By Ross B. Lampert
Whenever characters speak, they’re transmitting information, to one or more other characters and/or to the reader. That information can be truth, lies, or something in-between; it can be emotional (a state of being or feeling) rather than factual; it can be directive (an order or warning) or informational; it can be direct or indirect; it can be any combination of these. This is nowhere near a complete list.
It can also be boring as hell.
What happens is that sometimes, with the best of intentions (or maybe just not knowing any better), an author will use a character to dump information on the reader, rather than doing it himself through narrative. No matter how it’s done, info-dumping isn’t a good technique.
This problem usually happens in one of two ways:
- Characters make speeches or give lectures;
- Characters tell each other things they already know, which is called the “as you know, Bob” problem.
Now, to be clear, sometimes a character making a speech is fine. In my drafts of The Eternity Plague, that happens three times. To make sure I didn’t put the reader to sleep in any of them, I broke up each speech repeatedly with at least some of these:
- Interruptions from a disruptive audience member;
- The behavior of the speaker, including meaningful movement around the location of the scene; and
- Audience reactions.
In each case, I took what could have been long blocks of sleep-inducing monologue and turned them into active, action- and tension-filled events.
Sometimes, too, it’s just fine for one character to remind another of some detail:
Alice: “Wait, didn’t Jackson have a history of going off his meds?”
Bob: “Right! How could I have forgotten that?”
Boom! Done! Instead of:
Alice: “As you know, Bob, our files contain a series of cases, from January 1982, October 1994, August 2000, and March 2004, in which Jackson went off his medications, particularly his Prozac®, properly known as fluoxetine, for extended periods of time. As you further know, failure to maintain a prescribed regiment of Prozac at an appropriate dosage can result in a wide range of adverse events, including….”
Bob (and the reader): “Zzzzzzz.”
The good news, at least for you as a reviewer, is that both of these problems are easy to spot. When it comes to speeches, you’ll find long, uninterrupted blocks of monologue. I’ve seen them go on for pages. Ugh. Even if the speaker is telling a story, this isn’t the best way to do it because the story is being told second-hand. That creates an emotional distance which blunts the story’s impact.
“As you know, Bob” incidents will often involve just that phrase (unless the character’s name isn’t Bob, of course), or one much like it: “Let me tell you, Bob, in infinite and excruciating detail everything there is to know about this situation” (or piece of equipment, or whatever). That’s a nice big red flag for you.
Helping the author fix the problem may not be quite so straight-forward but is still very doable. You can:
- Ask him whether the information is really necessary right now. His first reaction is likely to be that it is, which should then lead to the discussion of how much the reader truly needs to know at that moment. The answer, 999 times out of 1,000, is a lot less. You can then discuss how he can spread out the key details and drop them into the story at the points where they’ll have the most impact.
- Discuss with her other ways to present the information.
- In the case of the character telling a story, for example, she could shift into a flashback in which that story becomes immediate scene.
- In the case of Jackson going off his meds, Alice and Bob could quickly call up his data file and refresh their memories with actions and snappy back-and-forth conversation about how Jackson did something worse each time.
- Note that in both of these examples, a key element of the fix is to get all of the characters of the scene active. When monologue turns into dialogue, when characters’ statements are interrupted by their revealing, contradictory, or reinforcing actions—in other words, when the characters themselves are engaged in the story—the pace and tension will pick up and the reader will be engaged, too.
When a character makes a speech or one character tells another something she already knows, it’s a good bet the author means well but just isn’t clear on the best way to present that information. You, the reviewer, have a great opportunity in these situations to help make a story—and the writer—significantly better.
Have you seen these kinds of problems in other writers’ work? How did you help them overcome them?