It’s a horrible rainstorm. The hero of your thriller has been captured by the bad guys and is dangling by a frayed rope over a swelling river in front of a dam that’s cracked. At any moment it will break spilling millions of gallons into the valley and drowning the hero in a Biblical deluge. You turn the page and the author plunges into a dialogue between two minor characters on water pressure and flow rates complete with formulas and theories to explain the dangers the hero is about to face.
Whoa. What just happened here? One moment you were on the edge of your seat wondering will the hero live or die and the next it felt like you were back in Physics 101 with Mrs. Johnson. You know, the teacher with the greying bun and orthopedic shoes.
You’re probably thinking by now, Hey, author, way to go! That’s how to take me out of the story. And your next move will be to close the book and put it on the shelf never to pull it down again, until its time to put it in a stack with other unwanted books for that long overdue garage sale.
Information dump is a great way to turn off your audience. No one wants to sit through a dry lecture on…well, anything. Either you start to doze off with the book in your hand or you’re reminded of class with your most hated college professor, the guy that gave you an “F” last semester. Face it, it’s no fun.
What is information dump? Its revealing important information in the middle of the story in a manner that feels awkward and inappropriate. Its like when your pooch takes a dump on your neighbor’s nicely manicured yard. It’s very necessary for you dog to go, but not right in the middle of Mr. Rigley’s freshly mown lawn. Here’s an example of information dump:
Detective Walsh looked down at what was obviously the murder weapon. It was a World War II vintage M1 Garand rifle.
“Hunting rifle?” asked Greg, his twenty-something partner.
“No, an M1, a combat rifle used by the U.S. in the Second World War. It has a muzzle velocity 2950 feet per second. Weighs 9.5 pounds. It was the first semi-automatic combat rifle used. Just load an eight round clip into the breach and pull the trigger to get off a shot and the gases automatically eject the spent shell and reload a fresh bullet. No recocking. It was unlike any of the other combat rifles of the day. The British Enfield, the German Kar-98, the Russian Mosin-Nagant, the Japanese Arisaka, they all were bolt action rifles. You fired a shot then had to pull back the bolt to eject the spent shell and push it home to seat the new round. The M1 gave our troops a distinct advantage in combat. Patton called it, ‘The greatest battlefield implement ever devised.’”
Unless you’re a World War II buff like me, this probably felt like a bit too much information and really, the little history lesson could have been left off with no loss of vital information for the story.
So, how do you avoid information dump? One way is to give the information in a more natural way. In my novel, Fatal Impact, one of the main characters, Jared Birch is a physicist. He has to explain quantum mechanics to other characters. He begins like this:
“Well,” began Jared, “quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that deals with the behavior of very small objects like atoms, subatomic particles, and photons. At that level, those things don’t just behave like tiny billiard balls rolling around a table….”
This is beginning to sound a lot like just information dump. But, what would be the natural response of your friends or acquaintances if you started into a long dissertation? This is how I tried to make this a more natural conversation. The discussion continues as follows:
“Wait a minute,” interrupted Sam. “This is way too much information. Bottom line is it’s complicated. Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
Being interrupted by your friends when you start into a longwinded explanation sounds more natural than everyone sitting around listening to your character pontificate for pages on some arcane subject such as the mating habits of pygmy rattlers.
Another way to introduce information is to entwine it into the story. This way it merely sounds like an expected part of the narrative. In my recent novel, The Peril Protocol, the heroine, Hope Allerd, a physician in training, is asked to explain the Protocol while on rounds:
As if on cue, Hope said, “The Protocol. She needs the Protocol.”
“Ah, perhaps there’s hope yet.” Peril smiled on hearing the titter over his pun. “Enlighten us, Dr. Allerd.”
Hope made eye contact with Marcia then turned to Peril. “The Peril Protocol,” she said, “consists of nanotubes constructed of condensed benzene rings containing molecules of the antibiotic cefotaxime. When injected into the patient they bind to a protein receptor on the meningococcus bacteria cell wall causing the release of the antibiotic which inhibits bacterial cell wall synthesis thus killing the organism.”
Medical students and residents on hospital rounds with the attending physician (usually a professor with years of experience) are expected to spout volumes of information in response to the attending’s questions, as was shown in an earlier part of the scene. So, Hope’s explanation fits right in with what is expected.
Avoid information dump at all costs. Your novel will flow and your readers will continue reading.
Next time I’ll discuss a subset of information dump: the dreaded “As you know, Bob” snippet of dialogue.