Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and editor, Jodie Renner, to share tips on imparting factual information without it coming off like the dreaded “info dump”. Enjoy!
by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker
Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy
As a freelance fiction editor, I find that military personnel, professionals, academics, police officers, and others who are used to imparting factual information in objective, detached, bias-free ways often need a lot of coaching in loosening up their language and adding attitude and emotions to create a captivating story world.
Really need those facts in there? Rewrite with attitude!
Say you want to write a fast-paced novel and your background is in a specialized field, so you decide to set your story in that milieu you know so well. Maybe you want to write a legal thriller or a medical suspense, or a mystery involving scientific research or stolen artifacts. Or maybe you’d like to use your military, police, or forensics experience, but your writing experience to date has mainly been confined to producing terse, objective, factual reports.
As you’re writing your story, you decide at various points that you need to interrupt the story to explain something the readers may not understand. And you want to get it right, both to lend credibility to your story and because you’re concerned about criticism from other professionals in your field. Your first impulse might be to copy and paste sections on that topic from a journal or online search, then tweak them a bit. Or just stop to explain the technical points in your own words, factually, as you would in a report or research paper, then go back to your storyline. Big mistake.
You’ve just interrupted an exciting (we hope!) story to give a mini-lecture. Remember that the main purpose of fiction is to entertain your readers with an engaging tale. To do that, it’s critical to stay in the story and in the viewpoint and voice of your compelling, charismatic (we hope!) characters.
How to keep your credibility but write with passion and tension
Want to keep your readers turning the pages? Try to turn off possible reactions of colleagues in your field and remind yourself that your goal here is to entertain a broad spectrum of the population with a riveting story. So limit your factual, informative details to only what is necessary for the plot, and present them through the character’s point of view, with lots of tension and attitude.
Go through the section several times and keep loosening up the words and sentence structure to take out the stuffiness and achieve a more casual tone, in the voice of the point of view character for that scene – it needs to be their thoughts, not the author stepping in. And introduce emotions and reactions – make the character frustrated, angry, or anxious.
And if it still sounds like a university lecture or a journal entry, make your character less reserved, less nerdy, less buried in his work. Give him more charisma and universal appeal, even a bad-boy rebellious side, and add quirks and more attitude.
Better yet, insert another, contrasting character to the mix to add in some tension, conflict and contrast.
Present the facts in a heated dialogue.
To impart some specific information while keeping your readers turning the pages, try these steps:
1. First, in a separate file, copy or write the bare facts in a paragraph or two – up to a page.
2. Go in and loosen up the language a bit – rewrite it in layman’s language.
3. Choose two interesting characters who each have some kind of stake in this info and are passionate about the topic, but in different ways.
4. Give them both charisma and quirks – and opposite personalities. Maybe make them competitive or distrustful.
5. Give them each their unique voice, based on their personality differences.
6. Give them opposing views on the topic or conflicting goals.
7. Using those facts, create a question-and-answer or argumentative dialogue between the two characters.
8. Add in some character actions, reactions and sensory details.
Now it’s starting to read like fiction!
Remember, most of your readers will be outside your field of specialty, and won’t find those dry factual details as fascinating as you do!
A before-and-after example, disguised from my editing:
Setup: A rebellious, trigger-happy cop has been ordered to be examined by a psychiatrist.
The brief “info dump” part starts with “Dr. Brown flipped…”
Dr. Brown opened up Jake’s file. “What happened after you were discharged from the Army?”
“I decided to become a cop. After police academy, I was assigned a beat in the Washington Park area in the South Side of Chicago.”
“The Washington Park area?” Dr. Brown asked. “That’s a pretty rough part of town.”
“Yeah, it reminded me of downtown Baghdad,” Jake quipped.
Dr. Brown flipped a few pages in the file where there was some background on Washington Park. The summary stated the area was only 1.48 square miles but was usually considered either the most dangerous or second most dangerous neighborhood in the United States. In fact, in some years it had seen more than three hundred violent crimes committed on its turf. Crimes such as murder, robbery, drug-dealing, assaults, prostitution, and rape were committed regularly in Washington Park.
Here, the author has replaced the above factual paragraph with a dialogue.
“Washington Park?” Dr. Brown asked. “That’s a pretty rough area, I hear.”
“Yeah, it reminded me of downtown Baghdad,” Jake quipped.
“The area is tiny, barely one and a half square miles, but it’s infested with crime. Some years you get more than three hundred violent crimes there.”
“Yeah, murder, drug-dealing, robbery, assaults, prostitution, rape—you name it, they’re all run-of-the-mill activities in that area. Stress city, man—I made my bones there.”
How the experts do it – with attitude!
Here’s an excerpt from a scene in a crime lab, as an example of how bestselling thriller author Robert Crais reveals the details of the fingerprinting process without interrupting the story to fill in the reader as an author aside:
[…] The white smear was aluminum powder. The brown stains were a chemical called ninhydrin, which reacts with the amino acids left whenever you touch something.
