by Rebecca Charlton
I sent my children down first with the strict admonishment to make sure I could see the floor when I came in to clean. My youngest came up after fifteen minutes and declared the task complete. His brother wandered up a bit later and complained there “was nowhere left to put anything.”
I suspected this was an excuse for why the toy room would still be a disaster at my arrival. But I was wrong. My children had accumulated enough toys to overwhelm the many, many storage bins in the room. Every space overflowed with remnants of Happy Meals past and ancient, broken toys shoved aside rather than thrown out. We had duplicates of some toys. That’s right—our kids have so many toys that we’ve started re-purchasing things we’ve forgotten we bought earlier.
There was no way anyone could sleep in that room. And no way was I letting strangers see what entitled monsters I must be raising amidst all that excess.
So mom went berserk. I pulled out all the broken toys, threw away the ones with missing pieces, and eliminated the McDonald’s graveyard (for collectors, our local DI is about to be a dream come true). I forced my children to prove that every abandoned piece belonged to a working toy set. They could keep only one bin of “treasures” without explanation. We even threw out stuffed animals and balls. Truly, my children may never recover. They’re currently taking applications for a new mother on the strict requirement that you also accept their “cool dad” who never makes them clean up the toy room.
For too many of us, our manuscripts are a bit like my children’s playroom. We amass this mound of treasure, built from every detail we hoarded as we carved out character and hewn the plot from the stone of imagination. Every scrap is carefully scraped into what we want to be the novel that sits next to Harry Potter in the book Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, for most of us, we end up with this instead:
A trash pile. Full of details that drag the plot and leave our readers both confused and exhausted by the lengthy (and often irrelevant) prose.
There’s only one solution for messy rooms or messy manuscripts: Clean them up.
Here are a few tips for cleaning up your info dumps:
1. Evaluate your MS for info dumps.
Where do you have large blocks of text that don’t describe the current action? Does your narrator describe everything in detail? Do you have a tendency to get lost in scenery and sensory detail? Find these spots and highlight them. Here’s an unfortunate one from a recent MS of mine:
She was so nervous she could die. Church culture felt foreign after two years of barely having time for sacrament meeting. Kat loved to film on Sunday. The world is so quiet, she said of Sunday mornings. Bea had dashed into a nearby ward on her tea break to grab the sacrament before rushing back to set in vain hope that nothing had broken. She hadn’t been to the temple except for weddings in way too long. The expiration date declared this trip was her last chance to attend before her recommend expired. Good timing there, at least.
My CP noted, “Will this ever end?” Seemingly, it wouldn’t. The backstory drug on for two more paragraphs. So highlight these chunks and then figure out how to break up the info or parse it throughout the MS to stop your MS from turning into a garbage heap of irrelevant info.
2. Cut, cut, cut.
Accept the reality that most of your readers don’t really care about all that detail. Slice out anything that doesn’t inform the reader of plot or character—and then cut anything that does but will be shown through scenes and dialogue as the story progresses.
3. Keep it simple.
Do you need a touch of backstory? That’s okay. But keep it short and relevant. One sentence can say more than a 3-paragraph flashback. Here’s an example from my current MS where I needed to explain a relationship that has ended for my MC. It’s important to know who her ex-roommate was, but you don’t need to know their entire history.
Nic handed over the list of items Kat was convinced Bea had pilfered during their years as semi-roommates. Some of them were in a pile by the TV—the Doors vinyl, a few DVDs from their last girls’ movie night, and the wool pink pussy hat that Kat had left after the women’s march. But a few items required Bea to open marked boxes and see if she’d accidentally packed items she’d long-forgotten originally belonged to Kat.
4. Look for ways to show the info.
Is your character smart? Then show us that by letting the character be smart, not by telling us about past successes. Most of the time, info dumps become irrelevant through a well-told story. For character description, a well-structured scene that demonstrates character traits has more impact than a lengthy block of narrative.
5. Start your story earlier.
If you’re finding that every scene requires you to step back in time to explain something, maybe you started the story too late. You want to start your story where the present action has the most movement and interest. If that’s 3 months ago, start your story 3 months earlier.
So open up that MS with all the enthusiasm I showed for my boys’ disaster of a playroom. Do you need to do some spring cleaning? Then dig on in. Nothing feels as nice as a freshly renovated MS that thrills your readers and keeps your pace spic-and-span.
For more on information dumps see, Thinning Out the Backstory: Info Dumps Part 1.
Becca McCulloch is a wife, mother, professor, and writer but rarely in that order (if in any order at all). At night, she transitions from mild-mannered educator into mild-mannered artist, writing about LDS (Mormon) issues in a modern and complex world. In 2016, she won the Storymakers' First Chapter Contest/General Fiction category. Becca resides in Utah with her husband, 2 children, Great Dane, two cats, and a pesky, yet friendly raccoon that won't leave the outdoor shed. Her short story, A Fae One, was published in the 2017 LDS Beta Readers anthology: Mind Games.
Amazon Link: amazon.com/author/beccamcculloch