Novel Girls: Getting Rid of Info Dumps and Ages

15 Jan

I had greatly missed my girls nights with my fellow Novel Girls. SG and Nicole were able to come over Thursday night while KK safely stayed home and did not brave these terrible Michigan roads. (I think the pot hole I hit a half hour ago knocked my axle back into alignment. They’re powerful.) So after a bit of girl talk and pizza, my husband left and we started reading.

Nicole and SG brought the first part of their NaNo stories and I had the next section of my novel (we’re getting toward the climax now). We started with Nicole, who was in a really difficult position. About three chapters into her NaNo, she decided to completely change the character’s relationships and jobs and pretty much everything else about her story. This was SG’s idea and makes for a pretty sweet ending, but the beginning is not at all related. She cleaned it up as much as she could for us and we read through the first chapter.

The one thing we both noticed was how much back story she had added to make the setting shift work. The way the characters knew each other in her original idea was very simple and went with their jobs but when the switch happened, everything was more complicated and necessitated a lot of explanation. This got us talking about ways to work in back story without explanatory paragraphs. My recommendation was to bring it through in dialogue. If two characters were friends in college, the narrator can tell us and we’ll know, or one of the characters can say, “Compared to the time we spent together at school, I feel like I never see you anymore!” Boom, info available. SG agreed but felt that the description of the company would be harder to work into dialogue. Her suggestion was to simplify the setting. Instead of being set at a private investigative company that contracts with the police, she suggested making the company a precinct. Because of all the cop shows on TV, most people have some vague idea of how a detective fits into a precinct and it wouldn’t have to be explained.

I personally have two other techniques for avoiding the info dumps I had at the beginning of my rough draft. The first was to see if I could move it at least three chapters into the book. At that point, I think, readers are more likely to read it without their eyes glazing over because they have a deeper interest in your characters and learning their back story is more interesting. The other is to cut it completely. If it’s not important enough that it can come up in conversation, I ask myself if the fact is so important that it needs to be said at all. A lot of the time, the answer is no.

How do you avoid info dumps in your story? Is a lot of back story something you notice as a reader?

SG’s story started off with two homeless guys and their daily struggle. I assumed based on the situation that they were somewhere between seventeen and thirty. She had one line that said “The boys giggled” that really threw me off. I thought it was referring to the characters as boys but Nicole pointed out that many times people do refer to grown men as boys to demonstrate a casualness. She suggested it was more a combination of “boys” and “giggled” that made us think they were young. SG agreed and said she would revise the sentence but it brought up a bigger question for me; how do you establish age without saying it?

I had the same problem with my novel, which opens with a fight on school property. I had multiple people who read it and thought the characters were in elementary school when they were 16/17. I had to add the phrase “high school” to give off a better impression.

I tried Googling advice on this and the internet came up pretty dry. So here we go with some solid Sam advice.

  • The way a character speaks can give an impression of age. For example, does the character refer to his mother as mom, mommy, or by her first name? All of these can give us an age impression.
  • Talk about how long he has been doing something. If Joe has been in retail for 20 years, we get an idea of how old he is.
  • When the character’s appearance is described, use words like young, bright, old, aged, weathered, etc. to describe an appearance.
  • Age of other characters can be alluded to in the same way. If someone’s best friend has a lined face, the character is probably around the 45-60 range, not 32. If someone’s mom is young and lively, his is most likely not in his 50s.

There you are, Reader. I know you were hoping for some solid Sam advice. Is this advice helpful? How do you imply age without stating a number? Please leave a comment and let me know, Reader! I love hearing from you.

Until next time, write on.

2 Responses to “Novel Girls: Getting Rid of Info Dumps and Ages”

  1. schillingklaus May 2, 2014 at 4:25 AM #

    I like info dumps as a reader;therefor, I do not avoid them at all as a writer. Don’t like it—don’t read it!


    • Sam May 2, 2014 at 6:35 AM #

      That makes sense. Now that I write I’m very aware of them and they bother me so I try to avoid them per my personal preference.


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