Here’s the episode of the Writing Talk Podcast.
In this episode of the Writing Talk Podcast, we’re looking at how to avoid using an info dump to deliver backstory and explain world building in your fiction.
Plus this week’s writers’ toolbox tip and an intro to the new Writing Clinic feature. There’s also a quick review of my news.
Hope you enjoy listening.
NB: You can support the show by subscribing from the links above. Please also consider sharing the show with your writer friends.
I’ve just set one of my books, A Dark Assortment, to being perma-free on Amazon and since then it’s been flying off the virtual shelves, with as many as 350 downloads happening in a single day. For some time, it’s been number one in the Kindle charts for short horror stories in the USA – in the free chart anyway. I’ve also put a new cover-up for Trespass, my first full-length Darkeningstone novel. Listeners of the show will know that it’s not long since I changed this cover, but I still wasn’t happy with it. I’m really pleased with the new one – I think I’ve finally nailed it and I’ll leave it alone for a good while to see how it goes. The only downside is, that I’m so pleased with the cover for the first book, the cover for the second book now suffers by comparison and I am already on the hunt for a really great stock image to upgrade it. I wouldn’t recommend to most people that they make their own book covers. You could probably save a lot of pain by the buying a premade book cover and I’ve seen some good ones for as low as $50, but I like to learn new skills and I do have a background in designing websites, and although websites are different from book covers in many respects, there’s a surprising amount of common ground. For example, in both areas of design, then composition is important, so knowing about proximity, vertical rhythm, and balance are important. Both involve the careful use of typefaces, images, whitespace, and backgrounds. That said, I must confess that my first attempts at home-made book covers, although not as hideous as some I’ve seen, were pretty poor.
By the way, if you’re not sure exactly what people mean by the word perma-free, or if you would like to know more about setting a title to be perma-free, keep listening and I’ll explain it in this week’s writer’s toolbox.
How do we avoid the info dump in writing?
First off, I’m indebted to the members of the new Writing Talk Podcast Facebook group for suggesting the topic for this episode, especially Nathan Middleton and Mark Harrison. Thanks to both of you and to everyone else who’s joined the group. I hope that this episode will help to answer some of the questions and concerns raised in the group, and at least it will give you all something to think about when you’re searching for the way forward. If you’d like to suggest a topic for a future episode, then head on over to http://Facebook.com/groups/WTPworkshop and request membership. It’s a supportive and welcoming group for writers of all abilities and stages experience, so pop over and we’ll be glad to see you.
So, what is an info dump?
An info dump typically occurs when a writer gives in to the almost irresistible urge to establish a character, a scene or a setting by writing a passage of exposition that either provides back story or adds a lot of detail to the setting for the whole novel. In science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, this type of detail is often referred to as world building, but whatever the genre, all stories take place in some context or other, and as writers, we often feel that we should make it plain exactly what that context is.
So why is an info dump a problem?
There are times when nuggets of carefully selected information are vital to the progress of the story, and in those cases, a certain limited amount of exposition is necessary and efficient. Where the problem arises, is that info dumps tend to become protracted explanations, and then it’s as if the writer just doesn’t know when to stop. If this happens in a first draft, then it isn’t really an issue so long as it’s recognised and dealt with in the revision stages. In fact, if you’re listening to this program because you know that this is something that you struggle with, then well done! In writing, recognising your mistakes is probably the single most important step in making progress. It can be disheartening when you find yourself picking apart your precious work, but I urge you to soldier on. Whenever we learn something new, we go through a phase where we find everything struggle. But with practice and persistence, we can gradually internalise our new skills so that they become part of our thinking. Eventually, we can iron out the difficulties and the task becomes less laborious.
But let’s get back to the info dump.
