Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

It's Thrilling to Meet You (I Hope)

by Stephanie Black

When I have a fashion question, I consult my teenage daughter. These shoes or those shoes? Does this shirt look OK? Sometimes—surprise!—she volunteers advice without my asking for it. Life is full of little bonuses.

So, stumped on what to blog about, I asked her advice. She replied, “Give tips on how to avoid character infodumps.” Not what you’d expect a fourteen-year-old to say, but she’s accustomed to listening to me rant about writing technique in connection with books I read (“Pretty good story, but those mid-scene viewpoint shifts drove me nuts.”). So on advice from my daughter, I’m designating infodumps as the topic of the day. And one footnote here: I’m talking about infodumps as they relate to the modern suspense/thriller/mystery, not making sweeping statements about every literary style known to man.

The character infodump consists of a big block of summary about a character and his/her situation, usually written by way of introduction. It’s “telling”, not “showing”. Now, there are times when showing would be so onerous that it would tilt the story off balance and slow the forward motion of the plot. You can’t show everything in real time. But in my humble, freely shared, and slightly obnoxious opinion, infodumps ought to be avoided as a way to introduce a character and his/her situation.

When I pick up a novel and start reading, I want two things.

1—I want a character to care about. Who am I rooting for and why should I care what happens to him/her?

2—I want to be swept immediately into the plot and start living the fictive dream.

An infodump offers me neither of these things. Here’s the kind of text I’m talking about.

Chapter 1

“The bright morning sunlight streamed through the window. John sat at the kitchen table, staring into his Cream of Wheat and wondering if Mary was still mad at him. His ears were still ringing from last night’s shouting match.

Their marriage had been troubled ever since Mary won the regional squirrel-calling contest in June. Mary had always loved squirrels. John had no use for them, particularly when they raided his prize birdfeeder, but he’d tried to support Mary in her interests. But when she’d started spending hours in the backyard, chattering away to the furry menaces, John had started to feel neglected. He particularly needed Mary’s support now that things were going badly at work. His boss had disappeared under mysterious circumstances and John had started receiving threatening notes. But all Mary seemed to care about were her squirrels.

It wasn’t that John didn’t appreciate nature. He’d first met Mary at the Phoenix Zoo, where they were both standing outside the lion’s vast enclosure, squinting at the rocks and brush and trying to determine if there really was anything alive in there (it was possible, John thought, for a zoo enclosure to resemble the wild a little too much). Mary had been wearing jeans, a red T-shirt and white sandals. She’d turned to ask him if he could help her find the zoom button on her camera and he’d been entranced by—”

And so forth. The problem with an infodump introduction is that it gives me information on characters I don’t yet care about and it doesn’t hook me with the real-time action of the plot.

I want to care. I really, really want to care. I want to be hooked. I want a book that I can’t put down. I might be mildly interested in John’s mental meanderings, but believe me, I can set the book aside at this point without a flicker of regret, no matter how much the author TELLS me that he’s having interesting troubles. He’s not real to me yet.

So don’t start the story with John glowering into his breakfast cereal and thinking about his problems. Show me his problems. Show me the conflict. Bring Mary onstage. Let John try to tell her about the newest threatening message he’s received. Let her dismiss it with contempt and turn the conversation back to squirrel-calling. Show them arguing. Give me a few internalizations so I know what John is thinking during the conflict. Then you don’t have to tell me that their marriage is troubled or that Mary is squirrel-obsessed and self-absorbed or that John is scared about the mysterious happenings at work. I’ll know all these facts because you unfolded them right front of my eyes.

I don’t just want to know the facts of John’s situation. While I read the book, I want to BE John. If he’s nervous, I sweat. If he’s frustrated, I grind my teeth. If Mary insults him, I feel his pain. This kind of character identification comes through vivid, riveting scenes and characters who reveal themselves through their words, actions and internalizations. It doesn’t come through blocks of summary explaining how John arrived to this point in his life.

This is not to say that you can’t add background. Bring it out in interesting threads, woven throughout the plot. Throw in some nuggets that will enrich John's character and help me understand him. Once I care about John and have identified with him to the point that I’m living his story, I don’t mind if he sits for a moment and thinks about meeting Mary at the Phoenix Zoo and her troubles with her camera. I’m interested because now I care.

That's my two cents. Now for the next pressing topic: can I wear my black socks with my navy pants? If my shoes are brown, does that change the answer?


At 3/22/2006 10:55 AM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

I've changed viewpoint mid-scene. It's sort of a romance thing. I haven't done it in the current manuscript. That's good, right? ;)

At 3/22/2006 2:20 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Dang it. I just wrote a big reply, and Blogger had some kind of error and I lost it.

Suffice it to say that I said a great many insightful and witty things.

At 3/22/2006 3:17 PM, Blogger Mean Aunt said...

Aha! Now we know the name of your next book--The Squirrel-Caller.

I'd buy it.

At 3/22/2006 3:36 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Rob, if you get a chance, repost your witty insights. I can't stand the suspense.

Sariah, if mid-scene viewpoint shifts are a romance thing, I'll have to plead ignorance--I don't know anything about romance writing! :-) Personally, I prefer the one-viewpoint-per-scene method because I think it strengthens reader-character identification and increases story tension.

At 3/22/2006 3:47 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I just finished Nicholas Nickelby the other day, and Charles Dickens has mid-scene viewpoint shifts all the time. For some reason (probably because he's a master) it didn't bother me at all.

Tom Clancy does it too, but it bothers me when he does it.

Incidentally, I've noticed that Charles Dickens breaks all the rules, all the time. He changes POV, he addresses the reader directly, he tells instead of shows. Read the first chapter of A Christmas Carol -- it's all telling, not showing.

I guess when you're as good as him, you make your own rules.

At 3/22/2006 4:06 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

"The Squirrel Caller." Hmm, it has potential.

Novel writing conventions have changed a great deal since Dickens' day. My opinions on infodumps and viewpoint apply only to the modern suspense/thriller. And you're right, Rob. Every writing "rule" can be broken to brilliant effect if the writer is good enough.


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