On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 10: The Great Info-Dump in the Sky

1897_Saloon_Blackhawk“Pleased to meet you,” the bartender said, shaking Jon’s hand. “You must be Jon Chandler. I think you ought to know that Colonel Mustard hired a man to sabotage your friend’s brakes. He’s a bad one, that Colonel.”

The writer of this snatch of dialogue (tweaked slightly to protect the guilty) had in his mind the sum of all information for the book, but he didn’t always stop to think which characters should (or should not) also have that information. Hence, characters who should have it didn’t and characters that shouldn’t did.

Result? Everyone in town knew that the villain messed with the victim’s brakes and discussed it freely … except the protagonist and the victim who stumbled along in the dark. The reader might well wonder why the victim is so stupid and why random characters have information the protagonist needs precisely when he needs it (or even before he knows he needs it) even though there is no conceivable way they could know what they know.

Did you get all that?

I see this in the writing of aspiring authors more often that you might think. Some of these folks want to write books but don’t actually read them. (Yes, I know. Go figure.) I have had both workshop participants and clients for my editing services who are inspired to write books by watching movies or TV shows. As a result, they have little or no experience with how skilled writers manage, hide or reveal information. They may not stop to wonder how a choice piece of intel got to the protagonist in a movie, but in a book, a writer has to consider provenance. That is, where did the information come from and how did it get from point A to point B and thence into the protagonist’s ear.

In the scene at the top of the article, the writer “shorthanded” getting his protagonist necessary information. He also put it too early in the story, but that’s a different essay.

What are the deeper ramifications of this? 

In the manuscript the bar scene is from, the villain’s doings were highly secret to the people he was working against yet half the town seemed to know about them. The newspaper editor and the owner of a local diner both knew that the villain had rigged an accident that injured the protagonist’s friend, while neither the friend nor his wife knew it. And the local filling station owner knew exactly what had happened to the villain’s ex-dog right down to who had drowned her puppies on the villain’s highly fortified ranch. Meanwhile, the villain was forcing people from their homes right and left, causing a general exodus that the above-mentioned couple failed to notice. Buried in that general melee was a moment the writer had intended as a “big reveal.” He was surprised when I suggested he cut the scene.

“But it’s where the villain reveals what he’s been doing,” he protested.

“The reader already knows what the villain’s been doing,” I said. “Everyone in town knows … except the people he’s doing it to.”

throw-the-faceInformation that is handled poorly—too much, too soon in the hands of too many or too little too late—can ruin the pacing and emotional dynamic of a story. What you intended to be an Aha Moment or a Gasp Eeeee! scene fails to have any impact because the story has sprung a leak.

What’s the solution? 

Keep track of what your characters know and when they find it out. You can do this any number of ways—take notes, create flow charts, use stickies or 3×5 cards, etc—whatever works for you. But DO it. You can track this prefix or post-fix or both. Meaning you can do it as you’re writing the story or afterward during an edit. (You do edit, right?)

For example, if there is a piece of critical information that is at the core of your story, you can:

  • Plan up front which major characters know about it at different points in the plot—plan your reveals, in other words.
  • Keep track of it as you write, noting when you craft a scene that so-and-so now knows about the doorway to a ninth dimension under Aunt Betsy’s sofa.
  • Go back after you’ve written your first draft to note where information is revealed and to whom, to make sure you haven’t revealed it too early or more than once. You might forget that a character is present in Chapter 2 when Floyd reveals what he knows of Aunt Betsy’s dimensional warp, but the reader probably won’t.
  • If you have other characters impart information to your protagonist, make sure they are the right characters—that is, characters that have reason to own that information AND reason to divulge it. Take, for example, the sample scene above. If you find yourself writing a scene like that—even if it is infinitely more subtle—ask yourself “How did this character come to know this and why is he telling Fred?”

You may discover you have to rethink how the protagonist gets the information or you may uncover (or invent) a fascinating sequence of events that you can put on the page for your reader’s enjoyment.

One way of controlling information flow lies in your choice of point-of-view (POV) character in a given scene. When selecting a viewpoint character there are a number of things to take into account, including whom you want to have certain information, whether you are concealing things from certain characters or from the reader (the honest way), and whether you want the reader to be immediately aware of the protagonist’s feelings about a situation.

If, for example, you want to give the reader information without revealing the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings about it, a sidestep to a non-central character can allow you to control the emotional focus.

Exercise: Check your own stories for serendipitous reveals of information. If you find some, ask how the information came to be revealed to the people who know it and kept from the people who don’t know it. This can be trouble if the rest of your plot hangs on this reveal.

