Mike MacDee, a fellow author, has some insights into giving enough information to readers without overdoing it.
His prior guest blog post about the travails of traditional publishing, was insightful. I’m sure you’ll agree this one is, too.
I help run the creative writing club at Glendale Community College, and each semester we talk several times about the danger of info dumps, especially at the beginning of a story. Nothing drops a reader into slumberland faster than a seven-layer cake of exposition right at the beginning of a new book. As one of our club members aptly put it:
“Nobody cares. Nobody cares about your setting or your politics or your society’s technology.
Nobody will ever care. Not until you make them care.
Then they’ll love it to bits.”
My dystopian novel The Helios Legacy originally opened with a text crawl about all kinds of stuff: how nuclear winter came about, who and what the new dictator blamed for the holocaust, and how anyone who controlled the food sources controlled the populace. But this weird little gal who had just joined Creative Writing Club was absolutely right. Nobody wants to do homework before the fun begins, and that’s exactly what an opening “text crawl” is: you’re making the reader do homework before they can have literary dessert.
I told the same thing to another young author two semesters ago. He had an interesting idea that combined virtual reality with psychological therapy and analysis. He was planning to explain how it all worked in the prologue. I should add that
prologues are usually dangerous, and often unnecessary, for the same reason as opening info dumps: they usually only serve as backstory we as readers don’t yet give a crap about.
I suggested that he instead begin with a test subject in the middle of a psychedelic adventure, then pull the camera back, reveal that the whole thing was a simulation, and have the doctors start asking questions about the patient’s experience. Instead of explaining how the process works, what it’s for, and why it’s important, we’re shown ALL of that in a gripping opening chapter that pulls the rug out from under us and makes us want to see where the story goes from here.
Because the authors made us care.
let’s look at the opening line from Richard Stark’s crime novel Comeback:
“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
WHAM! Stark opens the book by hitting the reader in the face with a baseball bat full of questions. Who is Parker? Why is he killing somebody in the garage? Who’s calling? Hell, whose house is Parker in? Is this HIS garage we’re talking about, or did he just break into some poor bastard’s house? We HAVE to read on to find out more, and we’re loving it because the questions keep mounting, and they’re great questions. With one sentence we’ve been pulled into the action like a trout into a fishing boat.
Ever since reading that line, I’ve been opening my books with a (hopefully) intriguing first line, often followed by a striking image. Here’s the introduction to The Helios Legacy after I removed the backstory text dump:
Juno had been in worse situations, though admittedly it was hard to top “stranded in a possibly irradiated blizzard, hundreds of miles from civilization.”
The reinforced double-decker passenger train lay on its side, sprawled across the barren, snowy wasteland like the carcass of a colossal animal. It left a quarter-mile ditch through the earth all the way back to the train tracks near the horizon. The tracks were intact and curved to the right — the train had derailed making the turn.
Anything you need to know about the setting I can introduce later in dialogue, or by showing little details in passing. It doesn’t take more than a sentence or a short passage to suggest there’s more to the world that we’ll ever get to see in a single sitting. You could delve into the history of your city’s past sieges, or you can simply mention the ancient bullet holes peppering the city’s outer wall when the protagonist visits for the first time.
In Escape From New York, Bob Hauk briefs Plissken on the kidnapping of the president, and informs him that he’s the only one who can go into the prison city and rescue him. When Plissken asks,
Hauk replies, “You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad. You know how to get in quiet.”
This reference is never explained, nor mentioned again, but it suggests a history behind the protagonist without giving us a big heaping glob of unnecessary exposition.
It’s a throwaway line that suggests entire chapters of this character’s life.
Sometimes an info dump is unavoidable. If you absolutely have to give the reader an essay on a particular part of the plot, the best way to do it is through dialogue. Have the quirkiest or most unnerving characters deliver the information we need, and make it fun if not engaging. Back to The Helios Legacy, here is Ganymede, arguably the vilest character in the book, explaining to her partners why they can’t just cut the story short by killing Juno and Apollo at the train station:
“The fuck’re we waitin’ for?” [Peggy] growled.
“Night,” said Ganymede.
“Let’s just do ’em now, on the platform.”
Duzie said nothing, too busy watching a pretty young blonde man who was hugging and kissing an equally pretty young woman who just got off the Heorot train.
“One,” said Ganymede, holding up a finger. “We’re expendable assets with no badges. After we drop these two, I’d rather not be a sittin’ duck in a jail cell, waitin’ to see how Denny decides to repay us.”
Peggy stared down at Ganymede in annoyance, but didn’t argue.
“Two,” said Ganymede. “I’m not stupid enough to go tits-to-tits with an Ammie.”
Duzie was listening now, staring at Ganymede in child-like surprise. “Radcliffe was in the Amazon Force?”
Ganymede looked at her incredulously, then back at Peggy. “You two don’t read much, do ya? Only reason she got stuck with the warden job was ‘cos an attack dog ate her eyeball durin‘ a guerrilla op. She commanded a company of Ammies whose sole purpose was sneakin’ into enemy camps and turnin’ ’em into ghost towns. Bitch eats razorwire and drinks gasoline. Her mom was a fuckin’ goblin shark.”
Duzie stared at her like a child listening to a scary campfire story. Peggy watched Juno on the platform like a hyena appraising a snack that would pose a satisfying challenge to catch.
“So we do her in her sleep,” said Ganymede. “Is that clear?”
This exchange does more than simply close a loophole in the plot (why they can’t just kill the heroine on sight and cut the story short): it establishes the protagonist’s credentials in a few colorful lines, foreshadows that we’re in for some cathartic violence in the near future, and it brings out each villain’s character in the process. In a single exchange Ganymede is established as the brains of the group, Peggy as a predator itching to settle a score, and Duzie as a jittery coward (and maybe a horndog as well). I could’ve had a whole chapter summarizing Juno’s military service, but nobody wants to read that because it’s boring and it’s not relevant to the current plotline. Having characters tell anecdotes is another great way to show rather than tell, and a good opportunity to tell a story-within-a-story that only takes a couple of paragraphs.
I don’t mean to say exposition is evil. BORING exposition is evil. Always try to share important info in the most entertaining, intriguing, or subtle way possible. Avoid lectures…and leave the text crawls to Star Wars.
Thanks, Mike, for another awesome and enlightening post. I think I agree with just about everything you said.
Gang, Mike’s books are available HERE, and you should definitely check them out!