Starkey bent for a closer inspection, then frowned at Chen as if he was stupid.
“This thing’s been in the sun for days. It’s too old to pick up latents with powder.”
“It’s also the fastest way to get an image into the system. I figured it was worth the shot.”
Starkey grunted. She was okay with whatever might be faster.
“The nin doesn’t look much better.”
“Too much dust, and the sunlight probably broke down the aminos. I was hoping we’d get lucky with that, but I’m gonna have to glue it.”
“Shit. How long?”
I said, “What does that mean, you have to glue it?”
Now Chen looked at me as if I was the one who was stupid. We had a food chain for stupidity going, and I was at the bottom.
“Don’t you know what a fingerprint is?”
Starkey said, “He doesn’t need a lecture. Just glue the damned thing.”
And it goes on like this. Entertaining reading, and we’re learning some interesting stuff at the same time.
~ from The Last Detective, by Robert Crais
Another good example of how to impart info without boring your readers:
Here’s how Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore provide some information on a well-known structure in Las Vegas, without sounding like a travelogue or encyclopedia. This is from The Blade, an excellent thriller I edited in late 2012:
Setting: The Strip, Las Vegas
“So the Reverend Hershel Applewhite is a liar,” I said when Kenny returned from accompanying Carl down to the hotel lobby.
I stood at the window staring at the imposing pyramid-shaped Alexandria Hotel in the distance. I’d read somewhere that the forty-two-billion candlepower spotlight at the top of the hotel could be seen from space. The same guy who designed it—I couldn’t remember his name—built similar pyramid hotels with beacons in South Africa and China. Claimed he wanted his lights to be seen from every corner of the world.
Writers and readers – do you have a short example to share of imparting info with attitude?
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
Thanks for inviting me back to The Kill Zone, Joe! It’s always an honor to be here!
Excellent advice, Jodie. Dialogue is certainly the best way to animate an information dump, so the facts are conveyed naturally. Another way is to give a character a pretext to read a formal summary, say of a coroner’s verdict, then ask himself questions of it as he goes. Anger, incredulity, speculation… It can all happen in his own mind, with the same vibrancy.
That sounds like another good strategy, John. Thanks for sharing!
This is great advice. I’m learning the hard way that not only can it be a challenge to get all those details right, but you also have to content with “experts” in fields often not agreeing on what is “right”. I’ve given a chapter of my web novel to three different Marines now and all three of them had totally different critiques about what “real Marines” do, and all thee critiques take the story in totally different directions!
It’s enough to make one want to just make up their own military and be done with it.
Just like the military jargon quite a lot of local vernacular may get lost too but may be fixed with a bit of dialogue.
As an Alaskan writer of stories set in Alaska I can tell you, some folks just don’t pay attention to their surroundings, or can’t believe some realities are really real. For example: there are lots of folks with Sarah Palin’s accent up here, it really can get to -70F, and almost every other man in Alaska has served in the military…often spec ops.
An agent once asked me to change snow machine to snow mobile because she thought the idea of people of riding one of those things that makes snow on the ski slopes. But in Alaska we call the winter conveyance a snow machine, not a snow mobile. After all, who in the world would be able to ride a coat hanger with a bunch of paper snow flakes hanging on strings from it?
Same agent got on me for writing about a 9.0 earthquake, saying that could never happen. After all, they lived in California and knew a bit about earthquakes. Of course there have actually been five 9+ recorded, the 1964 Alaska being a 9.2.
Perhaps if I’d just explained it via dialogue she’d have liked it better.
Rob, I think the best strategy is to write a riveting, entertaining novel with charismatic, believable characters. If readers are grabbed by your story and want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next, they’ll ignore or forgive any minor technical gaffes. Block out the naysayers and concentrate on telling the most compelling story you can!
The other fun one? Having an expert tell you what terms to use and ~knowing~ that if you do, no one will understand what they’re talking about. That’s where you stop and say “is it worth it for 1% of the readers to really appreciate the level of detail if 99% won’t understand that sentence?”
So true, Rob! Maybe authors should consider a separate page or paragraph or two at the beginning or end of the story (outside the story itself) addressed to experts in the field, explaining why you chose not to get too technical, too exact, etc.; that your primary goal is to entertain and appeal to a broad readership (and sell lots of books!). Then if anyone in the field complains, refer them to that page.
I’m writing outside my field of study and not getting any advice from my husband (the technical expert). He can beta read when done and I know he’ll have so much techie stuff to nitpick, but I’d rather him do that after the fact rather than on the sideline at every single play.
When he read one scene, he said, “An investigator wouldn’t say that to another investigator.”
“Oh? Well then, Mr. 30 year veteran, how would he say it?”
