by Jan Drexler
The literary world has changed in the last fifty years. In the past, authors like J.R.R. Tolkien could spend three pages introducing us to his main character in “The Hobbit” (Bilbo Baggins,) complete with a description of his home and family history – and he does this in the first three pages of the book. I happen to like that style, and when I read “The Hobbit,” I settle into my comfy chair ready to lose myself in the story.
But things have changed! In our time, authors need to get to the action as soon as possible and leave the backstory and descriptions for later.
How do you do this?
Layer by layer.
Onions or cake. Take your pick!
Either way, we peel our character’s layers back little by little, letting our readers learn to know our characters by their actions. Or a comment here. A thought there.
It’s tempting to tell the reader everything! We love our characters and we want our readers to love them, too!
But an information dump (where you give your reader way too much information at once) is like your co-worker setting you up for a blind date with her favorite cousin. She has been gushing over this guy for two weeks, telling you all about his job, family, house, dog, his appendicitis attack in 8th grade… But really, don’t you want to meet him first? Don’t you want to be the one to decide if you want to get to know him better?
Do your readers a favor and peel away those layers little by little.
Here’s an example from my work in progress, Softly Blows the Bugle. We’ve already met the hero, Aaron, in the first scene. There we found out that he was wounded and captured at Gettysburg. First layer.
In the second scene, we begin to see him through his own eyes as he’s talking to his friend Jonas:
“But the war changed you.” Aaron let his mind go back to the angry, fiery young man he had been, hot to kill any Yankee he could find after a scouting party shot Grandpop. “It changed both of us. War will do that.”
That snippet is all we know so far about Aaron’s past. It’s just one more layer, but the story isn't finished yet.
Later in the book, but still early, we’ll learn more about Grandpop and what he meant to Aaron. Another layer.
Somewhere around the middle of the story, memories of Aaron’s mother will begin to surface. Thin layers peel away, revealing his home life as a child.
Toward the end, we’ll learn the secret of Aaron’s past, and the reason he believes the lie that has ruled his life. Peeling back layer by layer by layer.
Meanwhile, all through the story we watch Aaron’s actions, how he treats other people, and how they respond to him. Layers.
By the end of the book, if I have done my work well, we will know Aaron’s story, his struggles, his spiritual battles, and his physical battles. And we will know the inner man. The hero the readers will fall in love with.
At the same time, we need to be careful not to peel back a layer, revealing a hint of an important detail, and then never bring it up again.
For example, what if you read that smidgen of information at the beginning of the book (Aaron let his mind go back to the angry, fiery young man he had been, hot to kill any Yankee he could find after a scouting party shot Grandpop,) but then you never learned any more about Grandpop or that event? Or what if I didn’t let the readers see the process of the change between then and now? What if I never let the other shoe drop?
Among the things I look for in my revision process are unfinished trails like this. And if I don’t catch them, I pray that my editor will!
Let's chat! Have you ever experienced the "information dump" in your writing? What about in your reading? Or, does it bother you when an author leaves a detail hanging? (It's one of my pet peeves!)
Thanks for reading, and have a blessed Holy Week!
Jan Drexler spent her childhood dreaming of living in the Wild West and is now thrilled to call the Black Hills of South Dakota her home. When she isn’t writing she spends much of her time satisfying her cross-stitch addiction or hiking and enjoying the Black Hills with her husband of more than thirty-six years. Her writing partner is her corgi, Thatcher, who makes life…interesting.