by Jodie Renner, Editor and Craft-of-Writing Author, @JodieRennerEd
Have you ever been engrossed in a novel when suddenly the author interrupts the story to give you background on a character, or detailed technical information about something? Or starts waxing eloquent about a related topic or a pet cause of theirs?
Savvy authors know that readers choose fiction to be entertained and swept away by a compelling story. Halting the plot to give them information on a technical subject or issue, or even to clarify something as an author aside, jolts them out of the fictive dream, interrupts the story line, slows down the pace, and just feels patronizing.
Author intrusions and info dumps come in various shapes and sizes, but whatever their form, they can be perceived as an obvious and clumsy attempt by the author to quickly and easily impart some facts, clarifications, or personal opinions directly to the reader. For this article, we’ll leave out a discussion of the pitfalls of too much character backstory, especially early on. For now, we’ll just talk about other kinds of author intrusions.
SOME COMMON TYPES OF AUTHOR INTRUSIONS TO AVOID
~ Info dumps
Readers like to stay immersed in the story, not be pulled out of it to be given a lengthy explanation of something as an aside by the author. This can include long, detailed explanations of a specific type of gun, for example, or stopping the story to describe in detail how fingerprints are retrieved, processed, analyzed, and fed into data systems.
Yes, do your research, for sure. But pick and choose what you actually share with your readers, and blend the info in in a natural way, filtered through the point of view of the viewpoint character or revealed in the course of dialogue, preferably with some tension and attitude thrown in.
~ Soap-boxing about an issue or cause
Maybe you’d like to increase consciousness about worthy topics such as the plight of whales or the lack of clean water worldwide, or unfair treatment of minorities, or lack of green spaces.
Sure, go ahead and insert allusions to social issues here and there in your novel, as long as you have a character who is passionate about that issue and knowledgeable. It can work in small doses, as long as you don’t go on so long about it that it comes across as preaching. And of course it needs to fit naturally in the scene and match the character’s personality, politics and thoughts.
~ Lecturing in disguise
Say you want to write a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of adventure story because you’re passionate about Aztecs and Aztec ruins and want to tell the world about this fascinating subject. So you have a main character who’s an archaeologist, and because you can’t resist sharing your knowledge, you have this character giving frequent impromptu detailed lectures on Aztec history and culture to anyone who will listen. Not a good idea.
Just drop in a few tantalizing tidbits here and there to pique your readers’ interest. If you get them curious enough, they can easily Google Aztecs (or whoever or whatever you’re highlighting in your story) and find out a lot more about the topic. You could even add some info at the end of the story somehow, as an Afterword or Glossary or related links or whatever.
~ Dumping into dialogue
Don’t let your characters lecture in dialogue, either. It’s just not natural, and will bore the readers just as much as an author aside or intrusion. Avoid “info dumps” in the guise of dialogue – in real life, no one likes to be lectured to in a casual conversation.
Replace long monologues of information with questions and answers or a lively discussion, and keep it relevant to the scene question. And, for more interest, insert some attitude and tension in the give-and-take – a little (or a lot) of arguing about facts, or their significance, for example.
~ AYKB – “As you know, Bob…”
This is where the author has one person telling another a bunch of stuff they both know, just to impart that information to the reader. Here’s an exaggerated example, to illustrate:
Ralph said to his brother, “As you know, Bob, our parents were both killed in a car crash when we were young, and we were raised by our grandparents.”
Readers today are too sophisticated to go for this type of amateurish information-sharing, and if you do it too often, it’s sure to lose you respect and credibility.
No dumping here, please!
So be careful not to dump a bunch of factual information willy-nilly into your story. A novel or short story is no place to go into a lot of detail on a technical subject – or to get on your soapbox about a topic that’s dear to your heart or makes your blood boil. Readers will feel annoyed, patronized or manipulated, when what they really want is to be entertained and captivated by your tale.
Remember, if any readers want to know more about a topic, they can always Google the topic. Leave the lectures for the classroom, articles, or nonfiction books – the goal of fiction is to entertain the readers with a riveting story. Period.
For more on this topic, plus an excellent example from Robert Crais of how to impart technical info in a natural, compelling way, see my recent blog post “Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy” at The Kill Zone blog.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in thrillers, mysteries, and other fast-paced fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing services and her books, please visit her website.
Jodie has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller, a short e-book, and Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, which is available in paperback, as an e-book on Kindle, and in other e-book formats. And you don’t need to own an e-reader to purchase and enjoy e-books. You can download them to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.