Fiction Writing Is Not a Roll Call

A common mistake many new writers make is to inundate the reader with unnecessary information or too much information all at once. In writing circles it’s called infodump. It might manifest as a roll call of characters, lengthy biographical history as each one is introduced, overly detailed scene setting or world building. It happens because writers want their readers to understand the context of unfolding events. While the writer’s intentions are good, it bogs down the pace of the story and it doesn’t leave the reader with questions that need to be answered by reading on.

Imagine reading this paragraph:

Jennifer Dunne was a 28 year old woman whose mother had just died, but since they never had a very close relationship, Jennifer was not able to cry at her funeral. Her elderly father was her only source of comfort growing up and she followed in his footsteps by becoming an engineer and going to work in his company. Jennifer has two best friends, Des and Joni, who she has known since grade school and they are as close as sisters would be. They all live in Doylestown, the county seat of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which is an hour north of Philadelphia. (Are you bored yet?)

My first draft of Three Empty Frames wasn’t quite that bad, but I did an awful lot of infodumping on my first try at novel writing. The thing is… all that information eventually got included in the story but in small doses as the information became relevant to the plot.

One of my chief methods of incorporating detail into the story, especially the biographical history of the characters, is through dialogue. In the fictional world as in the real world, when people talk, they tell one another about themselves. When boy meets girl or girl meets girl or whatever, it is only natural for the pair to begin to share personal information. Even then, it wouldn’t be natural for the character to tell his entire life story, but just a few memories can reveal a great deal about the person and what makes them tick. The same is true with their conversational style and delivery. The way they talk will give the reader clues as to their personality without having to describe it intimate detail:

Jen was smart and loyal but guarded, keeping all but her close friends at arms’ length. Her sense of humor was sarcastic and as a result, she often offended people unintentionally. (Readers will figure this out on their own as they see how Jen relates to others; they don’t need it spelled out for them.)

The same is true of your setting. The location doesn’t need to be described in meticulous detail as the story opens. However, in just a few words, the scene can be set:

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ~ 1984; George Orwell.

Just from that opening line, we know the weather and time of year but we also know something’s up because our clocks don’t strike thirteen. It’s only later on that we discover the full extent of Orwell’s dystopian vision, yet, the season and time of day are described clearly. And establishing place and time is an important feature to include within the first few paragraphs of a story. It orients the reader, connecting them to the fictional world. Nevertheless, the details can be saved for later. This includes the size of the town or its population, its proximity to another metropolitan area, the main industry of the region (if that even matters) and its infrastructure: busy highways, high-rise apartments, public transportation versus narrow streets, quaint houses and mountain views. Just an aside —the bit about ‘clocks striking thirteen’ is one of those mysterious details that compels the reader to continue. We should all aspire to create such a hook at the start of the story!

Things can get tricky when your story has a big cast of characters. In order to distinguish one from another, you might feel obilgated to write a lengthy biography to fix each one in the reader’s mind. But really, if the character is not central to the plot, this is irrelevant filler material. For minor characters, a unique and memorable name might be enough to set them apart from the main players. Some minor characters don’t even need to be named. For example, Jen might just refer to ‘her boss’ rather than ‘Harry, a fifty year old chief engineer in her department who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and is well liked by all his employees’. Seriously, who cares? Unless Harry is going to have a larger role later on, there is no need to expound on his qualities as a boss. Additionally, if you do have a big cast of characters, don’t introduce all of them in Chapter One. Bring each one onto the stage as their appearances become integral to the plot. For example, your mystery story might have a detective investigate the crime, but if the story is built around the victims of the crime then the detective doesn’t need to show up until several chapters in. A late introduction doesn’t automatically diminish the minor character’s importance to the story. While the main characters should be introduced early, so that the reader can establish a relationship with them, the rest of the cast can enter as they become relevant.

The tendency to infodump is a difficult one to overcome. Nevertheless, with awareness and practice it can be managed and mastered.

Wishing you happy writing and productive editing.

Header image via Vector Images

21 thoughts on “Fiction Writing Is Not a Roll Call

  1. I agree – the information of the characters needs to be released via dialogue, or it’ll play out like a game of Clue. I think that the reader needs to ‘discover’ the idiosyncrasies of the characters themselves, as this will make them more engaged in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way – by writing and rewriting and rewriting again. But it is worth the effort to weed out all the extraneous information and just tell a good story! Thank you!

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  2. Great insights, Meg! The literary conference I just went to included a panel discussion where editors talked about what they liked to see and didn’t in the first few pages of a MS. For one, they said, DO NOT start with a weather report (unless maybe your protagonist is a meteorologist).

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    1. Haha! That’s a good one. Yes, so much for ‘it was a dark and stormy night…’ I’ve heard a few others too. Like not starting with the MC waking up or dreaming. I’ve heard that funerals are a no-no too. Ah…

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  3. There is a need to inform the reader but I agree, don’t overload. There’s one book I’ve tried to read but it’s been made impossibly dull with all the detail and infodumping…. I just can’t carry on with it.

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  4. This is an eye opener for all writers. You have pointed out what exactly should not be done so as to capture the reader’s interest. Now i can understand why i lose interest in a story after a few pages. That said, i think different writers have different styles which distinguish them from the others. Generally i feel the classic writers wrote with a lot of background info in detail to make up a novel. But i still enjoy reading PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and O Henry.

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    1. You’re right. Writing styles haves definitely changed over time. Some of the classics spend pages just describing the setting. There is a technique to getting away with that, though. They describe in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a ‘list’ of attributes. It can make all the difference in the world! I suppose the modern reader has a shorter attention span. Or maybe its just the literary agents who don’t want to read it! Ahhh!

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  5. As I was reading this (especially the part about Harry the boss) it occurred to me that a lot of infodumping might be about maintaining control. As a self-professed control freak, I would have to fight the urge to infodump. If it’s a minor character, a writer needs to go ahead and let the reader picture them however they want. That can be tough for control freaks like me. 😉

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    1. Ah that’s funny! I hadn’t considered it that way, but you’re right. I can relate. There are certain things I don’t want my readers assuming either!

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      1. Exactly! If it’s a minor character that I picture as a bald, 6 foot tall 70 year old, it shouldn’t matter if they picture him as a 5 foot 40 year old with a full head of red hair! They’ll just have to deal with their error when it’s made into a movie! haha!

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