Don’t lose your Reader

by Al Kalar

Keep the action going. I know we’ve discussed this before, but it bears repeating because I still receive manuscripts with “info dumps” scattered throughout the story. Worse, many start out with an info-dump that is the author’s lame attempt to bring the reader up to speed. I’m not referring to recaps of previous books in a series designed to remind the reader of what s/he read six months ago.

Any time you stop the flow of the story to tell the reader something, you risk losing that reader. You yank him out of the story itself. The action stops with an arrow frozen in mid-air while some “off-screen” voice describes the developmental history of the bow and the flight characteristics of various types of arrows. By the time the arrow starts flying again, the reader has forgotten why it was shot and is certainly “sitting in her chair” rather than “swinging a sword on a rain-soaked crag in 10th century Scotland”.

If you’re any good at writing, you’ve spent a lot of work getting your reader “into” the story line. Anything you do that yanks him out of that mental world wastes the effort you’ve invested.

Recipe for failure

Do you want to make sure nobody buys your book? If you’re not a well-established author, start your first chapter (or prologue – if you must have one) with an info dump.

Think about it. When YOU browse your favorite neighborhood bookstore, how do you decide to pick a book from the shelves? If you’re like me, you’re initially attracted by the cover. Then you read the blurb on the back cover. Finally you crack open the book, check out the flyleaf excerpt, and read the first page of the story. And then CRASH! It’s a boring info-dump or a slow start.

Back onto the shelf and check out the next book that grabs my interest.

So, how can you get the information to the reader?

Well, there are several ways if you’re inventive enough. Here are a few. I’m sure others can dream up some more.

  1. Post what I call, “history bits” at the start of each paragraph. Make it look like it came from a history book. If you’re dealing with the true past, you can use real quotes from history books. Give the reference; it makes it look more authentic and is required if you’re quoting from an actual source. Limit yourself to a short paragraph or two – never more than ½ page in mass-market paperback format. Frank Herbert did this very well in his award-winning Dune when he used bits from “Princess” Irulan’s “history books”.
  2. You can get away with a very short info dump occasionally, but don’t overdo it. And try to do it at a point where it won’t kill the flow of an intense scene.
  3. The best way I know of is to have your characters do it for you. They can drop remarks as part of the dialog (best way). If you’re writing in “first person”, your main character can “remember” something (again as long as it doesn’t mess up the flow of the actual story). Someone can “teach” a child or another character who’s legitimately clueless (foreigner, non-technical, whatever).Three things:
    1. make it interesting,
    2. don’t forget your dialog rules of accents, interaction, etc., and
    3. for God’s sake, never, never, never do the “as you know …” thing.

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