Challenge: Meanwhile, if you want to make a challenge out of our hero’s meet and greet with the bartender and write a more convincing encounter, the facts are these:

  1. The Colonel is a rancher who is eager to expand his spread, has bought out a number of smaller ranches, and owns a number of businesses in town.
  2. The Colonel is pressuring the protagonist’s friend to sell him some property. The protagonist knows this because the friend’s wife told him.
  3. The friend was injured when his brakes failed in a suspicious accident — this is common knowledge
  4. The protagonist is in town because his friend’s wife expressed concern for her husband’s health in a brief message (telegram, email, phone message).

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On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 10: The Great Info-Dump in the Sky — 4 Comments

  1. The big man’s eyes flickered across the top shelf of the well-stocked bar and he raised an eyebrow when he spotted a favourite label.
    ‘Two double Chivas Regal, please.’ He said nodding towards the furthermost bottle. The bartender, a tall youngster – who seemed barely old enough to enter licensed premises let alone serve behind bar – poured two glasses and set them down on the mahogany bar top.
    ‘Water with those, sir?’
    The man frowned. ‘You’re new to bartending I guess?’ His voice sounded like gravel being rolled around in a bucket.
    ‘Sorry, sir?’ The bartender replied, his face flushing slightly.
    ‘Son, either you’ve got no idea what you’re doing or you just want to piss me off and I’ve been pissed off enough today by your local hospital. You don’t water-down twelve-year-old whisky.’ The man said angrily and then downed one of the glasses. He exhaled slowly and his eyes closed in pleasure. ‘Give me another double.’
    The bartender looked flustered then replied, ‘You still have that one, sir.’
    The man sighed, ‘That’s Tom Morgan’s.’
    ‘Tom Morgan’s?’ The bartender said and then, ‘But Tom’s in hospital. Another car accident, I heard.’
    The man nodded, ‘I know where he is.’ Then his eyes narrowed, ‘Another car accident? His wife said she was worried about him but she didn’t mention any previous accident. What happened?’
    The bartender poured another double as he replied, ‘Tom was on the way back from the Colonel’s when a truck nearly ran him off the road. That was a couple of days ago.’
    ‘And he crashes his car today and ends up in a coma in your pitiful excuse for a hospital.’
    The bartender looked around nervously, ‘It’s the only hospital for thirty miles, sir. If it wasn’t for the Colonel we wouldn’t even have that one.’
    ‘The Colonel? Who the hell is this Colonel? I seem to hear him mentioned quite a lot around these parts.’ The man asked and this time he took a slow, savouring sip from the refilled glass.
    The bartender swallowed noisily, glanced around again and said quietly, ‘He owns most of the town. A lot of the surrounding ranches and land, oh… and of course, the private hospital.’
    ‘Figures, Tom’s wife said ‘someone’ connected was trying to bully him into selling up his place. Now he’s locked up tight in what looks like that ‘someone’s’ private hospital. Seems a little too neat to first of all get almost driven off the road and then a few days later crash your car through brake failure.’ The big man said as he rubbed the stubbly bristles of his square chin. ‘Perhaps I’d better give this Colonel a visit, see if there’s any fresh brake fluid on his drive…’

    • Nice work, Bob. You have a real knack for this.

      Can I snatch this one too for use in my workshops? You do a nice job of herding rather than leading the conversation. AND for getting all sorts of lovely texture in to the characterizations. The protagonist’s attention to the Chivas Regal is very telling and the way you gave us a clear picture of the Colonel’s modus operandi without telling us anything blatant (He’s a bad one, that Colonel.)

      You might even soft-pedal it further by having the young bartender refer to him as “a great benefactor” instead of saying that he owned everything. He “endowed” the hospital and is the chief exec, let’s say.

      All in all it’s a great example of what I struggle to get across to the folks I mentor.

      Thanks!

  2. Hi Maya,
    Thanks for the praise, much appreciated. I’ve really enjoyed this part of Book View Cafe and look forward to your challenges. Please feel free to use this in your workshop should you wish to.

    I’ve been writing for ages but I am poorly disciplined and easily distracted (hence my contributions to the blog instead of writing!) and should be trying to get my sequel to a dark fantasy I wrote completed (along with a hard SF novel I’m scribbling!) I’ve had a few shorts published too but have to say I’m envious of you getting a gig in Interzone. I’ve been trying for a long time to get something of mine into that prestigious magazine but have so far been unsuccessful.

    Right, time to stop surfing the net, answering emails and blogging, time to knuckle down and do some writing.

    Ooh just let me browse that new SF site first….
    Best,
    Bob
    🙂

  3. Bob,

    I’m going to suggest that you consider reverse engineering one or both of the major exercises (the two thieves and the toxic Colonel) into flash or short fiction.

    When I get stuck or distracted from a long project, forcing myself to think through, plot and execute a piece of short fiction is often the means of getting myself on track. I even will set up internal deadlines, put them on the calendar and try to hit them.

    I especially loved what you did with the thieves in the church and think that it’s a nice little piece of flash fiction pretty much as is, though you might have more to say.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying these little tidbits. I am too!