We’re all guilty of this sin at some point during the writing process. The trick is finding the correct balance by the time we reach the final draft. Nothing will turn off the reader faster than long passages of hand-fed information and back story. The reader chooses a book with the expectation that they will experience something new, something that only this author can give them. If they wanted giant clots of info, they’d sign up for a night class at the local college.
Showing, then Telling
Amanda bit her lip as she paced the creaky hall, holding her elbows tight against her sides. Every few steps, her gaze darted to the front door. She…
…was practically jumping out of her skin.
…said to me, “I can’t stand it any longer!”
All of these are examples of Showing, then Telling. This happens when the writer doesn’t trust their ability to get information across, so they follow up their showing with some telling, just to make sure the reader ‘gets it’. The description here clearly shows Amanda’s raw nerves. In fact, even the showing could be trimmed a bit and still get her edginess across, especially if the writer wanted to use the dialogue. The key is showing just enough to paint the scene, without overdoing it. Trust that a few STRONG details will show what needs to be shown and move on. Be wary of passages portraying emotion, as these are hot spots for showing then telling.
Info dumps belong in one place only: the first draft. Don’t get me wrong, information is necessary for the reader to understand the current or upcoming action and events. But the second that dip into narrative feels like a dump, something has to go. Always be aware of the pacing: find the most active and succinct way to get information across–get in and get out. With information, think bite-sized, not a full meal deal. Too much information steals the mystery away from the reader and halts the story’s forward flow.
Dialogue can be a way to exchange info while keeping the scene rolling, but can also be a prime spot for dumps (sin #6).
“So Mrs. Wilkins, your sister’s mother-in-law, saw the whole thing from across the street?” I asked.
Is this something that would be spoken in real life? No. That’s your tell–if the dialogue feels unnatural, it is. If you’re ever unsure, read it out loud.
Setting can be a backdrop to segue into a brief passing of knowledge, but again, be wary. With world building, sometimes some additional detail needs to be given, but choose carefully WHAT you elaborate on and WHY. Ask yourself, Is this for the reader’s benefit to help them understand my world better, or is it really for me?
The proper way to get across info is to use a trigger in your scene that allows the writer to give information in a way that compliments the current action rather than ripping the reader away from it. Brief bits of information will feel natural and enhance the scene, pulling the reader in deeper, rather than create a big neon sign pointing to an info dump.
Avoid rehashing what the reader already knows, or details that don’t have direct bearing on the current scene or character’s current state of mind.
Sometimes backstory is needed, but pay close attention to the word, NEEDED. Actions and dialogue should tell us 95% of what we need to understand the character. Backstory comes into play when the motivation is not apparent through a set of actions or dialogue.
A brief dip into backstory can help us see where the character is coming from–just make sure it’s not a summary of their life up to this point. If Jimmy doesn’t want to get something from the pantry because that’s where he was when his dad came into the kitchen and murdered his mother, we probably need to know that (provided going into the pantry in the current scene is important). Do we need to know that Jimmy was in the pantry snacking on Alpha Bits because his overweight sister always got to them first and by golly this time he was going to finish the whole box even if it made him sick, just so he could see the look on her chubby face, and maybe then she’d stop calling him names all the time, saying he was such a wimp…blah-de-blah. NO.
Occasionally, small bite-sized bits of info won’t do. No, for the reader to fully understand the current action and relate to the crossroads the character is at, they need to see what happened to lead the character to this place (inside and out). Flashbacks are scenes, so in that sense, action does unfold. That does not mean they should be used frequently or lightly–while the reader relives this moment in time, they are pulled away from the current action.
The key is to be aware there is a timer on FB scenes. Vividly show what is needed so the reader will understand the character’s current state of mind/significance of their predicament, then transition back to the present quickly. Long, laborious flashbacks kill forward motion. Make sure all elements work in harmony (the setting, mood, the people involved and most importantly, the action that unfolds) to maximize the FB and create the maximum impact. Every word and bit of information must work hard to be included.
Like backstory, there needs to be a tie in the present scene to allow a successful transition to the flashback. FBs should never be used to fill novel dead time (walking down the street, looking up at the ceiling, etc etc).
Too Much Thinking
This is a sin I have to be very aware of especially when writing snarky characters. Often I will have an action or dialogue and then my character has an internal snide thought about it. Used a bit, this adds humor and voice to the scene. Too much though, and it throws the pacing out of whack and interrupts the flow of dialogue and action. Pacing. I can’t say it enough in regards to this sin. Be aware of those internal thoughts. Yes, we need to show internal development and internal conflict. But this does not translate into showing it all on the inside. Actions speak louder than thoughts!
Welcome to the world of telling, because yes, sometimes telling is A-ok. Events of the story do not need to be shown in full all the time. Think of a scene-only novel where the writer described every action in full from the time a character woke in bed to when they crawled back into it at the end of the day. That’s a Yawn-aster right there.
NS and SCENE should work together to give texture the writing–too much of either results in the feared TMI (too much information). The problem is knowing when and how to use Narrative Summary.
If the scene is important, it should be shown, but only enough to get across what is needed. If the main action is on the third floor office of the Happy Pet Cat Litter factory, we don’t need to be shown the character in the stock yard passing pallets of cat litter, then sprinting up the steps, then yanking the slip of paper with the five digit code on it, typing it on…etc etc. Narrative summary will give us a good idea of how he got to the third floor office and gets us to the main scene faster.
Areas where NS is often used:
Summarizing the passage of time
Summarizing events that need to happen or have happened which have bearing on the story, but are not important enough to be shown
To overview a state of mind over an extend period
Think of the balance of scene and narrative as a patchwork quilt. The showcase is on the patches of color, but without the stitching holding each square in place the quilt cannot be. Use Narrative Summary if needed as it is needed, and no more.
Final note: Information is imperative for readers to understand and enjoy a novel. Our job as writers is to decide what and how much is needed, and how to get this information across in a way that provides a rewarding experience for them, rather than come off as a factual download.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.