Infodumps are evil. Readers hit them, and their eyes glaze over. We’re lucky if they skip over them and keep going. Unlucky if they decide then and there to set the story or book aside.
We writers know infodumps are bad even if we can’t always avoid them in actual practice. Most advice tells us to break up the details and pepper them in the best we can.
Which is a helpful, but I’d argue an incomplete suggestion.
I’ve talked before about my writing process, and how my stories often begin as a skeletal first draft of dialogue and action, then I have to layer in everything else. In this case, layer refers to the iterative passes where I add in setting detail, character blocking, internal thoughts, and other expository “flesh” to the story.
Today I want to focus on the layering in of specific types of information: Description and Backstory.
But first, a digression (because it’s my blog and I can do what I want). Readers have a choice in how they spend their time. Books are in competition with video games, TV and movies, the black hole that is the internet, on top of demands of work and family. This isn’t new. With advances in technology and changes in how people spend their free time, people’s attention spans become increasingly fragmentary.
I have to wonder if this is related to readers’ intolerance with infodumps. They don’t have the patience to wade through them when in the back of their mind, they’re wondering why they’re wasting their time on a boring book when they could be doing X, Y, or Z…
In other words, you need to make your book worth the opportunity cost of other activities.
And that means conveying information in an entertaining way (however defined) all the time. So. Back to layering in details. We’re told to break them up and add them in as necessary, but it should go further than that. Here’s what I strive to do with my words, but your mileage may vary.
Lush description can be wonderful, but so often, such passages have no movement, no underlying action, no impetus forward. It’s a hard balance to strike: having enough detail the reader can visualize your world, but not so much it slows down pacing.
Don’t explain/describe everything at once—Readers can tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty and that can even be a driving motivation to keep them reading. Just be careful to not have too much uncertainty because then curiosity will morph into frustration (and frustration means no more reading).
Readers are on a need-to-know basis—Some grounding details are necessary, but don’t overwhelm or bore them with things that aren’t quite important yet. Granted, there are things you’ll want to sow in to foreshadow or set up subsequent scenes, but you want to strive for natural inclusion, else those details will draw attention to themselves.
Rely on archetypes—Think of these as writerly shorthand. Use them when you want to get across a basic concept: Tree, house, cow, [insert your own noun here]. Most readers will have a mental image of these concepts in their brain. The key is to prime the reader by relying on that mental image, then gradually introducing details that confirm or disrupt that image as you move from a universal concept to a more specific one.
Think telling details—These are details that are evocative and appropriate and important for describing something accurately or setting the tone or establishing voice. But don’t waste words (and your reader’s time) on the obvious. Let the archetype do the heavy lifting, and include telling details as necessary. And sometimes, a tree is just a tree.
Also something you’re better off peppering in as needed, this one is particularly insidious for writers because they spend so much time trying to figure out who their characters are and how they came to be that way, that it’s hard for them to decide what is and is not relevant for the reader.
So how do you determine what’s relevant? When the information:
Is key to understanding a character’s reaction/state-of-mind/worldview—This helps the reader identify where a character is coming from and may help to explain why they react in the way they do in the story. A character who has a history of abuse will probably react differently than a character who doesn’t, for example. Think of this type of information as an extension of character development. But extension is an important distinction—character development should be grounded in the story itself, the backstory just provides occasional context.
Disrupts a character or reader’s assumptions for dramatic effect—Remember telling details? Backstory can function in the same manner, either confirming or clarifying character, or disrupting expectations for a dramatic twist. Look at the way JK Rowling handles Snape’s character in the Harry Potter series for how the judicious application of backstory can be used to increase tension, conflict, drama, and, interestingly, catharsis.
Obviously the worst thing a writer can do is bring a story to a screeching halt in order to convey whatever details are needed. But almost always the reader doesn’t need as much as the author thinks they do to understand what is going on. (This is where trusted readers are worth their weight in gold.)
Character archetypes can also come in handy here (hooker with the heart of gold, sad sack detective, fresh faced apprentice on hero’s journey, etc.) to help the reader tap into unconscious understanding of character—just don’t forget to round them out so they become more than just a caricature as you move from universal archetypes to specific characters only you can create.
So remember, less is almost always more, unless it confuses the reader. Strive for clarity above all, and to a lesser extent, Donald Maas’s microtension—those unexpected but revealing details that describe your story world or provide a provocative hint at your character’s past. Such details create curiosity in your reader and serve as minihooks to help your story compete in a media-rich and fragmentary world.