My writer’s group has this thing that bothers them. Actually they have lots of things that bother them, but I am just going to mention the one here.
They call it “as you know, Bob.”
It’s that part of any B monster movie when the scientist says “Well, as you know, Bob…” and then proceeds to bring you up to speed on what you need to know for the story to make sense.
This is actually called incluing. The process by which you ‘clue in’ the reader to what is going on. The problem usually comes in when two characters who already know what is going on discuss it anyway. “As you know, Bob…”
Incluing is supposed to happen gradually, smoothly, and without the reader knowing you are giving them the background information. That is the most enjoyable way to read a story.
My biggest problem seems to be the information dump. It is what it sounds like. You need to give a lot of information to the reader, so you dump in on them. This becomes a slog for the reader. It is no fun to read, it is no fun to learn that way, and it makes the story no fun.
Example. I wrote a short story called Ghosts of Time. In that story I was trying to explain what a ghost was. So I did an information dump and turned it half way into an ‘as you know, Bob.” I am going to post it here so you can see what it looked like, but feel free to skip to the end any time, because it does drag. That is the problem with information dumps.
Gordon sighed, as though he knew this was a waste of time. “All right. According to the theory of supersymmetry, each particle has a superpartner…”
“Gordon,” Roy interrupted, “I said I want to understand it, not…”
“Okay! Okay, okay. Imagine a giant ballroom, with one whole wall a giant mirror, so when you walk in, you spot your own reflection way over there.
“That’s our universe. Except the mirror isn’t just a reflection, it actually is the other half of our universe. But we can’t walk over to the mirror, because it is here, all around us, already. When a collection of particles comes together here, a like collection comes together there, making a dark matter mirror image. Sort of. Actually it’s more like the way…”
“Gordon…” Emily nearly growled at him.
“Well?” Gordon shrugged helplessly, still holding the strange device in his hands. “Did you ever play with magnets? Put one on top of a table and one on bottom, then move one to make the other move like magic?” He looked at them hopefully.
“It’s like that. When something on our side of the mirror moves around, the opposite something moves around on the other side. Okay. So. Now let’s imagine the mirror isn’t perfect.
“Imagine a boulder, here, that we smash into gravel. For some reason, the boulder over there sometimes smashes into gravel too, but sometimes it stays a boulder. We don’t know why.” He stopped and looked at them. “You realize I am really oversimplifying this, right?”
Emily let her left eye twitch at him in annoyance.
“What we think, is that when matter here forms into what we call life,” Gordon continued, “the dark matter there forms into a ‘mirror image’ of life: a spirit, or a ghost.
“The problem with the mirror image idea is that you think I am talking about your reflection over there. I’m not. I’m talking about your reflection being in the same place, at the same time, as you. So your spirit, your ghost, is always right where you are. Until you die. Then, sometimes, like the boulder that didn’t turn to gravel, the spirit stays intact even though the body has fallen apart.
“Now this is where it gets really interesting.” Gordon’s eyes lit up. “Remember the the magnet under the table? Well imagine the one on top gets smashed, but the bottom one doesn’t.” Gordon realized both Roy and Emily were glaring now, so he sped up his explanation, talking faster.
“So! The magnet on top was stopping the one on bottom from moving through the table. It was in the way. Now it’s gone, and the one on bottom can move through the table to the top anytime it wants to. Perhaps some missing people have gone missing because their ‘ghost’ died and they were able to, somehow, wander over to the other side. And, vise-versa, ghosts wander over to our side.” Gordon stopped, pleased with himself that he had been able to talk down to their level.
Emily looked ready to punch him.
“So, what you’re saying,” Roy stood up and casually placed himself between Emily and Gordon, “is that ghosts are actually from another dimension, and can come into ours anytime they want?”
Gordon frowned. “No, that’s not what I said at all. I…” He wisely closed his mouth and thought for a moment. “Yes. I believe that is as good of a way of looking at it as you will ever…Ahem. Yes.”
So how do you resolve the problem? How do you get rid of the information dump and the “as you know, Bob” without losing all of your story? It can be hard. Very, very hard.
Every time you hear a villain explaining his master plan -that’s an information dump. Every time you hear a narrator telling you something to set up the story, or explain what happened -that’s an information dump.
But you do run into those all the time. Did you notice them? If you didn’t notice it, it was good writing. The rest of the time…Well, it’s kind of like seeing a boom microphone at the top of the picture in a movie. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And sometimes it ruins the movie for you.
The best way is to avoid the information dump is by showing the characters learning these things as they happen. Then the reader learns them at the same time.
Or you could do what I did. Throw it all away. After all my research into supersymmetry and thinking about how that could make a ghost…I tossed it.
Why? It didn’t add anything to the story. It was interesting to me (and maybe one or two other people somewhere), but it detracted from the story. Instead, I ‘dumbed’ the story down a little, had Gordon get excited that he thinks he figured out what a ghost was, and moved on. The reader was there when Gordon figured it out, so now the reader feels like they figured it out too (if I did it right). And I didn’t have to go into superpartners and subatomic dark matter that would lose most readers even if I could subtly work it into the story.
Was throwing away that 800 word part of my story bad? Of course not! The story is better off without it. And I still gained my personal knowledge from the research. You never know when that will come up again. It might be useful in my very next story, or it may make me look intelligent the next time I sit on a discussion panel with people who really are intelligent. No writing is ever wasted, even if it is never used.
Without that information dump, I wouldn’t have had this story. This idea of ghosts is where the whole story started. Now that I took it out, the story is better even though it was the origin.
And it led to this post. No writing is ever wasted. Time is though. Try not to make your readers waste their time reading information dumps. Like I just did to you. Did you read the whole thing?