Commaful Series: Breaking up Info Dumps Like a Bad Romance (Writing #3)

Hi everyone. First of all, sorry about the lack of post last week. I was scheduled for surgery on Monday morning and I planned to apologize when I came back, but my surgery has been rescheduled for May 29th. So it looks like I have more I need to do before then. If you aren’t familiar with my struggle, click here to read more: https://jenniferhaskin.com/2020/03/16/the-opioid-epidemic/ (the pictures maybe graphic to some)

[My spine 2019]

Moving on…

This week, for the Commaful video teaching, I’m going to talk about breaking up “info dumps.” First, what is an info dump?

It’s when a piece of narrative is filled with information that describes the character or world, or plot, in a big chunk of text that doesn’t include “current” character speech or action. *See also, flashbacks.

For a first example, I see a lot of writers give scene information in dumps.

As a new writer, it always confused me when an editor would say about my own books, “Break up this info dump…we don’t need all this info,” then they would go on to say, “What does this (other thing) look like? Show us more.”

I’d think, How am I supposed to show you MORE when you already don’t like the bit I have?

It can be confusing, to be sure, and the difference can be very subtle. But what the editor wants are bite-sized bits of the world, snuck in with cunning intention, woven into the story as “asides.” When the boy crosses to the attic window, don’t miss this opportunity for world-building. As he walks, do his feet leave prints on the dusty floor? Or does he cross an oriental rug? Are there once-shiny wood planks on the floor, now dull with age? That little bit of a sentence can tell us the state of the whole room without needing to give a lot of superfluous information.

I talk about this a lot, but give us everything the character notices, AS they notice it, and nothing they don’t.

We don’t need to know every detail of the room, but as in that last sentence with the dusty floor, you can have the character take one or two action(s) and give us a whole lot of information.

Imagine your character is sitting in a dilapidated chair in the small library, its stuffing bursting from a hole in the back cushion, pushed out by the end of a spring. The character leans back and the spring digs into their shoulder. “Ouch!” The character reacts by leaning forward and propping their elbows on their knees, frowning in thought, and they shiver from the breeze coming in the open window. The character reaches over to close the old window–covered in chipped white paint–but it is stuck. They slide their fingertips over the cold, fogged glass, remembering last fall when Mother was still alive.

How many things did we learn from that paragraph of two actions (sitting back and getting poked, trying to close the window)? In such a paragraph, we would normally get the character’s name and/or gender [1], but beside that, we know they are in an older house [2], and the fact that it has a library means its probably a bigger house [3]. But it is in disrepair as the chair is falling apart and the window is stuck [4]. The character isn’t feeling happy as they are thinking [5] and that somehow lends itself to their recollection of their mother’s last year [6]. Knowing that the glass is cold, but the room is warm and fogging the glass–and the breeze is chilly–lends the season to fall [7], especially as the character reminisces about “last fall.” We got a lot more information than we even realized. Because it was sewn into the story seamlessly. We know their mother died a year ago and that it still affects them [8].

And the best part is that it raises subconscious questions in the reader’s mind, such as: are they in their mother’s old house? If it’s a big house, did they get an inheritance? Since it’s in disrepair, was there more debt than money left over? Since they are still in the broken down old house, does that mean they need to live there? Why are they sad? DO they live there? What about the rest of the family? Why are we here and in this room? Has it been a year–or only six months? How did the lady die? What has happened in the last year or however long since Mother died?

World-building info dumps. Let’s try something I see a lot. (I’m making this up as I go, so give me some grace.) What if Jill shows up to Susan’s old, refurbished farmhouse with a neighborhood welcome gift and they have some coffee? This is what I often see:

Jill stepped up to the porch of the remodeled old farmhouse and thought of how nice the new paint job looked. This house hadn’t been painted since since she’d moved in. She rang the doorbell and stood back to wait. When Susan opened the door, Jill handed her the bottle of wine and tray of brownies she’d made with her daughters yesterday.

