Thursday, May 9, 2013

Lesson 2: Getting Dumped

What do you think of whenever you hear the word "dumped?"  Let me guess: it ain't pretty! Whether you are thinking of getting dumped by a beau or finding moldy cottage cheese in the back of the fridge that needs dumped out pronto, most usages for the word "dumped" carry a bad connotation. 

When it comes to writing, you can give your readers this same unsavory sensation by telling them too much information too soon. This is called the INFO DUMP.

 Look at this passage from The Seasons of Mae, where she has just met her sister’s new man of the hour:

 Robert Hales was in his late-twenties and had lived his entire life in the lap of luxury. His father had risen from poverty and created a very successful shipping business, first by steamboat and carriage, which then gave him the opportunity to buy into the great railroad movement. Fortunes were made overnight, and with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, a world of opportunities opened. The elder Mr. Hales was the first to build transcontinental without being subsidized by the government. Many thought he was crazy, but his great foresight paid off, and he reaped the rewards. He eventually squashed the competition and owned most of the rail lines in the west. Robert had the same business smarts and great foresight, and was a great attribute to his father’s company. In addition the vast fortunes Robert had already made for himself, he stood to inherit his father’s company and wealth.

This sounds like it came right out of a history book (guilty as charged! It DID come out of a history book, but was embellished slightly) and not out of the pages of a romance novel. Yes, the information is pertinent to his character, but does the reader need to know all of this right now? No. 

If you were to meet Robert, imagine him shaking your hand and then saying, “I’m in my late twenties and I’ve lived my entire life in the lap of luxury. My father rose from poverty and …” blah blah blah. You would immediately tune him out and then you would glance around the room, looking for a way to escape this boring “conversation.” If you want your novel to feel authentic, each character’s introduction should be just like meeting a real person. The reader should be given visual clues about his persona. Mae noticed this about him as he entered the room: 

He was tall and thin—obviously his delicate frame was not accustomed to hard labor.

That line right there—while far from perfect—gives just as much insight into Robert’s character as does that long, boring paragraph from above. He’s a true 1880’s gentleman; meaning he’s not going to be built like John Cena. His body type shows us that he is wealthy; there is no need to go into further details about his father’s business at this point (page 5!) in the story. Those details can be woven in later on.

Speaking of weaving, writing is much like sewing. Take cross-stitch for example: it has a front and a back. Obviously, it’s the front side of the cross-stitch that is meant for display, but that doesn’t mean that the backside doesn’t exist or isn’t equally as important. But the backside is just for the seamstress to see. It is where the work of sewing is hidden away—the anchors, the knots and the places where the seamstress jumps with the thread from one detail to the next. 

It is the same with a novel. The author needs to know every last detail about his or her characters. Quirks, weaknesses, strengths, habits, backstory—that information should be written in your character bible, but it should not be written in such a straightforward manner for your readers to see. Those are your knots and long stitches on the backside of your pages. You don’t want those facts to be seen! They should be woven—one little thread at a time—into your story.

How would we know that Robert is the heir to a powerful railroad tycoon? While that tiny tidbit of information could be given, the rest of his backstory should be omitted. Instead, I should have shown the incredible respect Robert received at any public local. People from the working class would cower when in Robert’s presence. People from the upper crust would fawn over him, especially if they had an unmarried daughter. Robert’s power and influence should be given to the reader through a series of exchanges of dialogue whenever Robert is in a scene. Other hints can be given, like seeing his surname name written on the sidecar of a freight train. Show the reader who the character is, rather than telling the reader who the character is supposed to be. 

Remember the old proverb: ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS. Make your characters ACT. That is how your story will come to LIFE.


  1. You can't tell me enough to "show rather than tell" because it is so NOT automatic for me yet. This is a good illustration of when and how to do this. Thanks!

  2. Not long ago I read a little article by several book reviewers on several ways to turn them off in the very first chapter. This was one of them. I was going to link to the article, but can't seem to find it again. So you're right on track with the book reviewers.

  3. Jenna: I think telling comes naturally to everyone; it's the showing that makes a true writer. I think you do a great job of showing already!

    Tara: I'm glad I'm not the only one who can't find what I'm looking for. :) If you ever do find that article, forward it to me. I would love to read it. Book reviewers know what they are talking about!

  4. So WELL put Lori...amazing advice, thank you! Absolutely, no one wants to be bombarded with too much info. You have an eloquent way of putting it, I love the cross stitch metaphor, maybe b/c I just love cross stitching :0)

  5. A.D.: Thank you! You are too kind! Since you love cross stitching, maybe you would want to complete one for me. I started it over 7 years ago and I've never gotten back to finishing it! :(


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