New? Begin with lesson one.
This wasn't the first "writing tool" I planned to write about in this phase of the course, but since it's been on my mind a lot lately, I decided to change the order a tad.
Anyone who has read much, especially the early works of authors, has come across at least one or two examples of the dreaded "info dump." As a matter of fact, if you actually read any of the books assigned in your high school literature classes, you've seen one. They were all the rage in the early 1800s. Virtually any novel written and printed in the first half of the nineteenth century begins with chapter upon chapter of endless description and back story, the very definition of an "info dump."
Think back to a book you read that was just a chore to read, not because it was a bad story but because of how it was written. What made it so tedious? Chances are whole paragraphs, pages, or chapters were devoted to describing every detail of the setting, flashbacks to the protagonist's childhood, or something similar. When added sparingly, these things can add a lot to a story, but when heaped all at once, it can knock the reader out of the story. Worse yet, it can drive them to put the book down and never come back.
With my girls now on a high enough reading level to start studying a few of the childhood classics next year, I've been going back and reading the ones I was never able to catch in the library. I've been alternating between those childhood classics and ones written for adults. I finished C. S. Lewis' The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe last month, and I've been chipping away at Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame ever since. The latter is one of those novels that's a chore to get into.
I try not to think too hard on a writer's intention when reading. More often than not, what meaning the reader gleans from a work is completely different from the author's actual intent. Such has been a source of amusement and consternation for many, as is revealed in a myriad of interviews throughout the decades. But Victor Hugo's intent with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, namely objecting to the stylistic changes during renovations to the cathedral and other landmarks, is crystal clear.
The first ten chapters or so is an almost unintelligible jumble of fifteenth century name dropping and architectural description interspersed with a comically bad attempt at presenting a mystery play with the main characters seen only in momentary glances. There's about three chapters of actual story. Then Hugo interrupts himself with three or four chapters raving about the view of Paris from Notre Dame as it was in the fifteenth century in comparison to how it stood in his day. This description devolved into ranting on the merits of classical and Gothic architecture over the more modern renovations taking place in the early nineteenth century. He goes back to the story for all of a chapter, and then goes off on a rant about how the printing press killed architecture as an art.
That's as far as I've gotten. Normally I'll devour a novel in three days to a week, but it's taken an entire month to make it some twenty-five or so chapters in. I've only made it as far as the first ten minutes of the movie versions of the story, which cut out any an all information on Frollo's parents and baby brother as well as the poet around whom the story centers for the first third of the book.
The point here being, while background information and setting information are important, huge chunks of them at a time bog down or kill the story altogether. When adding back story, description, or world building information, try to avoid the urge to throw everything at the reader at once. However, info dumps happen, especially in first drafts. Be mindful of the urge, but don't let any already existing in your rough draft slow you down. If you can't think of a way to avoid adding one as you draft the story, go ahead. They're easiest to fix in rewrites, and I'll go more into that when we get to the revision stage of the course.
Continue on to dialogue.
A. B. England is a small business owner, mom of two, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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