like football players do to their coaches with those huge barrels of Gatorade.               
There are various techniques that can be employed to avoid the dreaded dump (again, sorry). You can bring out the information through a series of conversations, over a period of time (“Sara, do you remember when I told you that the dead guy we found in your mudroom reminded me of someone? I just realized, it was my ex-husband – the one I thought died in the war!”) You can bring out the information through a conversation with a character who is unaware of certain events. (“Miss Velour,” asked Detective Rumple Pants, “can you tell me what your relationship was with the deceased and where you were last night and why he was wearing you underwear?”)  The main rule of thumb to follow though is to ask yourself if the details you are including are relevant to the story. If they aren’t, hit your delete key.  If they are, then dole them out slowly. After all, those coaches secretly hate it when all that Gatorade gets dumped on their heads, and so too do your readers.
But, FYI: King Richard was totally framed to cover up the heinous crimes of Henry Tudor.          


Catriona McPherson said...

Ohh, I needed a laugh! Deep in 1st draft production (dumping with abandon, planning to clear up the mess later.) Thanks, Tracy,

TracyK said...

Glad you liked it! Good luck with the draft - I'm sure it will turn our brilliant as usual!