The house was a two-story with the formal living room, roomy kitchen and comfortable family room on the main floor, and the bedrooms upstairs. Hard-wood flooring through out the house was shiny and freshly waxed, but covered in area rugs. Jill wondered if Susan had kids.

Susan invited Jill into the foyer and took the gifts, then gestured down the hall to a kitchen decorated with yellow sunflowers in cobalt blue vases.

“Come on in,” Susan said, waving to the table.

Jill took a seat. The back yard was visible through the window and she could see a large dog pouncing in the grass. Must have moles, Jill thought.

Although we got a large number of description dumps, we still don’t know much about the story or how any of this relates to it. All we know is the description of Susan’s floorplan [1], which Jill can’t know, and that Jill is now sitting at Susan’s kitchen table looking at the dog in the backyard [2]. But we don’t feel anything.

There is no emotion tied to any of these descriptions and the story has no “atmosphere” (or classifying genre) tied to the situation. So from here, it will depend on what kind of story you are telling as to how you might break this section up. Don’t forget, you can use action and dialogue to share the world, as well. Let’s rewrite the previous entry as a Women’s Fiction, first:

Jill stepped up to the porch and thought how nice the fresh blue-gray paint looked—framed by the white-painted wraparound porch—almost chic. Jill had always thought her more modern home prettier, but had always envied her neighbors’ porch. She rang the doorbell and stood back to wait.

Would the new neighbors be any more anal retentive about her husband’s late hours, and his company car’s lights in their windows at 3am?

The new neighbor, Susan, opened the door—dressed like she was going to a society luncheon—in pressed slacks. “Hi Jill. Won’t you come in?”

Jill handed her the bottle of wine and tray of brownies she’d made with her daughters yesterday. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

Susan took the gifts and stepped back into the foyer, making room for Jill to pass. The house, an old two-story farmhouse, opened to a formal living room like Jill’s on the left. A curling handrail ascended with the staircase on the right; waxed and polished. Just like the hard-wood flooring surrounding them, sporting a collage of area rugs, the dark swirls of grain striping the cherry planks.

When does she have time to polish? Jill wondered.

Susan gestured down the hall with her elbow. “Come into the kitchen. I just made a fresh pot.”

The kitchen’s walls, shelves, and décor included giant yellow sunflowers in cobalt blue vases. There were three thumps on the ceiling above her and Jill looked up at the antique light fixture.

“Kids.” Susan rolled her eyes with a light laugh and motioned to the table. “Have a seat.”

Jill perched on the edge of a high-backed chair, nearly falling off the high seat cushion. She accepted a mug made from green pottery and sipped the Columbian brew, it was her favorite. Maybe they weren’t so different after all? Through the window, she could see a large dog pouncing in the grass. Must have moles, Jill thought with a smile. Yeah, we’re the same.

Okay, let’s try that same segment, but with a horror story:

Jill hesitated up the three rickety steps to the porch. The wood protested with a creak that set Jill’s nerves on edge. Before she lost her courage, she rang the doorbell and stepped back.

This house stood sentinel at the end of their block as it had done for all the years Jill had lived there. A reminder that things weren’t always … right. The last tenants hung themselves in the attic years ago, the renters before them involved in a murder/suicide, and Jill had never been inside the house.

The new neighbor, Susan, opened the door in sweats, balling up an apron behind her. “Hi Jill. Won’t you come in?”

Jill held out the bottle of wine and tray of brownies she’d made with her daughters yesterday. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

Susan tossed the crimson-soiled apron behind the front door and took the gifts, making room for Jill to pass. The house opened to a formal living room like Jill’s on the left. It was eerily similar, down to the pattern on the couch. What the hell?

A curling handrail ascended with the staircase on the right; waxed and polished. What’s up there? As she watched, a door upstairs slowly closed, one eye visible.

Susan gestured down the hall with her elbow. “Come into the kitchen. I just made a fresh pot.”

The kitchen’s walls, shelves, and décor sported sunny yellow flowers in cobalt blue vases. It was overly cheery, in a tried-too-hard-to look-normal kind of way. There were three heavy thumps on the ceiling above her and Jill’s gaze shot to the antique light fixture.

