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I am revising the manuscript for a novel. About a third into the story, a major turning point occurs when the main character (through whom the reader follows the story) realizes that things are not at all how she perceived them to be, and that she has been duped by another character (let’s call him Ryan). For an entire chapter, she looks back at the events and pieces together Ryan’s moves and intentions.

The problem is, this feels too much like what I would call a “mid-story info dump.” We all have been told to avoid dumping out a truckload of back story at the start of a book before the actual action gets going. Here, in a similar fashion, I’m putting the main character’s actions on hold while she analyzes Ryan’s actions. There is little dialogue, just narration. It sounds a bit like the end of a Sherlock Holmes mystery: “And here is how I solved the crime.” Except in my case, it comes a third into the book, but it is a necessary step to launch off the remaining part of the story.

Is there a better way to handle this type of narration? Or should I simply not worry about it and count on the suspense created by the build-up to carry the reader forward? (If I’ve done my job correctly as a writer, the reader -- who has been duped just like the main character -- will be dying to find out what really happened).

Thoughts?

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4 Answers 4

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Short answer:

  1. Give hints along the book. Make the character notice stuff. It will make the "dump" shorter, even convert it into a short reference to scenes that happened.
  2. Find a way to imbue feelings or actions in the section.

More on that:

Include at least some action. Surely there is something that sets off this train of thought. Try and be as brief as possible with the explanations, and make the realization go hand in hand with events that happen.

The character could have a moment of clarity while, for instance, riding on a horse. Or a donkey. Or watching the scenery from a really beautiful vantage point. Then they could reflect on some things, then notice something else in the scenery, maybe even link it with what they are thinking, and carry on.

It also helps to place the feelings in the right place, so it feels as if the character is evolving through the insight gained... outrage, envy, anger, shame... they could be feeling any or many of those while they have that moment of noticing what happened.

Of course, structuring it like thoughts of the character helps give it pace... you could transmit racing thoughts, or slow-boiling, raging machinations. Either way, the character can make the info dump an interesting part of the book.

Do avoid anything like the description of the vices Dorian Gray had fallen to. Those pages are a painful read to anyone, no matter how awesome the rest of the book may be. The mistake in there is nothing happens. You get the raw information; no emotion, no action. This is a perfect "how not to".

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I agree with this. By build minor revelations throughout this first third, then the major "dump" will be inherently shorter, since it is just piecing all of these pre-established elements together. –  oldrobotsneverrust Mar 22 '11 at 20:57
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I like this approach, too. I think it's important to keep the reader with your character by writing about her reactions to what she's realizing. –  Kate Sherwood Mar 22 '11 at 22:12

Have the main character stare at one of those posters where you let yourself go cross-eyed until you see a 3d image and finally "get it" right as he pieces together the truth.

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The common way to remove info dumps is to sprinkle the knowledge throughout the book, as the character encounters it or thinks about it. Might that work here? That is: Sprinkle some of the revelations and the MC's doubts earlier into the story. The MC might have a puzzle, then let it go without resolving it. Or experience a moment of doubt, but then talk herself out of it.

Another possibility (depending on the character) is to use dramatic irony. Sprinkle the information earlier into the story, so that the reader understands some of the meaning and significance even if the MC is slow to understand.

A third possibility is to arrange for the MC to realize that everything she knew was wrong, but have her sort it out over the course of a few chapters.

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The point is all novels require info dumps, but you as the author has to find a way of putting across the information as entertainly as possible. To do it entirely as narration is a major fail. Consider the Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. He had to put about three major info dumps in that novel. In one he used a flashback to get across the origin of the Triffids, but by starting the novel with his protagonist waking up to a blind chaotic London was a master stroke. Because the reader was engaged in a dystopian nightmare already and the info dump allowed a breather knowing action was further ahead. in another info dump he used the device of a meeting. This way the info comes out in a conversation (dialogue), so it is more easily digested. Also he could put non-info dump snippets of dialogue to keep things interesting. I feel he achieved this by introducing the assertion that women would have to take multiple husbands (or was it the other way around?).

Perhaps your protagonist could have at least some dialogue with a pet if no humans are available/possible. Also you could have her introspection occurring amid other action (while she is being tortured as a result of the person she 'fell' for). If any info dump requires more than 20 solid pages then you are not writing a novel, are you? So let's say you have to do 8 pages of info (which is massive). I would say write a chapter of 16 pages and make 8 pages interesting and non-info dump. Also remember the info dump should be interesting to the reader if it relates to the story, what has gone, but more importantly, what as a result of the info dump will follow.

I am tackling an info dump problem right now near the end of a first book in a series of 6 books (which 3 books have been written and the rest planned out as a draft). that is why I arrived at this blog! I have about 16 pages of conversation to put this info across, which I realise is too much. I have my protagonist talking to an Angel (Silicon-based life form with a carbon-based brain). This angel is putting across the beliefs and politics of his race (some of which believe in Angels of Light; ie, angels as in created by God). My angel is an atheist but he has to deal with the Religious Angels all in an effort to join my protagonist in an impending fight against a creature threatening the Multiverse. You can imagine the the info dump required as this is the protagonist's first meeting with an angel. I did do what other bloggers in this problem set suggested. I have already put related info at 4 points earlier in the novel, which on their own seemed reasonable to mention.

But I still need to break up my conversation of these 16 pages. What I've done is split the 16 into two chapters of 8. This means I aim to do say 14-16 pages per chapter with only 8 pages having the info dump. I aim to do this by introducing action amid the info dump. I will approximately use the 8-point arc: Stasis; Trigger; Surprise; Critical Choice; Reversal; Resolution as a sub-plot.

I hope this info might trigger something useful (even if it was a bit of an info dump in itself!).

Cheers,

Tom

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