This is the second part of a series. To see Part I, click here.
In this post:
- The Stalker Stare: long descriptions used to dump all of the information regarding a character’s appearance and personality on the reader. Solution: carefully disperse the information throughout the story, and focus only on traits that make the character unique
- The Villain/Hero Monologue: One character insists on explaining a large number of plot points to another character, no matter what happens to be going on at the moment. Solution: find another way to address this information! This method of information dumping is far to cliche to use seriously anymore
- The Flashback: A character thinks back on some past event, shifting the story to that place and time so that the reader can explain what happened. This often makes the storyline very confusing. Solution: keep the memories within the action of the present so that the reader doesn’t lose his bearings on the sequence of events
Hello again, and welcome to another Science Fiction Problems! Last week I talked about several different ways in which people mishandle the distribution of information in their science fiction, and today I’ll finish off my thoughts on this deadly habit. Without further ado, here are a few more common ways in which people inflict the Information Dump on their readers:
The Stalker Stare
This one is a bit of a rookie mistake, mostly because new writers simply do not see the awkwardness of this particularly universal Information Dump. Allow me to demonstrate:
Let’s say we have a new character coming into the room. His name is Bob. His eyes are dull and vacant, yet his hair is of that perfectly-tousled style that you see on TV but know for a fact that it is impossible to attain without getting a second mortgage to pay for a top-notch hair dresser… or to get off exactly the right side of the bed this morning. Accidentally-attractive hair aside, Bob is rather pale and gangly, obviously not the type to hit the Bowflex very often, and his shoulders slouch as he stands with his hands in his pockets. He’s wearing khaki cargo shorts and a Hawaiian-styled flower-print shirt of almost offensively-loud colors, and grimy flip-flops that he was probably born wearing…
(I could go on, but by the time I’ve finished that last observation, we’ve been staring at Bob for about 5 minutes. Bob has become very uncomfortable, and is now quietly retreating through the door he just came through as we continue to stare into the empty space he occupied moments ago.)
This sort of description is usually the result of an impulsive need to completely describe a character within the first instance of their arrival in the story, all in order to assure that the reader immediately has a complete mental picture. While this is usually an innocent, well-meaning exercise, it usually amounts to an extremely in-depth description of exactly what kind of jumpsuit the woman is wearing, or precisely what color her eyes are, or other such essentially useless information that has little bearing on the character beyond this initial scene.
Solution: Conservative Dispensation
The false premise upon which this particular Information Dump is based on is that Description = Characterization, that the more the reader knows about what the character looks like or how he acts, the more they will connect to and understand the character. The truth is, any information not frequently relevant (i.e., they are missing their left leg and are forced to shamble about on a badly-made prosthetic), the reader will immediately forget it. Only concern youself with providing information that uniquely represents the character, and let their personality through dialogue and action define them, not their appearance. Use short, concise phrases to describe and hint at the character’s appearance; little things to notice along the way instead of an intensive examination:
“He scratched his two-days’ growth of beard as he stared out the viewing window, scanning the floating scrap with his tired, grey eyes.”
“She absently swiped a stray wisp of long, fine hair as it floated lazily across her cheek.”
“He stood up, towering above the other soldiers as he thumped slowly away from the table, his bushy eyebrows furrowed.”
Distribute this information throughout the story, carefully building on the reader’s perception of your character. This way, not only will your audience fully appreciate what makes this person who he/she is, but they will actually be interested to learn more about them.
The Villain/Hero Monologue
The villain has the hero on the ropes, gasping for breath under his boot, and the guy goes off on a 15-minute monologue about his brilliant plans because, hey, no one else is around to hear it, and this guy’s gonna be dead in a minute, right? Alternately, the hero may have actually gained the upper hand, and as the villain is cornered on the rooftop of his burning lair, the hero sees the need to tell the guy exactly why he failed and why the powers of good have triumphed.
Cliché as could be and often completely unrealistic, this particular style of Info Dump has one character, usually during a climax in the story, explaining a great number of plot points to another while they would normally be quite busy doing something else (i.e., actually fighting). No other characters ever think this is strange, and will often willingly extend the conversation even as the doomsday device’s timer runs out or the rope by which the princess dangles over a cliff slowly unravels. In short, it doesn’t matter what horrible/intense/absurd situation is going on in the background, this character is going to say what he wants, for as long as he wants.
Solution: DON’T DO IT!
If the information simply must be given at that moment in that context, avoid a monologue at all costs. Make it a dialogue, intersperse it with movement and action, but don’t just have one guy or another standing there and explaining anything, let alone his plans for world-domination. If the scene doesn’t work without a monologue, rewrite the scene. This kind of information dump is simply to cliché to be taken at all seriously anymore.
Now here’s a noobie favorite if there ever was one! Stuck on how to explain your character’s shady past? Procrastinate! Just start writing where the action starts, and you can just come up with a flashback later to explain anything from that nasty scar over his left eye, to his deathly fear of open windows overlooking freshly-bloomed flower gardens!
This technique can actually be very useful and effective if used correctly, but if you’ve done it well, it’s not an Information Dump. When it’s used by an inexperienced writer, the flashback leaves the character deep in thought and takes the reader far away to another time and place. This is similar to the Spontaneous Navel-Gazing technique in that a badly-executed flashback isolates the reader from the action of the current story, so that when he is brought back to the present he’s forgotten what was happening.
Flashbacks can be very useful for building tension and mystery into your narrative, and can be a very effective way to control the revelation of plot points to the reader- but only if you don’t accidentally lose that reader to a confusing mess of shifting perspectives. If you want to use a flashback, make sure that: A.) it does not take an unreasonable amount of time away from the main story, and that B.) it is clear what the actual order of events are so that the reader knows where the pieces you’re giving them fall into the overall story. That way, your reader will not be thrown off by flashbacks, and the information given through them supports the story and doesn’t detract from it.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for now! Watch out for those Information Dumps and follow these steps to create a clearer, more effective, and above all more interesting flow of information in your story.
Anyone have any examples of Villain/Hero monologues