Monday, July 8, 2013

"As You Know, Bob..." And Other Names for the Information Dump

When I work with young, emerging writers, probably the #1 issue I run into is the dreaded information dump. However, when most of us think of the term information dump, we assume it refers to just dropping tons of backstory information in one place. That's only one form of it. Information dump doesn't always refer to the amount of crap we're dumping (Ew!). It can be just one line of dialog that makes your characters look pretty stupid.

There are many names for the Cardinal Sin known as the information dump within dialog:

1) Tell me again, professor...
2) Idiot Lecture
3) As You Know, Bob...

Tell me again, professor
This is a classic information dump. Here, you have a characters asking the "professor" something he should ALREADY know. But the reader needs to know, right? But here's it pretty obvious that this piece of dialog doesn't fit, and a reader will be jolted right out of your story.
"Tell me again, professor, what does this gadget do exactly?"
If the assistant works with the professor everyday in the lab, either he has amnesia or is the dumbest person ever.

It's cousin is the equally bad: "Tell me again why we're here?"

As you know, Bob
This is my favorite term for the information dump.
"As you know, Bob, Jane is our sister."
Um, yeah. Duh. Again, unless Bob has amnesia, this really rubs the reader the wrong way.

I watched a little bit of Return of the Jedi on Saturday, and I laughed out loud when The Emperor said something that was a great example of the Idiot Lecture. It's the scene where Darth Vader presents Luke to the Emperor, and Vader hands him Luke's lightsaber.

"Ah, yes. A Jedi's weapon, much like your fathers."

REALLY? Isn't this line of dialog so out of place with what's going on in the scene? It is obviously for the viewer's benefit just in case they haven't been paying attention. It is information dump, despite it being just one line of dialog. The Emperor isn't really talking to Luke, he's talking to THE AUDIENCE.

It's almost like a Shakespearean "aside," isn't it?

There are many ways to make sure the reader is armed with the backstory information they need:

1) Prologue. Mixed feelings on this one. It makes sense if you need to show something that happened long before the time period of your story. And make sure it's not too long. I hate long prologues.

2) Flashbacks and dreams. I'm personally not a fan. Flashbacks work better for TV and movies. For books, it's trickier. Dreams are so overused, they've become cliche.

3) Something in the plot makes the character get a little nostalgic. This can work if done well. Maybe your main character is nearly hit by a car while walking across the street. That could trigger a time when he was a kid and was hit by the ice cream truck.

4) Give your character amnesia. Not joking. That way, you can information dump your ass off all day long. And it's okay! Soap operas are notorious for this. That's why viewers can skip watching for a couple years and pick up the storylines very quickly. The characters are constantly idiot lecturing AND somebody's always got amnesia.

5) Weave in specific details into the story. This is my favorite way. There's no need to drop a gazillion details in one chapter. Let the reader pick up on stuff as they read. If backstory is woven in, the reader will remain engaged. Picking up a tidbit or two of backstory stuff feels more natural this way.

So don't make your characters look really stupid by talking about the obvious (to them) just for the reader's sake.

Because as you know, Bob, a disengaged reader is an unhappy reader.

38 comments:

Brinda said...

Timely topic for me. I'm in first edits from my editor. I'm trying to do #5 because she said I didn't weave in enough backstory for it to be standalone.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Characters should be talking to each other, not to the reader.
Give them amnesia. I wonder how often that happens in real life?

Jay Noel said...

Brinda: That can be a little tricky too. As long as your character isn't having a ton of flashbacks, connecting the backstory past to the story's present can be done.

Alex: Amnesia is not very common, but it does happen. Usually, a blow to the head is not involved.

Pat Dilloway said...

I remember watching an episode of "The Soup" on E! once and they played clips from a soap opera showing how many time the one guy kept saying a character named Rick's name. I guess he really liked that name.

DEZMOND said...

'tis true, but then again in my experience most readers don't notice stuff like these. There are extremely popular writes (bad ones) who do everything against the advices shared at writing blogs and most of the readers still do not notice how bad their books are... It's sad actually that even if you try and do your best most readers won't really notice it.

Jay Noel said...

Pat: Maybe he thought the audience had amnesia

Dez: Case in point - any of the Twilight Books.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

I've often thought that the script for the Star Wars movies was written for people with an IQ of 80.

Robin said...

Did you watch Lost? I can honestly say that show used flashbacks well to serve their current plot as it moved forward. However, as you say, I wouldn't suggest that most shows (or books) try it.

jaybird said...

I totally agree! Info dumps are annoying as a reader; yet as a writer sometimes I am GUILTY of doing this! It is so important to check ourselves and know just where/how to drop those deuces without it becoming aggravating to the reader. (Not an easy thing to do, that's for sure.)

The Desert Rocks said...

Oh, oh, I do this...yikes. I also love flashbacks and dreams but they are retro and well, I guess I love retro stuff.

Jay Noel said...

Michael: Return of the Jedi was shockingly poorly written. As I watched it, it just blew my mind.

Robin: I got so LOST while watching Lost. I gave up on it.

Jaybird: We all do it. Just need to really watch it. I often do it with geography since my setting is an alternative earth. "The icy land of..." I go back and nearly throw up when I catch them.

Eve: Dream a little dream with me! Nothing wrong with them, but it can be tough to pull off. Soaps also use all those flashbacks...and in real life, I guess we do daydream like that.

mooderino said...

