Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Dreaded Data Dump

Only bears, rats and seagulls like dumps…

Supporting the overarching principle of not accidentally pulling readers out of our story, today’s blog is about data dumps. This was another lesson from summer workshop, but also a principle I learned while writing my memoir. Sometimes in fiction and memoir it’s hard to figure out how to give readers background story or provide context as to what’s going on without pulling them out of an active scene. If we spend too long in explanation, which interrupts action, it’s called a data dump, or information overload.

Once in a while we might need a little background to illuminate why a character is behaving the way she is. Or maybe we’re writing science fiction and using otherworldly terms which require orienting the reader or cluing him in. One device is to use an active flashback scene, but many times background story or explanation isn’t enough to merit a separate scene. And we can’t cheat and do it clumsily in dialog, either, because characters would never sit around telling each other what they already know.

It’s so easy for our eyes to slide past information-packed paragraphs written in a neutral, journalistic tone. After a point, we start wondering when we’ll get back to the main story, back to the conflicts and problems and emotions. So how do we approach explanatory narrative?

Explanatory material should:

  • Be super-lean, as short as possible
  • Not feel intrusive
  • Weave into the narrative rather than interrupt it
  • Create an emotional or visceral response if possible
  • Occur during a natural pause or down-time in the narrative, not during high action or fast-moving dialog
  • Never sound contrived
  • Be written in the voice of the story’s narrator

Like active scenes, information should be told in a narrative voice, from your narrator’s point of view. Don’t switch to “documentary mode” in fiction, especially when you’re in-scene, or even between scenes. And one of the easiest ways to lose a reader is to interrupt active dialog with explanation. A common mistake is to have a character refer to something new in dialog and then spend a paragraph or two informing the reader about the background or why he said it. No! That is classic author intrusion. Characters don’t have time to think about that stuff while talking to each other.

An exception is purposefully using a device like separate chapters or scenes that temporarily distance the reader from the story line, such as snippets from newspaper articles or letters. It’s usually done in a different voice during the entire section, and it has to be done effectively. I’ve read good historical fiction with sections that use a wider-angle “camera” that pulls back from the individual characters for a time and gives an overview of what’s happening historically. It can’t last too long, and ultimately it has to circle back around and apply directly to the characters the reader cares about.

The bottom line is, data dumps interrupt the story, and anything that interrupts risks losing the reader. Readers identify with characters, not with information. The best way to give information is to weave it artfully into the narrative so the reader doesn’t notice it.

Point of View

The second big topic we covered during writers’ workshop was point of view, a favorite agenda of David Coe’s. Everyone who has ever taken a writing course is probably aware of the basics of point of view: Your narrator can either speak in first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, or the always-irritating second person.

These days first person and third person limited are the points of view of choice for fiction. Third person omniscient (the narrator can be inside any character’s head at any given time) has gone out of style. Readers want to know which character to identify with, and an omniscient point of view makes them feel more distant and less connected. Writers can shift points of view in novels, but not mid-scene. We can only change after strong scene breaks or chapter breaks, and right out of the gate we have to make the point of view change clear to the reader.

In July’s workshop, though, we explored deeper into point of view, recognizing that we have to be careful only to include what our narrator/character could observe or know. Sometimes we think of storytelling the way it’s done in TV shows or movies, where multiple cameras record multiple points of view. Viewers don’t just observe the scene from the shoulder of the protagonist. Movies and TV are more omniscient in their storytelling than fiction, at least in observation. As a result of that influence, fiction writers can stumble into point of view violations without even realizing it.

For example, in a movie the camera can pull a tight close-up on the protagonist, sweating pores, messy hair and all. We get an immediate visual, by direct observation. But in fiction a first person or a third person limited character/narrator cannot describe himself using the same tools and methods we use to describe others. The writer can’t say, “I looked weary” or “his face went white” because the character can’t see his own face or countenance. (By the way, mirrors are a bad device to do that with.) The point of view character also cannot know what other characters are feeling or thinking. She can only assume, in the same way in real life we try to interpret others’ feelings by observing their mannerisms or facial expressions.

But there are other, more subtle, point of view violations. One of mine was my protagonist Paul observing specifically what his girlfriend was looking at during dinner. Because Paul was sitting right next to her, shoulder to shoulder, he probably couldn’t see exactly where her eyes were resting, he could only maybe judge the general angle of her gaze and hazard a guess. Another issue was he wouldn’t be able to see what his own rear tires were kicking up while driving, only what was spraying up from the cars in front of him. So we writers need to inhabit the character whose point of view reigns in the scene. What could the character actually know? What would he see and experience?

Readers can sense when you’ve hit a point of view violation (“Wait… how could this character know that?”), and it brings them out of the story. We never want to do that. We want them so engaged in the story that they don’t want to put the book down!