Fiction writing is a funny business. Where do you start? At the beginning of someone’s life? If you’re writing a novel that tells a life story, then perhaps that is a good approach. But in general, no. You want to start when something interesting is happening - something important to the story. Otherwise you are at risk of “info dumping.”
Let’s start by answering this question: What is the dreaded info dump? Very simply, it is the sharing of the background information that you feel is important to your character’s story. These details might include where the character was born, what sort of mother your character had, whether he or she had a happy childhood, and so on.
Those details don’t need to come out right away. We don’t need to know a character’s background to get to know him. In fact, we don’t care. (By “we,” of course I mean your story’s readers.) We care about what he is experiencing, about what is hurting him or causing him consternation, and how he is going to deal with it.
If somewhere along the way we learn that part of the reason he behaves like an ass every time he speaks with his mother is because she was abusive to his father the whole time he was growing up, then we can have an ah-ha moment, and a deeper appreciation of who he is.
But start with the bar fight where he is throwing punches. Or a scene where he meets his girlfriend for a drink and everything he says is sarcastic, and she gets fed up and leaves him. Or start with him walking along a sea wall looking out and contemplating. What is he thinking? Is he depressed? Give us hints. He is walking slowly, kicking at stones along the boardwalk. The seagulls seem to be mocking him. Then a figure is walking towards him from the other direction. He is not alone.
Contrast that approach with “Brian was born in 1978 to a mother who was both loving but distant.” Snore! Don’t tell us all the stuff up front. Sprinkle it in as you go. Give us the action first, and later you can share more, once you’ve got us hooked. Any long paragraphs about what happened when he was 5 or 9 must appear after we are already interested.
Not all fiction writers are guilty of info dumping. Some of us provide too little detail and then it’s difficult to get to know the character, and to get involved in his or her story. But that’s a tip for another time.
@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.
If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.
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