Are You Info-Dumping?

by Marg McAlister

 

"Info-dumping" is one of those things that can really get up a reader's nose! You know the kind of thing: one minute you're happily getting immersed in a story - the next you're rudely reminded that you're 'just reading' because the author has gone into lecture mode about something. It might be about the character's backstory, it might be about the setting, or it might be about some technical information that the author considers essential knowledge. Whatever it is... it's annoying.

We don't want to be jerked out of the story just to be fed some information. Anything the reader "has" to know should be subtly inserted into the narrative. If you're thinking that only beginners make mistakes like that, think again.

Here's an example of 'info-dumping' quoted from a book by Jeffery Deaver, one of America's most popular mystery writers. Let me admit upfront that I am a fan of Deaver's work. His characters are different and interesting; his plots are deft. BUT - he does have a bad habit of 'dumping' information on to the reader that annoys me intensely every time I read! The excerpt I'm going to use comes from "The Twelfth Card", a Lincoln Rhyme mystery.

Note that at the beginning of the excerpt, the characters are engaged in a discussion about a piece of trace evidence. The conversation flows smoothly, and as a reader, you have a sense that you are really there, listening as the team talks about the evidence. There is a reference to trace left in a public place, but this is absorbed into the narrative because it's still in the past tense, as though the viewpoint character is musing about what this means.

Then Deaver switches from the past tense (the normal narrative flow) to the present tense - and THIS is what reminds us that we are 'just reading'. Suddenly, the scene is interrupted while we get a short lecture on the subcategories of evidence. Ouch!

In the quote below, I signal the beginning of 'info-dumping' with three asterisks: ***

"Where did this come from?" Sachs looked over at the tag. "Two sources: the floor near the table where Geneva was sitting and beside the Dumpster where he was standing when he shot Barry."
Trace in a public place was often useless because there were as many chances for strangers unconnected to the crime to shed material. That similar trace being found in two separate locations where the perp had been suggested strongly that it had been left by him.
"Thank you, Lord," Rhyme muttered, "for thy wisdom in creating deep-tread shoes."
Sachs and Thom glanced at each other.
"Wondering about my good mood?" Rhyme asked, continuing to stare at the screen. "Was that the reason for the sideling look? I can be cheerful sometimes, you know."
"Blue moon," the aide muttered. "Cliche alert, Lon. You catch that one? Now, back to the trace. We know he shed it. What is it? And can it lead us to his den?"
*** Forensic scientists confront a pyramid-shaped task in analyzing evidence. The initial - and usually easiest - job is to identify a substance (find that a brown stain, for instance, is blood and whether it's human or animal, or that a piece of blood is a bullet fragment). The second task is to classify that sample, that is, put it in a subcategory like determining that the blood is O positive, that the bullet that shed the fragment was a .38). Learning that evidence falls into a particular class may have some value to police and prosecutors if the suspect can be linked to evidence in a similar class - his shirt has a type-O-positive bloodstain on it, he owns a .38 - though that connection isn't conclusive.
The final task, and the ultimate goal of all forensic scientists, is to individuate the evidence - unquestionably link this particular bit of evidence to a single location or human being... etc etc...

... and so it goes on. Deaver spends a few more paragraphs 'lecturing' the reader about forensics, and by then the easy flow of narrative has been destroyed. Moreover, there is no 'bridge' between the dialogue and the information about the analysis of evidence - it is just suddenly there.

Here is a further example from the same book.

Cooper ran another GC/MS test. The results indicated that it was sucrose and uric acid. "The acid's concentrated," the tech said. "The sugar's pure - no other foodstuffs - and the crystalline structure's unique. I've never seen it milled like that."
Rhyme was troubled by this news. "Send it to the FBI's bomb people."
"Bomb?" Sellitto asked.
Rhyme said, "Haven't been reading my book, hmmmm?"
"No," the big detective shot back. "I've been busy catching bad guys."
"Touche. But it'd be helpful to at least take a look at the headings from time to time. As in "Homemade Explosive Devices." Sugar's often an ingredient. Mix it with sodium nitrate and you've got a smoke bomb. With permanganate, it's a low explosive - which can still do a lot of damage if you pack it into a pipe. I'm not sure how the uric acid figures but the Bureau's got the best database in the world. They'll tell us."
*** The FBI's lab is available to handle evidence analysis for state and local law enforcers, at no charge, provided that the requesting agency agrees to two things: to accept the FBI's results as final and to show them to the defendant's lawyer. Because of the Bureau's generosity - and its talent - the agents are inundated with requests for assistance; they run more than 700,000 analyses a year.***
Even New York's finest would stand in line like everyone else to get this bit of sugar analyzed. But Lincoln Rhyme had an in - Fred Dellray, a special agent in the FBI's Manhattan office, often worked with Rhyme and Sellitto, and he carried a lot of weight in the Bureau. Equally important was that Rhyme had helped the FBI set up its PERT system - the Physical Evidence Response Team. Sellitto called Dellray, who was presently on the task force checking out those reports of potential terrorist bombings in New York.

Can you see how the section in the present tense stands apart from the rest of the narrative? The good news is, 'info dumping' like this is relatively easy to fix.

  1. Insert only a short snippet of information at one time, and make sure that it REMAINS IN THE PAST TENSE, so it blends with the rest of the narrative.
  2. If there are longer chunks of information, break them up and insert some in dialogue to make the imparting of this information more natural. ONLY tell readers as much as it is necessary for them to know. Don't fall into the trap of explaining every bit of technical information you discover.

Let's re-work the second excerpt above. We'll blend in the section in the present tense so it is less noticeable. See if you can spot the changes:

....Rhyme said, "Haven't been reading my book, hmmmm?"
"No," the big detective shot back. "I've been busy catching bad guys."
"Touche. But it'd be helpful to at least take a look at the headings from time to time. As in "Homemade Explosive Devices." Sugar's often an ingredient. Mix it with sodium nitrate and you've got a smoke bomb. With permanganate, it's a low explosive - which can still do a lot of damage if you pack it into a pipe. I'm not sure how the uric acid figures but the Bureau's got the best database in the world. They'll tell us."
Rhyme knew that the FBI's lab was available to handle evidence analysis for state and local law enforcers, at no charge, provided that the requesting agency agreed to two things: to accept the FBI's results as final and to show them to the defendant's lawyer. Because of the Bureau's generosity - and its talent - the agents were inundated with requests for assistance; they ran more than 700,000 analyses a year. Even New York's finest would stand in line like everyone else to get this bit of sugar analyzed....

As you can see, by simply changing four words to the past tense, and by adding three words "Rhyme knew that..." to the beginning of the paragraph, the whole thing now blends seamlessly into the flow of the novel.

This is so easy to do... yet it is something that can trip up even the best novelists. Put this trick in your writer's toolbox, and you're one step further along the road to publication.

© Marg McAlister

 

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