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Info Dump or Necessary Setting
How do you know?
by: Tina Morgan
One of the most commonly coined terms in critique groups is "Info Dump".
This refers to a section of a story that is devoted to describing the setting and or back-story. Both of these items can be crucial to pulling your reader in pulling your reader into the story and setting the stage for your plot. It is also an issue that is more of a concern for science fiction and fantasy writers than any other genre. Why? Because writers like Janet Evanovich don't need to go into a lot of detail for her readers to picture Stephanie Plum's city apartment. Most readers are familiar with images of modern cities and city life. However, Tolkien's readers have never seen a real hobbit village and never will. Bag End was created in one man's mind and in order for the reader to "see" it, he has to describe it as more than just a hole in the hill.
Perhaps Tolkien isn't the best example despite his work being quite well known. His stories were published many years ago and in an era that hadn't experienced very many fantasy novels. The descriptions and details he put into his books would not be tolerated by a lot of modern readers…or would they?
The amount of description needed or desired is going to vary greatly from reader to reader and that makes it difficult to give a new writer good advice on how to handle the issue of an "info dump".
What makes an info dump? Are there any rules?
There are no ironclad rules in writing, only guidelines. There are a few suggestions that can help keep your writing from bogging down in a plethora of unneeded description and back-story.
1) Does it move the story along?
If the setting is there only to fulfill your need as the writer to show every detail of what's in your head then you're probably creating an info dump.
If the back-story doesn't add to the conflict of the story you're writing then it would probably be best to leave it out. There might be some really fascinating stories in your characters' or world's past history but if they don't relate directly to the story you're telling now, then odds are, you're only going to confuse your reader by including them. Don't discard these ideas, same them for potential stories to write at a later date.
2) Is what you're describing going to have a role in the story or add significantly to the setting?
Your main character might have an extensive collection of baseball cards but do you need to tell the reader what kind and where he keeps them? What about the color of his sheets or the lint in his computer keys? Any of these things can be used to develop your character but all of them need to be used with moderation and thought.
We run more of a risk of creating an info dump when we give our characters hobbies we personally enjoy. Most people enjoy talking about their hobbies and passions and if we give our characters the same likes then this gives us a perfect chance to ramble on to a captive audience about our favorite subject doesn't it? No.
3) Are you in love with the passage?
Get a second opinion.
And I do not mean a close friend or family member who's going to gush just because they care about you and are afraid to hurt your feelings. When we become too close to our work we find it hard to view it critically. Our writing is like a part of ourselves, our "baby". Have you ever heard a mother say that her baby was ugly? Even when it was?
4) Incorporate your setting and back-story into the action and movement of the story.
A few select words can set your world without going into unnecessary detail.
maid: implies a level of wealth
rushed: casts a different view of the proceedings than if the maid walked or strode
master: implies a time frame prior to the 20th century
swirling mists: sets the tone of the story within the second sentence
heart sank: again, sets the mood, something is wrong and the reader will want to continue reading to find out what.
Sometimes it is going to be necessary to give more description to set the story or to build up a potential conflict.
In the late evening hours, the statues' eyes glittered in the setting
sun. The dragons looked as if they would take flight at any moment, but
the early afternoon sun shone through the tall windows now and the
dragons remained motionless. Brennan's favorite statues were the
unicorns and pegasi sitting against the north wall. She walked over to
study their gleaming white bodies and glittering horns. Some were laying
down, others were rearing as if in battle. One large stallion bore a
pale blue stone on his chest that matched his blue, glass eyes. Brennan
ran her finger down its golden horn.
This may seem like more description than is needed at first glance but
this passage sets up the action that's going to take place. The dragon
will open its eyes, Brennan will touch it at the same time as two other
children, and they will be transported into another world. There are
many other things in the room: a sofa, a computer in the corner, a
Persian rug on the floor. These things add nothing to the story and do
not further the plot so they aren't mentioned.
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