Throw The Rulebook Out the Window… Except Not Really
By Aimee Lucido
No one likes rules. Half the fun of writing is throwing the rulebook out the window. You killed off a character on page 30 who you need back on page 150? Eureka! You just invented reanimation!
The trouble comes when we invite others to live in our world. Readers like patterns, so if dead characters can come back to life sometimes, but not other times, and sometimes they only return as ghosts, and other times as zombies, well, that’s just confusing.
But it isn’t that confusing if you know that dead characters can come back to life if they are wished back on a star, but only if their body hasn’t already started decomposing. Then they come back as zombies. And ghosts only come back if they had unfinished business, and even then they can only come back on Halloween. If the reader just got that from the start, then the rest of the story could just be!
A lot of writers just want to get to the meat of the story, and can’t be bothered with filling their readers in. So, they start their story out with 20 pages of information. The reader is inundated with back story, rules, restrictions, technicalities, and by chapter 2, they know enough to sit through 500 pages of action/adventure/paranormal/romance. Sure, they may be a little bored for those 20 pages, but at least now the story can start!
One of my favorite parts of the first Harry Potter book is when Hagrid meets Harry and we finally learn that Harry is a wizard. This is a critical point in the book where nothing is happening, we’re just learning. Which means that Harry meeting Hagrid is our first info-dump of Harry Potter.
“But that can’t be an info-dump!” you may be thinking. “It’s too interesting to be an info-dump!”
Ah, that’s where you’re wrong! Info-dumps don’t have to be boring. Info-dumps are as much as part of your story as the kiss scene in chapter 12, or the chase scene at the end.
Here are some guidelines you can follow if you want your info-dump to not feel like an info-dump at all, but rather an important and engaging plot point.
1) Don’t Overwhelm Your Reader
As a child studying history in middle school, the night before a test I would sit down and read the assigned chapters in the textbook. I thought I was being so clever, because I was a good reader; I could quote entire passages of Harry Potter from memory, after all! But my history textbook wasn’t the same as Harry Potter because my history textbook wasn’t trying to pace information in the same way that Harry Potter was. My history textbook would have a hundred things I needed to memorize in a single page. I wasn’t supposed to read the textbook, I was supposed to study it.
Your info-dump, however, is meant to be read, not studied. Hagrid isn’t giving Harry a crash-course in what it means to be a wizard, he’s telling Harry that he is a wizard. And he’s not just saying it and moving on from it, he’s saying it and convincing Harry that it’s true.
He says “Harry–yer a wizard” (NOT, “Yer a wizard, Harry.” That’s just the movie) and then spends three pages reminding both Harry and the reader about things they already know: Harry can make his hair grow, Harry can jump up to the roof of a school building, Harry can make glass at the zoo disappear. The only new thing we learned is that Harry can make magical things happen because he is, in fact, magical.
So when we leave this passage, we’ve learned just one new thing—Harry is a wizard. But we’ve learned it in a half-dozen ways so we don’t feel overwhelmed by new information.
2) Make the Reader Care
By the time we meet Hagrid, we really want to know what’s up with Harry. He’s out on a moldy island in the middle of nowhere, and someone, somewhere, is desperately trying to contact him. And we as readers need to know why, or we might just throw the book in the freezer in frustration!
When we meet Hagrid, our questions are finally answered. We know who’s trying to contact Harry, we know why the glass disappeared in the zoo that day, and we know why Harry is special—he’s a wizard!
As an exercise, it’s often useful to figure out where in your book is the absolute latest the reader can learn a piece of information. For example, we don’t need to know about wizard money until Diagon Alley, so we don’t learn about it until Diagon Alley. And even then, we only learn about it once Harry laments that he doesn’t have any money to buy school supplies.
We don’t learn anything before we want to learn it. Every piece of information is an answer to a question we already have, and thus we internalize it better than if we had never asked.
3) Show, Don’t Tell
Often info-dumps are a way of telling the reader about a world instead of showing them. Think of how much less interesting Harry Potter would have been if Hagrid had said “You’ll love Hogwarts. There are secret passageways, the portraits talk, and, oh man, our principal is a whackadoo!”
It’s far more interesting to see these things for ourselves than to hear about them. Watching Harry navigate the passageways with Ron, meeting the Fat Lady for the first time, and hearing Dumbledore give his speech at the feast are some of the things that make the world come alive. Don’t deprive your readers of that.
When it comes down to it, info-dumps can usually be avoided. When they can’t be, they can be handled gracefully and elegantly so that they don’t feel like info-dumps at all. Use the details of your world to color the reading experience, not to weigh it down.