Monday, December 6, 2010

To The Dump

By Steve Weddle

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: Today at the DSD Goodreads group, we get to discussing Benjamin Whitmer's PIKE. Please join in the discussion:


Something all writers fight with. Yeah, sometimes it's the what. What's the story about. What's the angle? The conflict. Sometimes it's the where, the setting. Urban. Smell of asphalt and smog, whatever the hell. The who, the characters. The villains. A believable protag. The alcoholic cop with the ex-wife and the bad thing in his past. The when. Maybe a period piece. Set it back when you grew up. Gives it some flavor, but you don't have to work too hard on the research.

But what about the where and when in the story to put all the whats? Right? The dreaded information dump.

I can't stand that crap, you know? Maybe it's just small stuff. The character who walks past a mirror, then stops to brush back her long, dark hair. Oh, phew. She's got long, dark hair. Good to know.

Or maybe the info dump concerns something bigger. Maybe you get that from another character:
Tony walked into the sports bar, waved "hello" to Mick.
"Well, if it isn't Anthony Pagliope. Haven't seen you since nine years ago when your father ran off with all that money from the big bad guy who is still at large. Then your father died leaving you with this huge 300-page mess to clean up so that your family name can be restored and your mother can be peaceful when she dies of cancer. What brings you back to this town?"

And the stuff about the neighborhood, because setting is important. Geez, do these people in novels have some friggin amazing memories, right?
Tony walked down the street where Mrs. Mahoney used to live with her dogs. Walking by, Tony thought of the time he helped Mrs. Mahoney nurse a sick puppy that had been struck by a car, thus showing Tony's generous nature and making the reader root for him. Tony handed a bag of turkey to a crippled orphan and walked on.

The problem for the writer is having all this stuff you have to manage. The reader has to care about the characters. The characters have to be in danger. In conflict. So, the writer has to make you care about the character while the character is getting hit in the face with a cricket bat. Dude, this ain't easy.

See, this backstory is the tough stuff. You have to keep things moving along in the story while reaching back and bringing forward stuff that makes your character worth caring about. Often it's that redemption crap. You know: she screwed up something in the past and now has to make things right? But, I mean, she didn't screw up too badly. Maybe she fell in with the wrong crowd even though her mother had warned her. Then some bad junk went down. Right? She couldn't have gone out one night drinking Boone's Farm and then set fire to an orphanage. You have to care about the person. So maybe something bad happened. Maybe she did something bad. Just not too bad. And the writer has to convey that, give the reader all that information and shape the reader's thoughts about it. How are you supposed to feel when you find out that the protag robbed a church for drug money? Maybe she was on her way to give the money back when the cops caught her. She serves some time and while she's in prison, her mom dies. Boohoo. Well, maybe that's bad but not too bad. So the writer has to get all this backstory to the reader, has to dump all this information. And where? Early enough so that you care about the protag, but not so early that it hinders the almighty "flow" of whatever crap you're writing.

Of course, it doesn't have to be the protag's backstory. It can be any character's. And maybe you get it in a dream. He has these terrible dreams about what's gone wrong in his life. Or maybe he's going to a shrink. Heck, that'll open things up.

The character's face. The setting. The backstory. Have you ever been hung up -- as reader or writer -- on the information dump? Got any words of wisdom for the rest of us?


John McFetridge said...

Last week here in Toronto a guy was murdered at a branch of the library - with a crossbow. One of the witnesses said the guy who did it, "Was calm, he walked away like he was going to get a sub."

I read that and thought, now that's voice, that's what we writers are after, the perfect amount of the specific. Apparently if you walk away from a crime scene and you're going for a cheeseburger or wings you're not calm - calm means, for this witness, ging for a sub.

So as long as 'the dump' has the same voice as everything around it in the story, I'm okay with it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is definitely my biggest worry and weakness.
Especially in my apparently futile attempts to write a novel. I don't mind reading back story myself, but I know most people don't like it. But nobody walks into a bar or library without a reason for it. Just how to work it in.

Lamar said...

I've been trying — not always succeeding, but trying — to have not a dump but rather a sprinkle, as in sprinkling pertinent information throughout the story, having it come up in conversation where appropriate.

Also, I'm working more on leaving out irrelevant description. Anyone who has ever read my stuff will tell you that I often like to spread it on pretty thick, and I'm starting to get that that is a drawback to my work.

For example, is what your characters look like relevant to the story? Sometimes, sure, but generally speaking, no. Maybe sex is relevant, sometimes ethnicity. Maybe if the character has some sort of distinguishing feature, such as massive nose, or a scar across his face or a beard down to his waist.

For the most part, though, who cares if your hero is blond-and-blue-eyed, or brunette-and-green-eyed, or whatever? Those are the sorts of details I think can generally be left up to the reader's imagination.

I think a lot of fiction — certainly a lot that I've written — would have been better served by the author sketching lightly rather than rendering in excessive detail.


John McFetridge said...

I agree, Lamar.

When it comes to what characters look like, I thnk what's important is what effect that has on the other characters. If it's something the other characters notice and is important to them, might as well let them comment on it.

If it's not important to anyone else in the story, is it really important to the reader?

Dana King said...

Just as we don't learn everything about a person all at once, the backstory shouldn't be dum,ped on the reader. Bite-sized chunks, as needed. A sentence. An anecdote there, especially if the anecdote can be made into an entertaining conversation. Sometimes the best bits of backstory are slipped in so neatly the reader wasn't aware of it until later, when he reads something and thinks, "Oh, yeah. Didn't he sleep with this guy's daughter once and it was a catastrophe?"

When in doubt about something like this, I often ask myself, "How would THE WIRE handle it?"