Then of course, he goes into all this technical mumbo jumbo that I know readers don’t care about! LOL. Just tell me if the scene is feasible and if not, why. I can fix it.
Seems like you’re on top of things, Diane! Good luck with your WIP!
Excellent post Jodie! It’s always good to see actual before and after examples. In all the MSs I’ve critiques over the years the dreaded info-dump is one of the biggest problems. And although the problem isn’t limited to academics and professionals, it does seem to present such folks with problems. My sister Kelly worked with a police officer for a long time on his novel — the material was great! But she couldn’t get him out of his cop-mode. He couldn’t stop worrying about what his fellow officers would think. He couldn’t universalize his story.
PJ, my author clients who are (retired) police officers, physicians, and academics all seem to have the same worries. I guess the challenge for people from specific fields is to present accurate information, but in small doses, on a need-to-know basis, while keeping their language relaxed and never losing sight of the most important priority – to entertain the readers with a riveting story with lifelike, appealing characters.
Another thing to stay away from is the AYKB – the “As you know, Bob,…” where one character is telling another something they both already know, just to impart that info to the readers. That’s just not believable and takes us out of the fictive dream, so is a related approach to avoid.
This is related to the NIHTKY.* Where at the end of the story the bad guy has the good at gunpoint and goes into a long explanation of why he did what he did…
* Now I Have to Kill You
Yes, that one’s kind of another lazy way out, isn’t it, PJ? Today’s readers are more discerning (critical), so authors need to work harder to avoid all these overdone, unrealistic techniques. Keep it real!
Jodie, thanks for the timely post. Right now, I am in the process of one more re-edit, thanks to your Sizzle book. The book formed the basis for an expanded checklist. It’s amazing what issues a surgical search for an innocent word like “of” can turn up. I recommend the book. It can make a difference.
My books deal with a technical subject almost no one knows about — electronic warfare. My first drafts were heavy with arcane descriptions that tended to bog down the story. It took several rewrites to pare down and redistribute the necessary details in more palatable doses using techniques similar to the ones you describe.
Currently I am reading Mark Alpert’s Omega Theory. So far, a third of the way through, he does a good job letting the story carry the complex subject matter. I hope to learn by example.
Thanks for your kind comments on my book, Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, RG! I’m so glad you found it helpful for your revisions! Good luck with your WIP, and let us know when your book comes out in print!
AMAZING post, Jodie. You always do great things here at TKZ. Thanks for appearing again with Joe. Below is my contribution from my debut book.
Crime at the burned down Imperial Theater fire – Detective Becca Montgomery confers with CSI tech Sam Hastings after they find a decayed body entombed behind a brick wall. Excerpt from NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM (Jordan Dane)
With more of the wall removed, he craned his neck and directed his flashlight into the makeshift tomb.
“Looks like we’re gonna have to rethink the gender thing,” Sam said. “Check out those hips.”
With a tilt of her head, Becca turned to stare at the senior C.S.I.
“You need to hang out with people who’re partial to breathing. In case you haven’t noticed, this is a pile of bones. What hips?”
“I used the word ‘hips’ for your benefit. I didn’t think—’Hey, check out that sciatic notch’—would get your attention.”
When she scrunched her face, Sam explained and pointed to the lower vertebrae.
“The sciatic notch spreads as a woman gets older, allowing the pelvis to make room for childbirth. If I had to guess, this sacrum and pelvic rim are from a young female. And the partially erupted molars back me up. I’d say the victim was late teens to early twenties at time of death.” He pointed a finger to the brow of the skull. “Another thing, check out the forehead. It’s almost vertical. Men’s tend to slant more, develop a brow ridge. And with the narrow mandible, definitely female.”
“So my ‘he’ is a ‘she’?”
“Yep, looks like it.”
When Becca peered deeper into the stone vault, markings caught her eye.
“Hey, what’s this?” She inched closer and directed her flashlight to the left. “Oh, God. Are those what I think they are?”
Jagged scratches lined the inside of the stone vault. Layers of them overlapped in no discernible pattern. Thin striations mixed with deeper gouges. She felt the group of men move closer. Silence made the air feel thick and oppressive. Motionless. With her discovery, it became harder for her to breathe. Finally, Sam confirmed what she already suspected. By the solemn tone in his voice, she knew it struck him too.
“Scratches. Probably from her fingernails. Looks like she was buried alive.”
Becca closed her eyes to block the images, a gruesome strobe effect triggered in her mind. Tortured screams. A mouth gasping for air. Sheer panic. She pictured her missing sister Danielle dying an unthinkable death, walled away in darkness with no one to hear her cries for help.
“No one heard her scream.” She hadn’t realized she’d spoken the words aloud until Sam consoled her with his reply.
“Until now.” He sighed and stared into the hole.