Susan chuckled nervously. “Kids.” She motioned to the table. “Have a seat.”

Jill hadn’t seen anyone else here but the couple. Maybe they were babysitting? She couldn’t put her finger on why the perfectly waxed floors and modern area rugs had her feeling so off, but something wasn’t right. She perched on the edge of a high-backed chair, nearly falling off the high seat cushion.

Susan handed her a mug made from green pottery and she sipped the dark brew. Maybe they were just normal people who didn’t realize they’d bought the creepiest house in the division? Through the window, Jill could see a large dog pouncing in the grass.

“You have moles, too?” Jill nodded toward the window at the dog, now digging feverishly. “They’re making your dog crazy.”

“We don’t have a— Oh my god!” Susan ran out the back door with a wooden spoon and a pot, banging and shooing the dog away. She came back in with her hair in her face. She brushed the locks from her eyes and laughed lightly. “Whoo. Sorry about that. My husband doesn’t want animals digging around on the property.”

“Oh. Then you’ll need a fence.”

“Guess we do.”

All those details in the very first segment weren’t necessary. They weren’t really details we needed. In the two rewrites, we easily show that the house had two stories. We didn’t need to know it was a refurbished old farmhouse, or its floor plan. The details that are necessary will change as the story you write changes. Those thumps on the ceiling can confirm a question the character may have (even if they don’t realize it)–like, I wonder if they have children–or they could be an ominous noise.

Your tone will determine what details you want to include or stress in the building of your fictional world. Commaful has another video about world-building. But the gist of it is, anything and everything you include in your story, every detail, is carefully chosen to be there, and somehow moves the story forward. It includes the main POV character’s five senses, and sometimes a sixth. It is how that character experiences their world.

Writing a great book means incorporating several skills that are all related. Breaking up the world keeps the pace flowing, it keeps the scene active. It eliminates info dumps.

Let us experience the world as the character does, at the same time the character does. Tie emotions to those descriptions. Don’t give us details that the character can’t know.

Speaking of which, who noticed in the first example, that I gave several bits of information before the character could possibly know them? Kudos to you if you did.

In the following paragraph, tell me what’s wrong:

The house was a two-story with the formal living room, roomy kitchen and comfortable family room on the main floor, and the bedrooms upstairs. Hard-wood flooring throughout the house was shiny and freshly waxed, but covered in area rugs. Jill wondered if Susan had kids.

We don’t know if Jill’s ever been inside this house, but we’ll assume she hasn’t, and she shouldn’t know the layout before she enters. But, even at that, if the houses are all the same and she does know the general layout, she doesn’t know the family room is “comfortable.” It says the hard-wood flooring “throughout the house was freshly waxed, and covered in rugs.” She can’t know that. She’s still standing on the porch. Here’s another one:

Susan invited Jill into the foyer and took the gifts, then gestured down the hall to a kitchen decorated in sunny yellow flowers in cobalt blue vases.

If they are standing in the foyer and Susan is just now gesturing down the hall, Jill might have an idea that’s where the kitchen is, but she doesn’t know how it’s decorated yet. She won’t know that till she gets to the kitchen. In this first case, we transition directly to the kitchen, so it works, and isn’t a big deal, but if they’d gone anywhere else, that description wouldn’t work. Just beware that the story may be in past tense, but we still experience it as the POV character–don’t give us details before the experience or tell us things the character can’t know or doesn’t know YET.

And if an editor, or a beta reader says, “Show me more of this.” Don’t automatically add a paragraph or three of physical description. Just tuck in bits here and there that give us the world in the way you want the reader to experience it.

Maybe all the sounds your character hears are benign in nature, but your character is paranoid or suspicious, making everything they hear suspect. If that’s the case, give it to us every spooky detail at a time. Later, when we find out it wasn’t true, the audience will be thrown for a loop if you have led their attention another way. And that is through the tone of your world-building.

The video I’m making won’t have time for all of this, so you get bonus content here. Lol.

