Our resident agony aunt, Dr Darwin, answers a common question: how to avoid the dreaded info-dump.
Dear Dr Darwin,
I read with interest your post about how to use historical references that readers will get, to create a sense of period, without it descending into cliché. My problem is related but a bit different: how do you make sure readers get necessary information without it being clunkingly obvious?
Boggled of Barnstaple
This is a common writing problem in general – but like so many others, particularly sharp when it comes to historical fiction, because there’s so much you can’t rely on a reader knowing already. And, indeed, readers love hist fic for that very “otherness” – and yet most of the time they don’t want to be conscious of the lens that focuses the otherness for them.
As ever, there are no rules in writing: there are only different tools, your creative decision in choosing which one to use, and your technical skill in using it. So here are some possible tools:
1) Be up front that this is information. Don’t despise straightforward Telling. If you need the reader to know something, sometimes it’s clearest and most economical – best for the forward-movement of the plot – if you don’t beat about the bush, nor make the reader work more, nor risk them failing to get something important:
“Every Matron officially had four under-matrons, but it was always difficult to find applicants with the right experience, let alone recruit them.”
“With no large galleys to make, and full stocks of fishing-smacks and coracles, the boat-yard was often put on short time; then, my father would come home at midday.”
2) Use a viewpoint character, so their voice and point-of-view colour what is conveyed:
“Yet again the wretched Hospital Board had turned down a perfectly good nurse because her School Certificate marks in French and Religious Knowledge were low; sometimes Sister McCloughlin wondered if those aldermen had the least idea what she needed – and what she didn’t – in her lieutenants.”
“If the boat-yard had a week when they couldn’t sell so much as a coracle, we’d be back from school and just settling to our dinner – fish stew was my favourite but Rhodri always wanted roasted cheese – when Da came stumping in the back door, muttering that now the galleys were gone, we were likely to starve.”
This kind of character-formed colouring make the sentence more interesting, so we’re less conscious of the thud of information landing, but the more subjective take on the situation also reveals and rounds out the viewpoint character a little more. For more about about working in this way, which is really about psychic distance, click through to This Itch of Writing.
3) Use your narrator, so that even informative sentences have flavour and life:
“Hospital Boards being sclerotic beasts, St Ursula’s assembly of worthies had still not noticed that, four generations after Miss Nightingale’s great reforms, gentility in senior nurses was a less essential quality than efficiency and wide experience. It was Sister McCloughlin who suffered from the consequent, chronic gaps in her under-matrons’ office.”
“The last legions had left the Gower and with them the military contracts which kept the boat-yards busy and prosperous; often the boat-makers were put on short time. Our father would stump in just as we gobbled the last of our dinner, and yield to our pleas for football in the street before we trailed back to school.”
This too is really about using psychic distance, but at the other end of the spectrum: here we’re not close inside a character’s viewpoint, we’re seeing things explicitly through the narrator’s wider lens. Notice how in the second example, the narrator of the story is still a narrator: he just happens to be telling a story about himself.
4) Distract the reader by making the sentence focus on something else.
a) apparently about something else: “Because the fourth desk in the under-matrons’ office was empty as usual, thanks to the Board’s stupidity and sloth, it was the first place to look if a stethescope, a letter or a grateful patient’s gift of chocolates had gone missing. But the file was not there.”
Here, we’re focused on the missing file but in fact, Sister McCloughlin finds it in the next sentence, and there’s no great significance to this little “fortunately-unfortunately” swerve at all; the whole episode is only there so the writer can tuck in the lack of a fourth matron. Mind you, the extra bit of scene-painting is no bad thing either: you could think of this hard-working sentence as not only hiding plot-info, but also disguising scene-setting.
b) genuinely about something else: “Over dinner Ma read the letter, and when Da came stumping in the back door she didn’t even look up, though if it was short time at the boat-yard again us boys knew we’d be on bread-and-dripping for our tea.
Ma’s letter is the obvious plot-point in this sentence, and the reader’s waiting to find out what will happen when Da sees it. The information about the boat-yard sneaks in on its coat-tails.
5) Leave it out. You would be amazed by what a reader doesn’t need to know, if what you do give them is vivid and convincing. You may have had to work out, for example, the effect of having elected local Hospital Boards, or the economic consequences of the Romans leaving, but that doesn’t mean we need, or even want, to know them. And even with the immediate information that we probably do need at some point, the old revising-questions: “Why this? Why now?” are good ones to ask yourself, leading as they do towards deciding “How? And how much?”
For what it’s worth, I have a… well, very nearly a rule, for all my writing, that any sentence should be doing at least two jobs for the storytelling. One job will probably be conveying the actual information and driving the narrative on, but it’s the second that raises your story above that simple level and giving it personality and power. The second job in the above examples varies: in some it’s establishing voice or character, or setting the scene. At other times it might be about playing with a web of metaphor and image, or reinforcing the foreingnness of the country of the past, or evoking place with real vividness. Any of these may also help you smuggle in necessary information.
Remember that any of these strategies need to be part of a broader consistency in how the narrative works, which the reader learns intuitively as they read. Knowing it’s your book and making your own rules about strategies also gives you confidence, as in “with faith”: using the tool you choose wholeheartedly, not pulling your punches in voices, or clue-hiding, or plain-and-simple Telling, or complexity in how narrator and viewpoint character interact and interchange. If you trust yourself enough to do things wholeheartedly and to take the reader with you, then your reader will trust you, and relax into the world and the story.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin, was published in February 2019, and is an account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family.
Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor) and was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University; her how-to book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, was published in 2016, and she shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.
Mr B Finds Pamela Writing by Joseph Highmore: via Wikimedia