In my opinion, beginnings are the hardest things to write. Sure, maybe I can make a first sentence that seems catchy – at least to me – but then I have to write another. And another. And I have to set up all the little things that snowball into that one big thing that becomes a story.
Of course, when an idea pops into my head, it’s usually that middle, snowballed story. So I have to backtrack and figure out how the story becomes a story. And from that, one of two things happens:
1) I don’t think my backstory through enough, so my characters’ reasonings are insubstantial, nonsensical and unbelievable; or
2) I try to pack in the action to make people interested – then relate in a long backstory right at the beginning all the relevant information that will come into play later in the story.
This second thing is, of course, the info dump. We want to make sure everyone knows what we’re talking about, so we tell them absolutely everything. And it’s a tendency particularly among fantasy writers. Because we often set our story in a different world, we have to make sure that our readers understand its rules in addition to all the little plot details.
As a writer, when I info dump, it’s usually there not because, deep down, I think that readers need to know that information right away. It’s because I need to get all those thoughts in order, and figure out how my world works. I need the info dump for myself as both a basis for understanding, and a way to move the story forward. If I waffle along for a couple of pages, I usually think that I can move on to something exciting without ruining the pacing. Oh, if only it really worked that way.
So how do we introduce a world without writing an info dump?
1) Switch points of view: J. K. Rowling used this to great effect in her first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. “The Boy Who Lived” follows the day of Vernon Dursley as he goes about his life. As he meets all these wizards on the streets of London, we get to see from the eyes of an outsider, rather than being told how to see like an insider.
2) Make your main character an outsider, too: Whenever the main character learns something, the readrs do, too. If your main has never been to a big city before, then he’ll have to learn all the rules of the city before he gets arrested or kicked out. Right now, people are getting kind of irritated by the whole outsider thing, because practically every fantasy book is about some naive boy or girl who goes from being an insignificant nothing to the savior of the universe. So maybe don’t make your character too much of an outsider.
3) Be strategic: This is what I like to call the Suzanne Collins approach. That lady explains a whole lot in The Hunger Games, but it works because she explains it all piece by piece. Katniss doesn’t tell us all about the opening ceremony before she’s even picked in the Reaping. So we get info dumps, but they’re little. They’re not too much to take in.
4) Avoid that lengthy, but oh-so-useful prologue: This might be a pet peeve of mine. It’s very easy to give a ‘short history’ of a world or even a universe in order to set up what comes next. A character’s back story is one thing to set up in a prologue. The entire history of the world is quite another. To me, at least, it often feels rushed, forced and rather artificial.
5) Incorporate myths or folktales: Folktales and myths are ways of explaining strange phenomena of the world, or imparting some wisdom about good and bad behaviors. They’re often entertaining to read because of their whimsical style, and since they’re designed to tell something about the world (physically, spiritually, morally etc), they fulfill the role of informant without seeming forced. As long as you can legitimate including the tale in the first place…
So, there are a few ways to avoid that info dump. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but can be avoided with a bit of thought.
In what other ways can you avoid that dreaded info dump? Comments always appreciated.