Friday, June 5, 2009

Don't Dump on Your Book

I struggled for a bit to come up with a title for this post that didn't sound disgusting. Hopefully this one won't attract people looking for pics of weird sex practices. Yeah, who am I kidding?

I wanted to talk about something I notice more in submissions lately, a practice in fiction that I personally do not like, and would wish to wish go away. I've talked about it here before, but it bears repeating.

If you've been in the game long enough, you may be familiar with the term "info dump." An info dump in a story occurs usually in the first chapter, sometimes as early as the first few pages, where just about everything you need to know about the main character (and often stuff that isn't important) is revealed. In the example linked above, Danielle Steel's novel Rogue, the story begins with a fashion model about to skydive off a plane. She does, and everything seems to go swimmingly, and it's around this time Danielle decides to cut away to give us the model's life story. So here she is, suspended in mid-air, while we learn about how she met the guy with whom she's diving, and how he made all his money in his thirties, about his MBA from Harvard, blah blah blah, and I'm reading this and asking myself, "The f--- do I care about all this now?" This is an action scene interrupted by information that isn't pertinent at the moment.

It's not that I'm expecting the supermodel to pull the ripcord and release an anvil a la Wile E. Coyote, but I'm of the school that teaches when you write something like this, stay in the scene. What's going on through this girl's head - she just jumped out of a frickin' plane! Were that me, I wouldn't contemplate my jump partner's MBA from Harvard, I'd be thinking Holy f---in' s---, I just jumped out of a plane! What the hell was I thinking?

If you survive, ponder the guy's millions at a bar.

So I've read through a few submissions this past week, and I see similar info piles loaded up front. Now, some may feel it's necessary to have the dossier on the main characters so the rest of the book makes sense. While it's important to establish a sense of place and being with characters, information overload can hurt the book, and your chances with an editor or agent. Be careful, too, if you're the type who likes to weave the exposition into dialogue. Conversation between characters should read and sound natural, not like narration of a documentary. Example.

Mary shelved the book and reached for another one. "So, Jane," she said, "how does it feel to have worked so hard for eight years to earn your Master's degree in Library Science at the University of Georgia? I bet you're glad to finally be on your own, too, after moving out of that apartment with those loud roommates who partied every weekend."

For one, I'm sure Jane knows where she went to school and for how long she went. If it's not pertinent to the story, the reader doesn't need to know. If it needs to be known that Jane has an MLS, it can be worked into the story more smoothly.

Another thing to point out, surprises in fiction rarely make sense if there's no explanation. Let's say two hundred pages into the book, Mary is cornered in the library basement by ninjas looking for the Book of Evil (just work with me there). Throughout the book, Mary is portrayed as some meek little gal who owns a cat and likes watching Ace of Cakes. Wouldn't hurt a fly. All of a sudden she goes postal and whips some ninja because the writer decided at that time to reveal that Mary has a black belt in some kind of martial art, trained at the feet of some ancient sensei while on a personal journey in Japan.

Yeah, I don't buy it, either. This is what is known as deus ex machina. In Latin it means "god from the machine," but another translation could be "getting out of a painted corner." If it's necessary that Mary be a ninja-slaying superstar, seeds should be planted throughout the story to make it a more believable trait. Maybe her belt hangs from her closet door, or maybe she catches a glimpse of a framed photograph on her coffee table as she reaches for the remote. Something!

For a book recommendation on how the distribution of information on a character is given well, read Sophie's Choice. Sophie has secrets to hide, and they revealed in a gradual way that is believable and fluid. It's one book anyone wishing to write should read, regardless.

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