Crush the Dump: Make Every Word Important

You’ve done all the research necessary to support the premise/science/politics/culture in your story and, in the process, discovered and/or created some damn interesting tidbits of knowledge or worldbuilding. Thereafter, you put your newfound knowledge in the buildup of your first chapter, in a dialogue between two characters, or perhaps in a lesson given by a teacher to a student. That should work, right?

Well, that depends on how you do it.

Long, expositional paragraphs (or pages) that serve no other purpose than to inform the reader of background information are called “info dumps,” or “infodumping” where the verb is used in a pejorative manner. Why? Because it’s usually boring.

But wait, you say, my info dump is fascinating! Besides, the reader needs to know this stuff!

Do they? Really? Be honest with yourself. Are you including it because it is truly essential to understanding the story? Or is it because you found some cool stuff and you just have to share? If it’s the latter, cut it out. If it’s the former, leave it in, but not all in one chunk. Break it up into smaller tidbits. Sprinkle it throughout the scene, chapter, or even the whole novel. Even better, show the information in the process of interaction between characters, in some way that doesn’t involve the writer speaking to the reader–even through a character’s voice.

In real life, we don’t have to understand all the physics of gravity to see how it works, right? If you drop something, it falls. If you trip, you meet the ground. No one had to explain it to you. You see it every day.

Take a magic system, for example. Don’t explain all the rules of using the gift. Let your characters demonstrate through their actions, successes and failures what those rules are. Don’t tell the reader that shapeshifting takes a physical toll on the shifter and can’t be maintained indefinitely. Show your character hiding behind a false face for too long and almost losing her disguise at a critical moment when she is too weary or distracted to hold it securely. Don’t tell the reader how a healing takes place. Show one character healing another, including character emotions and physical reactions to the process. Let us watch it unfold!

But what about political settings? you ask. Well, I’m the last person to ask about political anything. (It’s all babble-speak to me.) But if your story involves such intrigue, show it playing out. Don’t explain the structure of the world. Show the effects of the cultural and political strictures or freedoms on the people involved. Demonstrate the consequences for breaking the laws or doing figurative battle with an opponent. Put it in a scene where one group confronts another. Add snippets to jibes between protesters or debaters in a political race.

A good example: I read a short story for a Critters critique yesterday that handled this sort of exposition with real style, weaving in details of essential background as breadcrumbs scattered throughout the narrative. It was so well done, and left just enough mystery about what the hell was actually going on, that I was hooked from the first line and read the story several times with enjoyment. See? It can be done. All it takes is a little creativity and a little extra work.

Of course, some writers do infodumps as a regular part of their style. They get away with it because it’s either a) funny, b) cleverly done, or c) a natural part of an omniscient narrator’s perspective. But for most of us, infodumps are a strict no-no. Ellen Brock, a professional freelance novel editor, talks about this on one of her archived blog posts from 2014. Your reader doesn’t want a lecture. They know they’re reading a story, but they don’t want to be reminded that it’s a story. They want to be immersed in your world, riding shotgun with your characters so that they forget for a while that it isn’t real.

A writer/editor told me once (and I’ve heard it repeated in various forms ever since) that agents and editors have limited space and time to read your submission, much less publish it. Word counts exist (in part) for this reason. That’s why it’s important to streamline your manuscript before you hand it to an agent/editor. A manuscript bloated with nonessential words will dissipate their interest. Every single word must move the story forward. Every. Single. Word.

That’s hard to remember when you’re in the throes of writing your masterpiece. I know this better than most. But it is an essential part of editing, and not a step you can skip.

How do you handle presentation of essential details in your work? What was the hardest cut you ever made in a WIP?

Photos courtesy of Unsplash

Falling man – by Darius Bashar

Gripping Hands – by Daniel Jensen