I think it’s unfair to treat the info dump as a particular problem of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction writers. There are just as many novels that have this problem in every genre. Romance writers, for example, often seem to feel the need to explain where the characters work, how they came to be there, and they even want to tell us about the main character’s educational history. Similarly, I must’ve ploughed through countless pages of literary fiction where a character’s attitude are explained by reference to their childhood experiences. you deliberately
One of the main problems with an info dump, is that it slows the pace of your story right down. In fact, most exposition will slow the pace, but an info dump, because of its length, will break a reader’s flow entirely. Also, info dumps take your readers out of the moment and divert their attention away from the scene – in other words, info dumps have exactly the opposite effect to the one you wanted. You are probably giving detail because you wanted to draw the reader in, but what you’re actually doing is pushing them away. Added to this is the final insult, and that is that almost all readers find passages exposition to be dull.
So what we do about it?
For this discussion, let’s separate the two common causes of the info dump: back story and world building.
If it seems to you that your readers will not understand your story without first hearing the back story, then you probably have a fundamental problem with the structure of your piece. This is a hard thing to accept because fixing a story structure can be hard work and can take a while to get right. But on the other hand, it can be a very liberating realisation when you get to the root of the problem. I know that I’ve often found myself tinkering endlessly over a scene, rewriting it over and over again, until it gets to the point when I’d rather do anything than work on my manuscript. But at those times, it actually comes as something of a relief to realise that the problem is actually deeper and that the whole passage needs more radical treatment.
So how can you deliver your back story?
The first question to ask is, do your readers really want you to push all this back story on them near the beginning of your tale? The answer is almost certainly no. The opening of your story should be the most gripping and engaging piece that you can write. If your writing was a car, the opening should be a Formula One race car: it’s all about power, precision, and the maximum possible acceleration. It’s not about bells and whistles. There is nothing on a Formula One race car that isn’t necessary. The whole vehicle is pared down to the absolute minimum, and every part must pull its weight.
If your opening scene doesn’t work without exposition, then I’d like to suggest that it should not be your opening scene. It might be better to start your story at an earlier point and write a scene that takes us into the action. You could make that scene into a prologue, but that’s probably not the best solution, as not everyone will read your prologue and not everyone likes to start their reading experience by ploughing through a prologue. An introductory scene or chapter that takes place in a different time or setting from your main story is a perfectly acceptable way of launching the reader into your gripping tale. This happens with films all the time, where we begin with an engaging episode and then the caption Five years later appears on the screen. If you do go down that route though, please ensure that your opening chapter is self-contained. If you leave it on a cliffhanger or with too heavy an element of suspense, your readers will be disappointed when the story doesn’t continue in the next chapter.
Many people will recommend that you integrate your back story into dialogue, and while that can work, it must be treated very carefully. I touched on this in the last episode, so you might want to go back to episode 20 and listen to the episode on dialogue again, but in brief, the dialogue between your characters should be as natural and convincing as possible, and in real life, people rarely explain the full details of any given situation.
A companion to the “forced dialogue” type of info dump is the “introduction of a new character who doesn’t understand the situation” ploy. This ploy is usually followed by a lengthy explanation from an experienced character. Again, this can work, but keep it as brief as possible or it will appear clumsy. People don’t tend to lecture each other, and it comes across as very unnatural when we read it in fiction. It’s actually much more intriguing to the reader if your experienced character deliberately conceals certain pieces of information. Straight away we are putting questions into the reader’s mind. When your inexperienced character asks a question but the experienced character evades it, we start to wonder what on earth they’re trying to hide. What could be so bad that they won’t talk about it? And bingo! We’ve just put the reader slap bang into the middle of our story. We’ve made them think like the character and so we’ve got them hook line and sinker.
So yes, use dialogue to deliver back story, but keep it stripped right down and deliver just the tiniest amount at a time. Readers don’t like being told anything, what they like are clues. I’m convinced that this is why crime and mystery stories have always been so popular. People like to try and solve the crime as they go along, but what they really relish is the suspense on not knowing the outcome. In Conan Doyle’s famous stories, which is the most engaging character, Holmes, who keeps everything close to his chest, or Watson who needs everything spelling out for him?
How else can we deliver a bit of back story? Memories and recollections can work well, so long as you’ve already drawn the reader in. I do this in my novella Breaking Ground, but I held it back until I’d already created a sense of mystery around the main character. I was quite reluctant to provide the backstory in this way, but this fairly short novella had a lot of work to do because it was designed to hook into a world that I’d already created in a novel. It was a tall order, but I think I managed to convey the information in a relatively interesting way.
