March 19, 2012

A Bad Case of the Dumps

Yes, you read that right. And no, it's not what it sounds like. What I'm talking about is the dreaded infodump. Heck, the very word itself feels like it should have hissing and booing as a soundtrack. So why did I bring up the infodump (*sounds of hissing and booing*)? Well, as it turns out I'm a 'violator' of the worst sort when it comes to this.

For some time now the beginning of my WiP has been giving me a headache. I don't hate it, but something just feels wrong and it is almost certainly the backstory infodump I felt compelled to include. Here's the thing: I don't hate backstory. I also don't hate prologues. Both, if you believe everything you read, are supposedly things that everybody like, ever born absolutely can't stand (NB: sarcasm totally intended). These kinds of generalizations kind of drive me bonkers. I think it would probably be a safe bet that this makes more sense: Backstory and prologues suck when they don't add anything to the story. Can we agree on that? Some authors manage to do both of these well. Take J. K. Rowling, for instance, who masterfully worked a prologue into Chapter One of the first Harry Potter book.

The sad fact is, I am not J. K. Rowling.

I'm writing a sci fi story, and with that comes a great deal of world-building. One of the things that I can't stand as a reader is being plunked down in a world that I can make neither heads nor tails of. So just how much explanation is necessary? Example: As much as I loved Veronica Rossi's Under the Never Sky*, I was initially put off by the fact that I didn't really understand what was going on. Maybe I'm just thick. In the end, I loved the book and I'm really glad I didn't put it down.

I set out this morning searching the web for justification for my backstory infodump. Let me tell ya, there was very little to be had. General consensus: Infodumps blow chunks. Avoid them altogether. Stop. Just stop. To which I say: Great. The most popular piece of advice on this topic? Hack it out or weave it into the story in very small, palatable morsels. I bet you can't guess what's on my agenda today? From the sounds of it, infodumps are a rookie mistake and are often symptomatic of a bad case of telling instead of showing. And here I thought I had a handle on 'show don't tell'.

Two of my favourite books--Divergent and The Hunger Games--don't shy away from backstory or (slight) infodumps, but the authors do it so well you don't feel like reading it is a giant slog-fest. In both cases, more information is required for the reader to understand what the heck is going on. In Divergent we need to understand what the deal is with the factions and why they came to be. In The Hunger Games, it's pretty crucial that the reader has information early on about the Districts and about the Reaping itself. But neither author leads with this backstory. It's okay for the reader to have questions because that's what keeps them reading (Case in point: Why I stuck with Under the Never Sky and wasn't disappointed). You just have to hope that these questions you've raised are intriguing enough and your writing compelling enough for your readers to come along for the ride.

I'm sure much of this is old news to you, but I thought I'd share my thoughts on the issue. So what about you? Do you have a bad case of the dumps too? Do you hate infodumps and backstory?
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*In this particular case, much was made clear(er) as the book went on.

21 comments:

  1. I just started reading Hunger Games with my daughter last night (figured I'd get her hooked and let her take it from there). You're right about how brilliant she is at backstory...it sort of amazed me how much she put in those first few chapters and I hadn't even noticed it the first time I listened to the audiobook.

    I think the key is to do backstory in small chunks and in places where the current scene (which is propelling the story forward) brings up the story naturally. Like, how Gale and Katniss's "last meal" together in the woods brings up so much about the rules of their society and the possibility of rebellion (expressed through Gale's beliefs).

    As for how I feel about backstory, prologues and info dumps...I figure when I'm a bestselling author (ha, ha) I can decide how I feel about those things and do what I want...until then, those things aren't going to get me published.

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    1. Suzanne Collins is brilliant. Even on the third read-through The Hunger Games is unputdownable. If only I could write that well.... Definitely someone to learn from, especially in the matter of backstory.

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  2. I don't always hate backstory, and I do tend to get frustrated more than anything else when at the beginning of a book we're plopped into action. Doing backstory well, though, is so tricky. If you figure out good methods, please do share!

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    1. It's definitely all about balance and I'm really struggling to find it. I don't want readers to be confused, but I also don't want to bore them with an excess of unnecessary details. If I figure it out, I'll be sure to share :)

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  3. I've been fighting viciously to 'drip in' information as needed and avoid dumping explanations on my readers.
    Then I gave the manuscript to my betas and they're like 'whoa whoa wait slow down BACKSTORY RIGHT NOW PLEASE EXPLAIN THINGS'. So that's me told: backstory and info is needed. Finding the balance is just the hard part.

