Are You Making Your Characters (and Yourself) Look Stupid?

This week’s video points out one of the pitfalls of using your characters’ dialogue to avoid info dumps.

Video Transcript:

We’ve talked before about how authors can use dialogue to avoid the dreaded info dump. In a nutshell, we do this by allowing an in-the-know character to explain necessary information to an ignorant character. When done well, this technique can be not only an effective way of avoiding the sin of the info dump, it can also be used to move the plot forward. However, there is a pitfall.

In our attempt to avoid an “as-you-already-know-Bob” conversation, in which one character tells another character information they’re both already familiar with, we take the necessary and obvious step of making one character ignorant of the facts. So far, so good. But what if there’s no good reason for this character not to know what’s going on? In a YA book I recently read, the author uses this trick in his opening chapter by having the protagonist explain crucial details about the setting to another character. The only problem with this is that the second character, having lived in this setting all his life, had no business not knowing the answers to his questions.

The author succeeded in his primary purpose of imparting information to the reader, but in the process, he made his character look unnecessarily—and unrealistically—stupid. So the next time you’re scoping out possible characters for that all-important, information-imparting conversation, choose wisely. You need to select a character who can be ignorant for a good reason. Sometimes this means introducing an entirely new character, which, in turn, can lead to entirely new plot developments. But sometimes it’s also going to mean avoiding this little trick altogether and falling back on narrative to impart your info. Dialogue can often be a smarter and more seamless way to explain things, but you can’t force it to work when it just isn’t logical.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever used dialogue to avoid an info dump?

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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’ve used dialogue to explain things before, but I’ve found that if you’re not careful, the dialogue itself can become an info dump. I suppose it’s another example of using too much of a good thing.

  2. My understanding was that any scene that gives extensive background information, no matter how it is conveyed, is an info dump. I’d never heard that if it’s dialogue it’s not an info dump. That said, I don’t think info dumps are bad. I just think they are often done badly. If you can make your info dump compelling that’s not the fault of the technique, it’s the fault of the author.

  3. If you *can’t* make your info dump compelling, is what I meant. Sigh.

  4. @Ava: Precisely. Dialogue offers a good alternative to narrative info dumping simply because dialogue integrates so much more naturally and more realistically into the story. But, by the same token, if the info isn’t natural and realistic within the dialogue, it brings the whole operation clunking down.

    @Sarah: Technically, of course, your right. Movies and TV are perfect examples of consistent info dumping through dialogue. But, usually, “info dump” is a negative term, used particularly for instances in which the dump draws attention to itself through its clumsiness. Dialogue, when crafted well, is a good way to * disguise* an info dump that might otherwise have drawn attention to itself or bored readers.

  5. I don’t like the dialogue that I KNOW is the author just trying to tell me something they want me to know, and they aren’t sure how to do it, so they plop it in the dialogue – ungh! hate! ungh!

    Sometimes the easier thing to do isn’t what we should do. Sometimes we have to think a little harder/smarter.

  6. The reason dialogue is often such a clever way to disguise an info dump is because the #1 rule of dialogue is that must move the plot forward. When we can make our info dumps pull double duty, everyone’s happy. It’s when we fail in that most important of missions that everything falls apart.

  7. I’ve fallen off both sides of the path. Using dialogue as an info dump, or dumping info without using dialogue. It’s sometimes hard to make the reader see what you see without making the book dull. Of course, the stranger riding into town theme allows me to share more information to the reader without him/her suspecting it.

    thnx for a great article. 😀

  8. I happened to luck out, as I have one young character (who needs philosophical facts of life explained), an immigrant, basically, to explain geographical settings to; and a sheltered character, who was very effective in his little realm, but it was a little realm indeed. However, there was once I employed another little trick: the “I don’t know how much you know, so why don’t you tell me” trick, between the young protagonist and one of his instructors. This allowed the two characters — who both knew what was going on — to use dialogue to inform the reader without making either of them seem stupid.