If you do write a character’s recollections, I’d recommend that you keep it pared down to the absolute minimum, and make it a memory of a significant episode of action or drama. Don’t be tempted to cheat and have someone recall an episode of dialogue unless that dialogue is particularly pithy and to the point. And again, if you can, deliberately create some blanks in the recollection, i.e. leave some space for the reader to form their own questions and use their own imagination, then it will be more engaging.
Let’s move on to world building and other aspects of establishing the context for your story.
Again, dialogue can be an effective way of showing the reader the context of the story, but it must be tightly controlled. I’d suggest that dialogue is all about the interaction between characters, so when your characters are talking, each character is focused on the other. In other words, if I was talking to you face to face, you’d be watching my expression, listening to my tone of voice, interpreting my body language, picking up on verbal cues and so on. I would be the focus of your attention, and when you spoke to me you would become the focus of my attention. In many ways, the topic of the conversation would play second fiddle to the rest of our interactions. So to get your content delivered, you have to slip it gently into the conversation. If this seems a little bit vague, let me give you an example.
In my book Outcast, a significant amount of the action occurs in the Neolithic period, over 5000 years ago. In that story thread, the characters each wear a talisman which they feel gives them a connection with benevolent spirits and provides a certain amount of protection from evil spirits. So early on in the story, during a conflict between a teenage boy and his older brother, I had the younger brother deliberately antagonise his older brother. Just as the older brother was about to go out into the dark forest to collect some firewood, his younger brother suddenly warns him that he’s forgotten his talisman. The older brother is taken aback and immediately checks that his talisman is in place, and the younger brother is happy to see that he’s got his own back on his bullying older brother. So the reader is carried along by the conflict, they learn something about the relationship between the two brothers, and without having to really think about it, they’ve learned the importance of the talismans. Later in the story, when I refer to the talismans, the reader is already primed to know that they’re important and so they will pay attention when they’re mentioned.
I’d suggest the same sort of approach to any futuristic technology or magical system that you’ve created for your story. For it to be important to the reader, it should first be important to the characters. And please try to remember that, if your characters are familiar with the technology or magical system in your book, then it will become almost invisible to them. If I asked to borrow your mobile phone, you wouldn’t pause to explain to me how the touchscreen worked and you certainly wouldn’t deliver a lecture on the inner workings of your phone’s CPU. Similarly, we often use abbreviations or pet names for things with which we are very familiar. In our house, we refer to our digital video recorder as “the box”. A moment ago I used the phrase mobile phone but that’s not a phrase my children would use. To them, the idea of a corded phone is quite a strange one; to them, every phone is mobile so it really doesn’t need mentioning.
Does this mean that all your careful research and world building was a waste of time? Not at all. It was vital for you to know what you are doing in order to write your story with confidence. But some of your preparation was exactly that – preparation – and if it doesn’t pull its weight in the story then doesn’t deserve to be included in the final draft. It may sound harsh, but one of the biggest roadblocks to your progress as a writer may be your inability to cut out the dross. If you can tell yourself that it’s just typing, and the sky will not come crashing down if you delete that paragraph or that page, then you’ll produce better work and you’ll get faster at doing it.
For me, writing is all about teasing the reader. It’s a subtle mind game. Give them just enough to keep them wondering what happens next. So long as your readers are in doubt, then they’ll keep turning the pages. The moment that they feel they know exactly how the story is going to end, they will lose interest. So the first job is to keep stringing them along, and then, and only then, can you gently drop little snippets of your will building into the story as you go.
Just as in backstory, it’s quite a common device to try and incorporate world building by having the main character as an inexperienced and innocent person, for example a child or an apprentice. That’s fine as a plot structure and has been used many times in the classic hero’s journey type of story, but it can be a clumsy way to deliver the context of the wider setting. We’ve all seen the young fictional character trailing around in the wake of a wizard or magician or captain or CEO, asking foolish questions and enduring long explanations, and it’s something of a cliche. If the mentor in the story is so powerful and important, then how come they have time to stand around explaining every little thing to their young apprentice or trainee? It’s more likely that they’ll sweep in, deliver their orders, and sweep out again without feeling the need to explain themselves in any way at all. This is how people seem to behave when they’ve worked their way up to a position of authority. The very last thing they want to do is stand around explaining themselves.