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    1. You're totally right about striking a balance between the two. So hard to do, though. I'm definitely working my butt off to find that balance! :)

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  4. This is exactly where I am with my WIP right now. Thanks for the post :)

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    1. Glad I'm not the only one (though I don't wish frustration of this kind on anyone). This will probably be the most difficult part of revision for me.

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  5. Thanks for sharing Jaime! :D
    I thought my first chapter was ok in terms of backstory dump (after I got rid of a LOT of info) until my CP/Beta pointed out where I was guilty of dumping info like there was no tomorrow (or in this case, no other chapters).
    She showed me that I didn´t need some of the info right into the beginning. As you so well highlight, we need to keep getting our readers asking questions so that they turn the page, we just don´t want them going 'Huh' and scratching their head as they put the book aside because it doesn´t make sense to them :D
    A tough balance!

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    1. I'm really working to omit unnecessary information or to shift it to other parts of my WiP to break it all up somewhat. It's tough, though, isn't it? :)

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  6. I feel the same way. You don't want the reader to not understand your world but you also don't want them to be bored by the dreaded info-dump. I think it's a trick to balance them out.

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    1. I think the best way to approach this is by sprinkling the information through your WiP as it is needed (or at least that's what I'm trying to do). The other thing is to always remember that your reader isn't stupid, that not everything needs to be completely spelled out. Again, I know the plan of attack, I just can't seem to get it right :)

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  7. I know I've got a ton of infodumps in my first chapter. That's one of the main things I'll be working on when I start revisions, because as a reader, I hate slogging through information that makes me lose sight of the story. Good luck!

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    1. I don't mind them as long as they're not too disruptive. Do you think it makes a difference if 'voice' is factored in in the telling? Hmmm...maybe I'm just trying to justify things again :)

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  8. I think we need to bear in mind the difference between the kind of world-building going on in THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT, vs HARRY POTTER. In THG and D, you have stories that are told from the perspective of people that live in that world and understand it. That means the author has to find ways to weave in backstory so the reader can understand what is already a given for the characters. With HP, we are discovering the world with the MC, so it's a lot easier to incorporate backstory and world-building. We're learning with Harry. I think JK had it much easier. :)

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    1. Wow, what a good point you raise, Colin. When it's a world that the MC lives in and understands (as you put it), it feels like unrealistic introspection to dump in a pile of explanatory info. With Harry, it's all new to him and therefore necessary. You're right, JK definitely had it much easier as far as this is concerned. I'm not sure why, but this made me feel a lot better! Thanks :)

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    2. That is a very good point, Colin. I'm writing a multiple POV story, and I've sort of planned to wait to explain the intricacies of the setting until my most...uhm...clueless character arrives. :) \

      In general, I only dislike info dumps when they're unnecessary. It's just that 99.999% of the time, they are.

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  9. LOL! The beginning there was hilarious!

    Balancing a good steady stream of info along with keeping the tension/intrigue and pacing is so epic. It's why it's an art. IT'S HARD. And I agree with Colin's comment above ;)

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    1. I do tend toward the potty humour... :)

      It's definitely all about balance. I read a post on Kidlit.com on the matter of backstory/infodumps and the balance between action and information. I agree that this is important, but it's certainly very tough! :)

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  10. I'm struggling with backstory in my current WIP because of the world-building element as well. The sad thing is I totally love backstory as long as it's done in scene. If I get pages and pages of straight telling, I skim it and miss out on something critical. I also don't have much of a problem with info dumps, as long as they're small. (And as much as I love Stephen King, he does the info dump A LOT.)

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    1. It's tough not to vomit all of the backstory onto the page when you're world-building. I fiddled with my story all afternoon yesterday and I think I managed to eradicate some of problem, but not all. Guess what I'm doing today? LOL :D I think the key is proper placement and length when you're talking backstory and infodumps in stories. It's funny, there are a number of super popular authors who are totally guilty of the infodump, but they get away with it because of their super popular author status. I've heard of plenty of others who are also guilty.

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