Have you ever read a novel where the first chapter reads like a synopsis of the characters’ backgrounds? By page ten, we already know who they are, where they came from, and what they’ve experienced.
It’s referred to as infodump, and it’s one of the major differences between novice writers and skilled story crafters.
What is infodump?
Infodump is exactly what it sounds like: a large chunk of background information presented all at once.
There’s usually little to no attempt to incorporate it into the story, even. The author essentially says, “Here’s my character. Now, here’s all the background information on them.”
What’s wrong with that?
We need the information, so what’s wrong with getting it over with and moving on to the action? That’s what the story’s really about, right?
It’s easy to think of the action and the plot as the important parts of your story and dismiss the characters as just a device to carry the action. That kind of thinking ends up destroying what could become an excellent story.
Think back on your favorite novels and movies. What made you love them? Chances are it wasn’t the action that gave life to the characters but the other way around. Put a boring flat character or a talentless actor into the lead, and no stunning special effects, thrilling chase scene, or even humorous mishaps can save you from a flop.
What would Pride and Prejudice be without Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy? Or Patriot Games without Jack Ryan?
Think of your entire novel as a revelation of your characters. The plot and action exist to bring them to life through the lens of the action.
Do you really get to know someone by reading a dossier on them? And is reading a dossier engrossing, or does it make your eyes cross and your head nod? So, why would you do that to your readers?
And it just doesn’t flow naturally into a story. How many of us stop what we’re doing to reflect back over our entire history? Or do we remember things in bits and pieces as events remind us of them?
Why do authors do it?
The short answer is usually either inexperience or laziness. Many new writers don’t realize what an integral part background information plays in a story, so they view it as something to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible before moving on to the good stuff.
The problem is, when you do that, you cheat the reader out of the process of discovering your characters through their actions and words. Your characters are the good stuff.
How do you avoid it?
If you can’t just tell us all of their background, how do you reveal it? After all, it’s important for making your character sympathetic and engaging.
First, a character’s background—their thoughts and history–should be revealed only when it syncs with the story.
And even then, a skilled writer knows just how much to dole out to keep the reader engaged. Hinting at and teasing information keeps readers interested and guessing, trying to solve the mystery of who exactly your character is and how they might react to the next situation.
One way to reveal relevant information is through character interactions. Who says your character can’t reveal her secret to the readers by confessing it to another character? It feels much more natural that way and makes the reader feel a bit more inside the story.
Also, what tells you more about who a person is, their words or their actions?
A character’s thoughts, actions, and reactions when facing problems give a more honest account of them (and are a lot more interesting to read) than page after page of expository.
One Last Note
While you don’t want to just drop all of the information on a reader at once, having it written out for your own use can be a handy technique for character development. It serves as a reference and can help you, the author, form your characters as cohesive wholes and avoid leaving holes in their development in the story.
So, go ahead and write out that synopsis of your characters. But instead of dropping it into the first couple chapters in a single chunk, slip it in, bit by bit, throughout the course of the story.
Next time you’re reading a great novel, pay attention to how that author introduces you to their characters. After all, one of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read great writing. And pay attention and learn from the masters at the craft!
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.