But this can be an opportunity. Instead of your inexperienced character asking lots of questions, why not have them try something and fail at it? Then we can sympathise with your character because we’ve all been in that situation. This type of thing works really well in the Harry Potter books. Although Harry and his friends always win out in the end, they spend most of the story making mistakes. Think how often the spells backfire or the magic seems to work and then has unforeseen consequences. No one ever seems to provide Harry with all the information he needs. He might be given a cryptic note, but never an instruction manual (if I’m wrong about this and HP does have an instruction manual, then sorry, but I bet there was a vital sentence that was missing or cryptic). Perhaps that’s why people like Harry’s character so much – he has to figure everything out for himself. And again, we’ve all been there – we all have those experiences in our minds that have shaped us as individuals, and they’re often about the challenges we’ve faced and the difficulties that we’ve overcome.
Do you have an aspect of your writing that you would like help with? If so, then head on over to the Facebook group at http://Facebook.com/groups/WTPworkshop and request membership. As soon as you’ve joined, you can take part in the discussions and you should see a thread that is dated as this week’s writing clinic post. Of course you can comment on any of the posts and post your own questions and topics for discussion. It’s not a place for promotion of any sort, but it’s a great place to meet the writers and engage in a bit of productive chat in a positive environment. And you might even get a shout out in next week’s show.
Today I’m going to give you a quick run through on perma-free: what it is, how to set it up, and how it can be good for you.
Amazon’s publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP for short) don’t allow anyone to set the permanent price of a book to 0. Maybe they don’t want their store taken over by free books, after all, they did separate the free book charts from the paid bestseller lists. They do allow books to be set to free for a few days at a time so long as they are in the KDP Select scheme, i.e. those books that are exclusively sold on Amazon and can be borrowed for free by subscribers to Kindle Unlimited and borrowed by members of Amazon Prime. But those free days for KDP Select titles are limited to a total of 5 days in a 90 day period. So how is it that some books are set to being permanently free?
Here’s how to set your book to be perma-free on Amazon’s Kindle Stores.
First, you must ensure that your title is not enrolled in KDP Select. You can find the information from your KDP dashboard. Be careful in case your title has automatically re-enrolled in KDP Select. If it has, you will have to wait until that period is up.
When your book is safely out of the KDP Select scheme, you must then publish your book on other platforms for example Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iBooks. All of these platforms allow books to be permanently free. A good way to achieve this is to use draft2digital (http://draft2digital.com) – they make it very easy to publish your book to several platforms at once, and they allow you to set the price to 0 as well. When your book is successfully published for free at other stores, copy the link from your product page on any no-Amazon store and then contact KDP via your KDP dashboard. Scroll down to the bottom of the dashboard and use the contact us link then explain in your message that you’d like them to price match your book. Give them the ASIN number of your book on Amazon, the full title, and include the link that you copied from the store where your title is free. Ask them nicely because Amazon do not have to match this price. Some people will tell you that you should get everyone you know to visit your book on the Amazon store and click on the tell us about a lower price link, but I’ve always found that the folks I’ve contacted via KDP to be prompt and helpful. It may take them a day or two, but if you’ve given them all the correct information, then your book will be permanently free on Amazon. If you later want to put the price up, you should just be able to contact KDP again, and it would make sense to increase the price on all the other platforms as well—if you don’t then Amazon may continue to match the lower price.
That’s it for this week. I hope you found this episode useful, if you have, please share the podcast with your writer friends, e.g. you could post a link in any writing groups you’re a member of. Also, please consider supporting the podcast by subscribing. The show is on itunes, stitcher and youtube, or you can subscribe by other methods on the site at writingtalkpodcast.com e.g. you can have new episodes emailed to you.
Thank you very much for listening and for all your support. Until next week, keep writing, keep tapping at the keys, keep scribbling, and above all, keep smiling.
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