Info dumps will kill the pace of a novel in a heartbeat, in my opinion.
Hopefully our readers are lost in the world we’ve created, but when an author pauses to jar them back into the physical pages by including blocks of details that can be successfully distributed at other times throughout the book, we’ve done them a disservice.
When descriptions, backstories, or elements are released at the volume of an open fire hydrant, all of those specifics will stall the novel’s momentum.
Timing is also critical. Is it necessary to stop the story with details about a person’s clothes, hair, or wrinkles? Why not introduce those characters with a detail or two, them build on that description as we get to know them.
Why not show them those elements? By showing and not telling, you can include more action, and keeping it in your character’s point of view, those factors are less noticeable.
Your protagonist can run fingers through thick gray hair. He can pop a button on a soft, often washed denim shirt he’d owned since college. She can unconsciously touch a scar across the bridge of her nose that she received in an auto accident when she was six and is now terrified of Mustangs. He prefers a Beretta M9 because he carried one in the military.
Imagine meeting someone at a party.
“Hello, my name’s Reavis Z. Wortham and as you can see, I have gray hair, though thin on top, and I’m kinda lanky, measuring in at five foot eleven inches. My polished black boots are ostrich skin, but I wear jeans and my shirts lean toward blue, because that’s my favorite color. Since I’m a fifth generation Texan, I wear a felt silverbelly hat. These brown eyes can look right through a person if I dislike them, and the crows-feet at the corners of my eyes tell a story.”
Good lord! I’d run from myself, or pour a stiff drink and hope the next person I meet will give me information about themselves and their lives a little at a time as we get to know each other.
Think back to a first date. Would you finish the evening if that individual pours out similar information in long, boring paragraphs?
Instead, let’s seed your character’s past, interests, or physical descriptions that are throughout the story.
Now, with all that said, rules are made to be broken. I’ve heard that it’s terrible for an author to put their character in front of a mirror to describe them, and that’s true most of the time.
However, I cheated with a mirror in my novel, Dark Places (which was listed by Strand Magazine as one of their Top 12 novels of 2015, so I know it worked). But I cheated in a creative way that gives the reader a backstory and attributes of two characters who we met much earlier in the book.
In Dark Places, my teenage female protagonist, Pepper, runs away from home in the late 1960s to follow Route 66 from Texas to California. Her dad, James, granddaddy Ned Parker, and a tough, mysterious character named Crow are on her trail. They fear she’s been picked up by a gang similar to the Hells Angels, and one of the three have to go inside a biker bar in the desert to get her out.
Of course I sprinkled physical characteristics for all the players on stage throughout the first and second act to give them depth, but now I needed to drill down even more so we can see who is most qualified to take on a biker gang.
They argue in a room in my fictional mid-century motor court and we learn which one is hard enough to take on the gang.
Here’s that except from the novel.
Crow and James were arguing about who would go to the bar where the Devil Rattlesnakes hung out. Standing beside the window, James fumed. “It’s my daughter in that saloon!”
Expressionless, Crow nodded. “I completely understand. But for one thing, we don’t know for sure she’s in there, and I kinda doubt it. What do you do for a living?”
“What? I run a hardware store.”
“Ever been in a fight, other than the one in the courthouse?”
James squared his shoulders. “Yeah. More than one, too.”
“Um hum. I meant after you got out of school.”
“Any experience in law work, like your daddy there?”
Crow tapped the dresser with a fingertip. “Come here.”
Softly. “Come here.”
James joined him. Crow pointed at the mirror. “Tell me what you see.”
“I see us.”
“Right. Tell me what you really see. Truthfully. Describe…us. Start with you.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“It’ll explain what I’m trying to tell you, James. What do you see? Describe your head.”
James Parker looked into the mirror. “A head.”
Crow nudged him with a hard shoulder.
“All right. Short, graying black hair of a man in his late thirties. Cowlick. Two eyebrows, also black. Brown eyes. A nose. Two ears that need trimming, I guess. Lips, and a chin with a dimple.”
“That’s about right. Now, describe me.”
“A guy with long hair.”
“More detail. Lots of detail, more than you used on yourself, but don’t stop at my chin.”
James growled in frustration, low in his throat. He drew a deep breath. “Long black hair, like an Indian.”
“I am Indian, but you’re right. Keep going.”
“Hair that looks like them hippies, then. A scar across your forehead from the middle to your temple. Black eyebrows. Almost black eyes. Indian cheekbones. No mustache or beard though, like those hippies, but that’s because you’re Indian again. A nose that looks like it’s been broke before…”
“Huh. Square chin with a horizontal scar in the cleft under your bottom lip. Scar on one ear. Wide shoulders. Some kind of necklace under your western shirt that needs washing, but it was expensive when it was new. Shirt’s hanging outside your jeans. You look tough.” He looked down. “Levis and work boots.”
Crow flexed his hands. “These?”
“Big hands. Big knucks. Lots of scars.”
Crow turned them over.
“So between me and you, who do you think has more luck walking into a rough bar full of bikers?”
We already knew a lot about those two, but it was necessary at that point in the story to pit James and Crow against one another in front of that mirror. It was timing.
Yep, I threw a lot out there, but paragraphs of information didn’t stall the story. Instead, I chose to show and not tell by providing those details in conversation, which flows naturally, hopefully making the readers part of the story. With what I provided, you were able to build those characters and see them in your mind’s eye.
Weave your story elements as you go. One quick sentence or two to set a scene, a couple of sentences further down to provide a backstory for your protagonist, or a phrase here or there are the building blocks of a successful story.
Remember, no dumping allowed.