Info dumps are often found in character descriptions. For example:

She had hair the color of buttercups, and eyes lined with dark lashes that made them appear infinitely bluer than possible. Her stature diminutive, tiny hands perched on thin hips clad in an emerald green velvet skirt, topped by a shimmering green corset–tiny green slippers on her feet.

That is an info dump. The best way I know how to tell you to fix it is to attach actions and dialogue to everything you want to describe. Have the things your character comes into contact with be deliberate. Let me show you what I mean.

She slid a lock of hair the color of buttercups through her fingers, and tucked it back into her chignon, under a perfectly perched tiara.

“Hello,” I mumbled, trying not to drown in her infinitely blue eyes, made even more intense by the contrasting dark lashes that framed them.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Her words were kind, but her posture said she was ready to bolt. I stood impotent before her diminutive stature, and her commanding presence stole my words.

Her outfit showed her rank in emerald green velvet folds and a shimmering green corset. As I watched, she perched a tiny fist on her hip and tapped a tiny green slipper. “Well? Can I help you, or are you going to stare at me all day?”

The same information told us so much more about the story in the second example. It gave us their attitudes, and feelings, and rank and presence. We know the speaker is nervous to speak to her [1], and she doesn’t care [2]. She is impatient and/or has somewhere else to be [3]. Granted, it did take us longer to write that description with more words. That is also why it’s so important to only include the details that move the story forward, and then give us everything we can know about them. Make sense?

*Flashbacks are often seen in infodump form. Now this is going to vary. There is a difference between having a memory and filling in backstory to assure the current situation makes sense.

If what you are giving us is back story–memories of things that have happened before the story began–then definitely give it to us in bits and pieces. Have the character remember as much of it in their own words as possible. Give them someone they need to explain to, or have them explain the relevant bits and pieces to a stranger, if necessary. Maybe they are trying to make sense of a situation that confused them, and they are talking out bits of information to themselves? There are several ways you can do this, but as with the info dumps above, give us pieces at a time.

When you are going along with your day and something makes you think of a memory, does the whole memory play, or just the relevant part? Most of what we remember is understood backstory.

Give your character a specific memory and have them explain the understood backstory in bits and pieces. This keeps the pace going.

For example:

She turned the case slowly, looking at all the keychains this gas station had, flashing “Suzie” and “Benjamin.” When she rotated it to the right, she saw the sunglasses–his sunglasses–and was immediately sitting on the beach again, the waves roaring as they rolled in.

“Do you remember what I told you on the pier?” he asked, the sun glinting off his sunglass lense and reflecting in her eye.

She peered at him with her good eye. “Of course. You said you needed me.”

“I still do.” He leaned forward and kissed her.

She spun the case to the left in anger, watching the keychains fly by. It had been their last kiss. If she had known then what she knew now…

The important part of that memory was what he said, and their last kiss. The catalyst to the memory were the sunglasses. Give your character a reason to remember the situation you want, and give us the little details that tell us just what you want to say.

If, however, you want the character to have a whole memory, that’s fine too. You don’t need to speak in a different tense (although most italicized thoughts are in present tense, try it both ways), you don’t need to format it any other way, just make sure you italicize the sections that are from the past, and give us the memory inside the story. Again, the character needs to have a reason for thinking about what they are thinking, and there should be a point to having the memory.

To conclude, breaking up info dumps is pretty easy to do, but it takes time if you are having to “fix” things afterward, and spreading the information out. Take out pieces that aren’t important and carefully choose your descriptions based on the genre and the atmosphere you want the reader to “feel.” Leave in details that move the story forward, but attach dialogue, action, and emotion to them. AND if you are writing a first draft, add little bits of the world as you are are going, giving details here and there that show your character and their world, then you’ll be on the right track.

I’ll probably be gone for the next few weeks, but I appreciate your thoughts and prayers on Friday the 29th! Until next time! Keep writing!

~jenn

2 thoughts on “Commaful Series: Breaking up Info Dumps Like a Bad Romance (Writing #3)

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