    But yes, I have seen (and written, but thankfully later fixed) the problem you describe. Annoying, and a little dis-heartening. Thanks for the reminder ^_^

  9. @Gideon: The surprising solution sometimes is refraining ourselves from including the information at all. Readers are able to figure a story out with surprisingly little explanation sometimes. I just finished a fantasy book that dumped the reader straight into the world and its lingo with *no* explanation. It took me a bit to get everything straight, but it actually worked out well. I wouldn’t recommend it for every story, but it’s worth remembering that we should always double-check our info dumps for necessity.

    @Daniel: If we can have the foresight to plant characters who will be able to ask the right questions, we can save ourselves a lot of trouble in the long run. Alas, it doesn’t always work out that way.

  10. The secret with using dialogue as an info dump, I find, is to twist/reframe the question slightly. Instead of the Scooby-Doo approach (“Tell me again why we’re here?”), you can try something like: “This is a waste of time. We’ve been here fifteen times already.” That opens the door for a more realistic/naturalistic response of: “I know but …”

    As with any technique using dialogue, putting yourself in the character’s shoes and asking yourself what that character might say in real life, is the key.

  11. Great example! Not only does doing so create an opportunity to share info, it also creates interest by upping the conflict.

  12. I don’t think I’ve been guilty of this–one of the few writing crimes I can legitimately claim not to have committed. Because I’m so conscious of this in others’ writing, and of awkward notes in dialogue in general, I think I’m hyper-aware of it in my own writing.

    I agree with DAJB above, that twisting or reframing the information to fit the character and the situation provides a much more organic, natural outlet for that valuable information. Not that this is always an easy process; it can take a lot of wrestling and wrangling to coax the information into something as pleasing to the reader as it is to the writer’s need to offload the backstory.

  13. Yay! It’s always exciting to read something and nod your head, knowing you’ve got it licked.

  14. I have just reviewed a detective novel with an excellent plot … drowning in talk/talk/talk from the characters. I couldn’t understand why I was bored stiff with it and after a while I was mentally screaming, “Enough! Stop talking!” I realise now what the problem was: the author went overboard trying to squeeze so much back history into dialogue that the story ground to a halt in places. He also had many flashbacks that were an extra burden. Sometimes simple is better!

  15. I always feel like the author thinks I’m stupid when I read someone that feels like an info dump. And so, if it happens in dialog, the author, character(s) and reader all like (or feel) stupid. Not a good combination.

    I think in many situations, the info dump can be avoided entirely, and the necessary information can be given to the reader incidentally over the course of the book.

  16. Look stupid, that is.

  17. I use this technique all the time. Especially in science fiction and fantasy, it can be difficult to keep things flowing when you have to convey some piece of information for the story to make sense. I tend to disguise it as much as possible, however, by dividing the information up. It may take several pages before you get a full view of what a character or organization is but, in the time, you’ve also experienced the actions of the story and the movement of the characters.

  18. @Fiona: One thing to always remember in crafting dialogue is to keep the conflict up. If there’s at least an underlying sense of conflict in every conversation, the author is much less likely to fall into long-winded explanations that don’t advance the plot.

    @Grant: “If it happens in dialog, the author, character(s) and reader all look (or feel) stupid” – great way to put it!

  19. @Jessica: Yes, taking our time is often the key. Instead of shoving all the info into one big paragraph of dialogue, it almost always works better when we can sow it in throughout an entire conversation.

  20. Dialog is one of my favorite things to write, and this is one reason why. When done right, it can make things feel so much more casual and natural than it would if you went with a big expository paragraph.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  21. Mine too! Nothing beats a good page dialogue.

  22. I try to drop things into conversation over several scenes, not just one. I wrote a book with two characters who dated in high school and broke up in college and meet up again 12 years later, and I did a lot of flashbacks. It drove some readers crazy. Flashbacks are a lot like informatin giving, they need to be used carefully.

  23. Yes, it’s important for authors to realize they don’t have to tell readers everything right away. We have a whole book to make sure they get the picture!

  24. This article is very helpful, as are the comments. Thank you all.

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