In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, citizens could be eliminated for indulging in thought crimes. However, a more heinous crime was committed by Orwell himself: the dreaded information dump. Don’t get me wrong; Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic for good reasons. However, I would award a Snore Factor of 110 to the twenty or so pages where the protagonist Winston reads from a book entitled The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. I’m sorry George, but that part of the novel reads like a political essay. Oh wait ... it is a political essay. In any case, it’s dull.
This raises a dilemma faced by many novelists. How do you relay information to readers without boring them to tears or taking them out of the story?
Here are some solutions.
The slow reveal. This works particularly well if you’re dealing with a character’s back story. Your hero may have a colourful past, but you don’t have to tell the reader everything at once. Try revealing a little at a time. Alice Munro does this to great effect in her short stories, which usually run to about 30-40 pages. The title story from her Runaway collection focuses on a woman called Carla who’s trapped in an abusive relationship. We’re fed information about her relationship with Clark a bit at a time. Clark never hits her, but the feeling of menace builds until the twist at the end makes you go, ‘Argh! What’s going to happen next?’ If you have an hour to spare, you can read it here.
The need-to-know basis. In military or espionage circles, people are only given sensitive information on a need-to-know basis for security reasons. You can apply this to your own writing by asking whether your reader really has to know certain bits of information in order to understand and enjoy the story. If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you’ll need to explain the world in which your story is set. However, we don’t need to know how Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver works in order to appreciate that it can do a lot of cool stuff.
Mixing it up. You can add interest to your story by using other devices apart from exposition to vary the way in which you provide information (e.g. flashbacks, diary entries, letters, newspaper extracts). In her book The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier intersperses the story with her heroine Honor’s letters to a friend. Not only does this give the reader an opportunity to hear Honor’s voice, but it also enables Chevalier to impart information that may have otherwise slowed down the story. Just be careful you don’t create other problems by overusing these different methods.
Do you have any examples of authors who have done a good job of conveying back stories and technical details without resorting to the information dump? I’d love to hear from you.