Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Dreaded Information Dump

Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the bits of advice that veteran novelists are always giving aspiring writers is “Get it right!” We explain that while TV can get everything wrong, in fiction, the slightest error—in how a particular gun behaves when fired, what’s around the corner from a real street in a real city, or whether a particular word had been coined by the period in which a historical novel is set—will bring down upon our heads cascades of outraged emails from readers who know better.

I have yet to be showered by that flood of emails. Since I don’t mind admitting when I’m wrong (a sign of emotional maturity that I model for my therapy clients all the time), I’d welcome it. With three published novels and a dozen short stories under my belt, my email is still a trickle. Come to think of it, I’ve never gotten a stinker from a reader (reviewers, alas, are another matter), although I know for sure I’ve gotten details wrong. I made the mistake (not heeding the advice that while it’s okay to start research with Wikipedia, it’s essential to check at least one more source for anything you find there) of giving Columbus horses on his first voyage in 1492. I can’t even change them if the story is ever reprinted—their role is too important to delete. That means guaranteed embarrassment for me if it ever appears alongside my novel of the second voyage, because it’s equally important that when Columbus returned to Hispaniola in 1493, he used his horses to intimidate the local cacique (chief), who’d never seen them before. The best examples of getting it wrong come from the much reviled CSI. In real life, DNA results don’t come back from the lab in less than an hour. Forensic scientists don’t interview witnesses or carry guns. Female investigators don’t invariably wear high heels, especially when expecting trouble. Note that only fiction writers and law enforcement professionals—and maybe the justice system—revile it. Viewers love it, and the producers are no doubt laughing all the way to the bank.

So. When writing about a topic we don’t know intimately, we fiction writers must do our research. But. The corollary tip is that we had better not use more than a small fraction of what we find out. The figures I’ve heard vary between two and ten percent. Pages of detailed information that’s not necessary to the plot, could be shown rather than told, and/or jerks the reader out of the story by being false to the voice of the narrative or the character is called an information dump. And it’s a no-no.

This was not always the case. Moby Dick, on the short list for the title of Great American Novel, includes hundreds of pages on how to hunt the whale, cut it up, and boil it down for its oil. One of the reasons I always used to give for loving mysteries was that, on the sturdy framework of the crime-investigation-solution plot, the writer could hang whatever he or she was interested in. In The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers introduced me to the art of English bell ringing. I still remember the scene in which the bells rang out, warning the countryside of an impending flood. Dana Stabenow has treated me to many trips to Alaska. I’ve never forgotten how Kate Shugak landed a three hundred pound halibut whose heart was still beating after she cut it up. Both of these fine authors know how to show, not tell and avoid the information dump. In Sayers’s day, it was okay to devote pages to railroad timetables, as she did in The Five Red Herrings. Golden Age writers could spend time on descriptions. The good ones knew how to make these descriptions interesting and integrate them with the story rather than bury it under an undigested mass of facts.

Nowadays, it’s even more crucial to keep your action going and try not to waste a word. The darlings that today’s writers have to kill in the interests of a well paced and publishable story include many of the tidbits we spent so much time researching. It may hurt, but it’s got to be done. My method, which I suspect many writers share, is to get it out of my system by throwing all of it into the first draft, and then go back and cut, cut, cut. With enough practice, it starts to make perfect sense. If Bruce, my recovering alcoholic protagonist, uses an AA slogan as ironic commentary, that’s okay. If something about the way an AA meeting works provides a clue or eliminates a suspect, fine. But if I stop the action for two paragraphs so Bruce can explain some facet of alcoholism or recovery to the reader, out it goes.


Sheila Connolly said...

We hate to waste good material, don't we? A half-inch stack of research material and we're supposed to reduce it to a throwaway line? It hurts.

I cheat just a bit by using uninformed protagonists, who have to ask stupid questions and have someone explain to them. But the explanation has to be the Cliff Notes version--short. It's all about telling the story, not showing off how much we know.

But I do believe we have an unwritten contract with our readers, promising that what we tell them is as accurate as we can make it, even if it's something as simple as "she released the safety on the Glock." Most Glocks don't have a safety. Or do they...

JJM said...

My exemplar for superb presentation of information without intrusiveness is Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles series, but even she made mistakes. The most obvious one was allowing one of her (16th century) characters to make a reference to masochism ...

I love the way Melville moved from the whale-as-animal-and-mere-object to the whale (personified by Moby Dick) as a god. That made the "catalogue of ships" chapters (or the "begats" chapters, if you prefer) at the beginning necessary. 19th century writing style also made them long, but, if you know whither it is headed, they're not onerous reading.

Early Glocks have a passive 3-part safety system that makes sure the pistol doesn't fire unless you actually pull the trigger. The later ones, I believe, have an optional safety lock. I didn't find anything about it on their site, although I did but a quick search; Wikipedia does mention it, however. "Or do they...", indeed, Sheila C.--Mario R.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm a huge fan of the Lymond books. It's not even so much the grasp and scope of the history, but the brilliant characterization. Dunnett was an ace at showing intelligent, in fact dazzlingly brilliant characters, rather than telling the reader how smart they were. Renaissance men and women, indeed.

Jeri Westerson said...

I never throw away research. Besides, it's all helpful to the layered backstory of my characters. They know more details about their own daily lives and the lives of others than they will ever need to discuss.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
When I was writing Full Medical, I researched cloning and associated themes. I have a scientific background, but I was an ignoramus on those topics. I delved into it enough, though, that a conjecture on telomeres was recently reported by Science News to be basically correct: short telomeres can signal that the grim reaper is nearby.
I think your percentages are pretty much spot on, though, at least in this case, helped by the fact that cloning just formed a backdrop for the government conspiracy.
I'm terrible at names, but a female writer I admire (Jodi Picoult?) once said that one can't worry too much about the details. If I say there's a drugstore on the corner of 47th and second in Manhattan's Turtle Bay, someone might say, "No there's not." These are nitpicking readers. In fact, my stories are all set in the future, so maybe that drugstore will be there!
All the best,

Anonymous said...

Your comment about CSI's not carrying guns depends on the police department. Some of them require CSI's to be active police officers and must carry guns. In others they are unarmed.

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