By Elizabeth MS Flynn, w/a Eilis Flynn
Say you’re starting work on your latest story. You’ve just done a ton of research on it to get all the details right, down to the outer ridge of your heroine’s boot, manufactured in Kokomo, Indiana, having a distinctive triangular pattern as a post-modern variation of a 15th-century Native American design from the Humptulips, WA, region. You are proud of what you’ve done, and who could blame you? Inspired, you want to bring the reader into the story and you want him or her to be as fascinated and intrigued by it as you are. But you make a small tactical error. Just a small one. You dump all this stuff at the beginning of your story so they can get started on the wonderfulness that is your story…
And you are left scratching your head when the readers don’t come, or they read the first couple of pages…and wander away, choosing not to continue. What happened? Why weren’t they fascinated? What’s wrong with them?!
Here’s the thing. You gave them too MUCH. You didn’t give them a little of the wonderfulness at a time. You scared them away! How did they not find that triangular pattern on your heroine’s boot to be the most fascinating thing in the world? How in the world could they not want to know how that works into the complex comedy of errors plot? How could they not want to know more with that flood of interesting minutia?
This musing came about when my friend Heather Hiestand and I started to talk about the imparting of information and how too much makes our potential reader wander off, bored, especially in today’s short-attention-span society. That’s the problem with info dumps. It’s too much, too soon, and our eyes, used to tidbits about the Kardashians and the latest about Lindsay Lohan, go blind with actual, useful information.
So how much research is just right? What’s the tidbit to work in, what isn’t? Here are some tricks and tips to keep in mind when it comes to making the best use of your research, along with some examples.
info dumps that work
Gone with the Wind:
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.
Now you may ask, how the heck did Margaret Mitchell get away with THAT? Talk about a classic info dump!
Why’s it work?
Only with the second paragraph do we find out where the scene is set, in the Georgian country plantation where the family lives. So we learn not only does Scarlett get what she wants, she considers herself beautiful, and she has the world at her fingertips. This opener of Mitchell’s is famous because it is so infamously cumbersome. Whether or not you’re a fan, the introduction shows the reader that the story of Scarlett O’Hara is a story about Americans, a mixture of this and that and resulting in a character who’s flawed and foolish and conniving but strong enough to survive. So this is a case of an info dump that sets up the protagonist.
Then there’s the classic opening for
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
Does it work?
This is an example of an opener that could work for you, or could not. Aside from the introductory sentence, the details that follow sets the scene, but depending on what you’re expecting to find, it can be considered intriguing or boring. And from what I’ve heard commented, the interest can also be split into forms of fiction you’re interested in, and even gender (behold the modern man, whose interest in classic suspense seems to be at an all-time low unless there’s blood or gore described).
What to describe? Describe the clothing, the surroundings, the setting only as it moves the story. Author Jacquie Rogers, who writes Westerns, has told me from time to time that she tends to skip over details in her stories, to the point that all her characters might as well be naked. Or “nekkid,” her word. That’s the other extreme. Research is lovely, research is glorious, but if it doesn’t further your story, it’s just a lump o’ words. AVOID LUMP O’ WORDS! They stop your story COLD.
Heather and I are presenting this information as a workshop for Emerald City Writers’ Conference in a couple of weeks. Let’s hope that we’re succinct and don’t go into info dumps!
Elizabeth MS Flynn has written fiction in the form of comic book stories, romantic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies and short stories, a young adult novel, and a graphic novella (most published under the name of Eilis Flynn). She’s also a professional editor and has been for more than 35 years, working with academia, technology, and finance nonfiction, and romance fiction. If you’re looking for an editor, she can be found editing at emsflynn.com and reached at email@example.com. If you’re curious about her books, check out eilisflynn.com. In any case, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.