I’m doing a webinar for Writers Digest Books on June 9th at 1 pm on Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy and Paranormal, so, as you can imagine, I’ve done a lot of thinking lately on the subject of writing and on genre in particular. One special challenge you often have with speculative fiction is that at the same time you have to introduce your readers to new characters and situations, you’ve also got to create an entire world in their mind’s eye. This can lead to a lot of info dump at the beginning of novels.
I find that one of the best ways to head this off is to be sure to begin in the right place. If you start the novel too long before the main story so that you can provide set-up and context, you may lose the reader through the lack of immediacy. If you start too in media res, there’s a ton of backstory that you’re going to have to fit in, which will slow down your forward momentum. This means that you’ve got to choose the moment in time where the key elements that become important to the overarching plot are developing, but early enough in their development that you can provide context before everything goes kablooey. In other words, we have to understand what’s normal before it all goes to hell. Also, we have to care.
Some simple says to avoid info dump:
-Don’t introduce characters before they appear (i.e. “Maia prepped mentally for her meeting with President and his aid, who had been hurt in the “police action” of Kentaga in ’34 and as a result bore horrible scars as constant reminders”). So much more powerful to experience her reaction when the aid comes through the door.
-Once a character appears, do not stop your action to give us his or her history, but reveal it through dialogue or context.
-Likewise, while you’ll have to set a scene and give us description of settings, it’s much more immediate to show how the chill air hit the sweat that still clung to her from the sweat lodge, practically turning it to a thin coating of ice than to simply tell us that it was a cold night.
-Remember that body language and vocal cues can teach us as much about a situation as simply informing us. For example, if you have two characters talking to each other, is one clearly deferential? Authoritarian? Flippant? The interaction itself will enlighten us as to the relationship between these characters with much more relevance and interest than laying it out for us in paragraph form.
-Also, what do your characters take for granted? What do they swear by? Culturally, a curse is generally something which profanes the sacred, taking God’s name in vain, as it were, so there’s a wealth of information in a curse.
Remember that your characters are the lenses through which we learn about events and the world. They’re the storytellers. Thus, unless something is relevant to them at a given moment, they won’t be thinking about it and the reader won’t be hearing about it. Also, and I believe this goes back to something David B. Coe said in an earlier post, everything should do double-duty…not just inform, but invite a reaction. Keep it visceral, keep it immediate and keep in concise…that’s my motto.