Friday, April 20, 2007

No Blowhards In Your Story, Please! BY ROBERT W. (ROB) WALKER

Recently on a chat the issue came up of having a character in a mystery do what we term an “information dump” go on for paragraphs, possibly pages as one character simply “unloads” and tells all. When this happens, and it is almost a given in a rough draft and so many people believe it HAS to happen as the ANSWERS to the mystery have to be disclosed by someone—whether it is a Sherlock Holmes or a Monk or an Obi Wan Kenobi character who has all the answers, or a confession pouring out of the bad guy. Two problems with this “device” is that it has become a cliché in and of itself, spoofed often as in the film Tootsie when Dustin Hoffman does it and by doing so ends the career of Dorothy…and second problem? One of our characters begins to speak, uninterrupted, for a page or two or in whole paragraphs. I fight this on the rewrite, and remember rewriting IS writing.
The answer to the info dump problem is simple. In natural speech, even when someone pleads to “let me get this off my chest before you interrupt” the listener will interrupt. Will ask questions. Will pace. Will shake their heads. Will plead for more information. Will ask why, how, when, where, and then why again. In short good dialogue practices can save your story from having what we call the “blowhard” character who goes on for pages or paragraphs uninterrupted. Read the dialogue below and imagine it in its first draft. In its origin, it was a first person narrative from the mouth of one speaker until I went in and asked after each sentence, what response would my listener have to that? How can I cut and paste what was the original speaker’s line and place it in as the listener’s line? Can I use facial expressions and actions to put an end to the speaker’s speech even if for only a moment. In short, how can I introduce a lot more paragraph indents, giving the second person on scene or a third person in the room reason to interrupt the info dump guy. The dialogue below was once one long, too long paragraph from one speaker but not anymore.

“No, I don’t mean it that way like I expected nothing.”
“Then what did you—ahhh…”
“H-had not a single thought in my head—certainly not consequences.”
“Blank, huh?”
“B-blank, zip.”
“What’d I have in my head? Is that what you wanna know?”
“Might help to know, yes, Stan.”
“Like a swimming pool fulluvit, fulla red, yeah.”
“ Just seeing red?”
“Just seein’ red, yeah.”
“Then it’s true what they say about seeing red, huh?”
“You oughta know, detective.”
Stanley must’ve hit a nerve as evidenced by the silence coming from the tape recorder. Apparently Castle did know about seeing red. Holden certainly did. He’d taken to calling it “the red out.”
“All that love and devotion and sincere concern you had for her,” began Castle’s voice anew, “and she pisses on it. Ruins it. You give over everything to Mary, and she spits in your face. Sure, I get it.”
“Alice, her name was Alice.”
“Mine was Mary.”

AND so it goes. No longer is all this information “dumped” on the reader. This lesson is among the most important a writer must learn. Readers will love you for it. So the next time you catch one of your characters trying to carry the entire info dump load, remember the watchword – Interrupts. Rewrite to include INTERRUPTIONS via dialogue, expressions, and actions taken. In reality put yourself into the story and ask, “Would I stand for some guy talking to me for twenty minutes without clearing my throat and interrupting?


1 comment:

Morgan Mandel said...

These are great suggestions. I'll have to remember some of them when I want to add backstory.