Awesome excerpt, Jordan! I really like the way you give the readers some interesting info “with attitude,” and make it relevant and necessary. It feels like we’re all solving a puzzle together. And that last part — omigod! You really brought that poor woman’s final hours to life! Compelling and moving. Almost made me claustrophobic, just reading it!
Thanks, Jodie. I really LOVED your post today. Spot on.
Great post Jodie. I love the whole idea of planting images and concepts in people’s minds by letting them over hear dialogue that will paint the picture for them.
Here’s an excerpt from my current WIP. It’s intended to paint an image of a young middle-aged couple deeply in love and physically very attracted/devoted to one another.
He pressed the button on his blue tooth headset and voice dialed Miyoung.
“Yoboseyo,” came his wife’s husky voice. She hated the deep, raspy sound that often got her accused of being a chain smoker, something she had not tried even once in her life. Buck loved the sound, low, calming, and sexy. Like an Asian Lauren Bacall, her voice was a verbal snuggle every time she spoke.
“Hey baby, the boys are at camp I’m on the way home,” he said. “I hope you took a nap, cuz it’s going to be a long night like newlyweds.”
“Chagi,” she called him with the Korean term of endearment. “I’m with mom and Jiyoung.”
“Please tell me you’re not on speaker phone,” his cheeks flushed hot.
“No, I’m not,” she replied. “We just left the PX and are heading home. And to answer your prior statement, everything is ready as per standard operating procedures. I think the sequence should run with full interactive output once you log in.”
“Twenty five years and you are so good at running my code,” he was a network admin and she a web programmer, using computer jargon to talk dirty came natural.
“You just have to make sure to have sufficient hard drive size and may need to do a RAM upgrade. You’ll need all the processing power possible to meet the program requirements.”
“My hardware was designed solely for your software, so hard drive and RAM size is not a problem either, it all adjusts dynamically during processing,” Buck replied. “As it is my system is nearly overclocked in pre-processing. Of course, we’ll have to run the program a couple of times to make sure the results can be replicated.”
“No problem here,” she said with a voice that belied a straight face. “My software is capable of multiple reboots, as long as RAM refresh rate can remain consistent.”
Buck burst out with an abrupt laugh, “Holy cow, I’d better stop this conversation right here or you’re going to make me have an accident. You want me to pick you up at your mom’s or sister’s when I pass by?”
“pssshh…just … pssshh … house … … don’t…”
The connection dropped. He glanced down at his phone’s screen. “No Signal” flashed on the small display. He wondered when Alaska was ever going to get caught up to the rest of the world in cellular technology.
He sped down the Glen Highway towards Anchorage. The sun shone brightly as it hung high in the sky on this June day, promising twenty four hours of sunshine to light the way to bliss. The thought that in forty five minutes he would be settling to a nice cold bottle of Australian Cabernet and the reality of his wife’s not so subtle innuendos pulled his foot down onto the accelerator.
Sadly, once the action bursts to life, their night of bliss never occurs, but I want the reader understands they are truly devoted to one another.
Great excerpt, Basil! And funny, too! Your goal comes through loud and clear, as does their devotion and their personalities. Thanks for sharing!
That’s about as dirty as my writing ever gets. My hope though is that they will read it and think I have put all kinds of explicit sex writing and maybe even some foul language in it only to discover that the dirty words and thoughts came from their minds and not my writing.
LOL! Good trick, Basil!
I am enjoying working with you on my debut novel. Most productive!
I do want to share a short take that might be included in caveats: get critical technical aspects correct!
I have no fear of criticism from my physician colleagues (at least not on technical info. The “your story sucks” comments will certainly smart)
I do believe that when one includes info that is germane (and why include it if it is not?) in a technical area (police, military, weapons, medicine, law, whatever) it must be accurate or you will lose knowledgeable readers. There are few things that put me off a novel more than an errantly based premise or a key reality that ain’t.
I’m not talking about whether the nuclear technician inserted the control rod faster than typical or if the surgeon used a vertical mattress stitch intead of a simple interupted (i.e. trivia). The reading audience is, by and large, informed. If your story involves military, police, medicine or another specific areas you will likely (hopefully) develop a readership with greater than ‘average’ knowledge/interest in that field. Your tips are good ones but the writer must be certain that the significant info that is included supports the story and the actions/words of the characters.
Great post and in full agreement but thought i’d toss out a cautionary thought
Tom, I am absolutely LOVING working on your riveting thriller! And I know readers will really enjoy it, too! As you can tell by my comments in the margin, I’m totally into the story and the characters and their reactions! (For the benefit of others, my editing style involved editing in sections, with lots of ongoing back and forth with the author.)
And you make an excellent point. Do your research, and whatever facts you present should be accurate! Thanks for bringing up the other side of the coin, Tom.
Oops. That should be “my editing style involves editing in sections.” I know, editors should proofread their comments before clicking “Publish”! LOL