TV shows and movies do it a lot and let the actors sell it to the audience. Can't really get away with it so easily in a book.

mood

Riann Colton said...

I know of an author who will dump all her research into her books. In one scene. Blam. There it is. It pulls me from the story.

Gimme just enough research so I don't feel stupid but not so much that I know I'm stupid.

David List said...

I'm in the process of rewriting my first book one chapter at a time. It's amazing the amount of useless crap I shoveled in here and there, some of which being not relevant to the story at all... I've been spreading the important info more thinly across lines of dialogue and scenes of action, rather than internal soliloquies.

Jay Noel said...

mooderino: And in in the movies and on TV, they constantly call each other by name. Which doesn't work well either.

Riann: Yuck! I hate that kind of info. dump. That's a REAL DUMP.

David: I do the same. I'm an overwriter, so I'm constantly having to cut the fat and extra detail that's not necessary. I feel your pain!

M Pax said...

It's funny, because one of my CP's has a fit if I even have one line of backstory. My editor says I need more. I'm going with the editor...

This is where writing a series is hard. I feel like I wrote it 1200 times already... yeah, just not in this story.

Sheena-kay Graham said...

#1 and #5 are very good if used well. Information Dump is an easy way for your manuscript to fall short of your potential.

Dana said...

Jaybird took the words right out of my mouth. Info dumps are annoying, but it's an easy trap to fall into.

Damyanti said...

I'm all for tip #5. I like weaving in details from the backstory.

Jay Noel said...

Mary: Gotta have backstory. Readers need it!

Sheena: Information dump is lazy.

Dana: VERY easy. The weaving it into the story takes a lot of art.

Damyanti: Readers stay engaged if it's done that way, and done well.

Carol Kilgore said...

Excellent advice. Your favorite way to weave in backstory is my favorite way, too.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Of course the Star Wars films are badly written - George Lucas wrote them.

The "Tell me again, Bob" I see all the time in TV shows.

Maurice Mitchell said...

I never noticed that Emperor line was an "As You Know Bob" line. That has the greatest name for a trope ever Jay.

Jay Noel said...

Carol: Feels more natural to the reader.

Diane: Makes me wanna watch the other two and see how bad the writing is.

Maurice: I think it's a great name for a trope too!

Julie Dao said...

YES. Thank you for posting about this. I hate when stuff like that happens. There is no good way to backstory dump... the key is to feed small tidbits at a time.

Samantha May said...

Info dumping is a huge pet peeve of mine! It takes away from the story if you have to tell me a separate story first :P

Cynthia said...

Which soap operas did you run home to watch back in the day, Jay?

Sometimes an info dump technique that has worked for me is when the author brings in a character who has been out of the loop, and rightfully so, and the MC has to update them. But the key to doing this right would be to not stretch it out.

Pk Hrezo said...

Great point Jay. I was really guilty of this early on, and prolly still am today, tho always manage to find amazing beta readers to weed it out.
I catch movies all the time with those lame lines in it. Silly evil emperor!

Michael Ignacio said...

I have some issues with this, but this article is very helpful for identifying the concerns in my novel. Great post man!

Kelley Lynn said...

This is so true! If the character already knows something he's not going to ask it again for the reader's information :)

Sherry Ellis said...

Great information. I like weaving details gradually into the story. It's definitely best to avoid dumps!

Jay Noel said...

Julie: YES. Small tidbits is the way to go.

Samantha: Right. Stick to the main plot. Everything else just enhances it.

Cynthia: When I was a kid and home sick, I'd flip through the channels. This was before satellite and cable. After Price is Right, I was in trouble. Nothing but Soaps. Yuck.

Pk: Of what I've read of your newer stuff, you're doing just fine!

Michael: Just understanding the concept is huge. Next is to identify and PURGE.

Kelley: Right. Gotta write dialog that is real and in the moment.

Sherry: This is a NO DUMP zone!

Elise Fallson said...

Great points, Jay. I think some authors just need to trust that their readers will pick up the details along the way. In my current ms, I've tried to get around the info dump by having my characters discuss the situation around a table to bring other characters up to speed. I think it could work ok if only I could cut it down a bit.

Jay Noel said...

Elise: That's a good way to do it, but you're right. There is a tendency to overload the reader too. It's a balancing act.

Mr. Shife said...

Great stuff, Jay. Makes a lot more sense when it is all put down in a blog post like this. Now I feel like I need to watch ROTJ to see that scene you mentioned. I am hoping I don't disengage Bob too much with my writing but it is bound to happen. Have a good one.

Cindy said...

Lots of great points. I used to stay away from flashbacks, but I've recently enjoyed some books where the flashbacks were masterfully done and added to the foreshadowing. Backstory can be tricky to handle, and I also used to avoid that too, but in the last few years, I've found that readers (not writers) want some backstory. The method of weaving it in is a good one. Thanks.

Rachel Frost said...

A lot of fantasy books use the convenient character from a village that has secluded itself from the rest of the world, so they can explain the fantastic for the reader. Lord of the Rings, The Sword of Truth, and The Wheel of Time series all do this. Final Fantasy X, as well, for a video game reference to this tactic.

My book uses flashbacks, but they are concise and most everyone who's read it loves them. *shoulder shrug* So there are always exceptions to any rule.

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