How to Cut the Info-Dumps

Info-dumping is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in a first draft--especially if you're a pantser, and you're working out all the characters and settings as you go. Even if you've made careful, thorough character sketches ahead of time, you'll still discover new things about your characters as you write them. The same goes for your story world. If you're doing a good job of integrating your setting into your plot, you will find yourself exploring all manner of back alleys and sordid histories.

This is all part of the process, but some times the resulting text isn't terribly gripping for the reader, or is simply isn't necessary. Nobody enjoys reading long-winded blocks of characterization or exposition. Imagine if you met someone at a party and they immediately wrapped their arms around you and started whispering in your ear about their emotional problems. Or if you moved to a new apartment complex, and one of your neighbors cornered you and started spilling the last year's worth of gossip. It would be super awkward in real life, so why should it be acceptable in fiction?

Part of the problem is that info-dumps bring your story to a screeching halt so you can deliver a lecture (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). Nobody wants to pause a chase scene to consider some novel fact about the fruit stand the bad guy just crashed through. We want to get on with the show.

Furthermore, info-dumps are actually counter-productive. If you force feed your reader hulking blocks of information, they'll probably wind up tuning you out. Even if they don't, no reader is going to remember everything, so by the time a piece of backstory becomes relevant, they may have forgotten it.

The solution is to mete out your characterization and exposition in moderation. Give your readers only what they need, when they need it. In real life, we don't read a person's biography the day we meet them. We don't memorize maps and history books before we move to a new city. We just dive in head first and learn as we go. Make it the same way for your readers, and your book will start to feel real.

Characterization and exposition are yet another show and tell issue. Whenever possible, find a way to show us things about a character. Don't tell us the character is a lazy slob, show him tripping over a pile of dirty clothes while eating a slice of pizza that's been sitting out all night. Not only will the message come across clearer, but you will involve us in the story by inviting us to draw our own conclusions about this guy.

We're all guilty of overdoing things in first drafts. So how do you deal with it in editing?

First off, when you cut out long passages of characterization and exposition, don't simply delete them. They might contain insights you can use later. Keep all the parts you cut in a separate document. If you use character and setting sheets like mine, copy characterization into the relevant character sheet, and exposition into the relevant setting sheet. Long info-dumps aren't welcome in a story, but they make great notes that you can use to inform your decisions moving forward.

Look for any long, unbroken paragraphs. Anywhere you spend a lot of time in the narrative voice, you might be info-dumping. In general, I try to start a new paragraph every time there would be a camera cut if my story were a movie. Any time I see a long paragraph in my own work, chances are there's some info-dumping going on.

That won't always be the case, but it's a good rule of thumb to look for excessive characterization and exposition in passages of narrative. Dialogue and internal monologue will convey information about your characters, but they do so unobtrusively. In fact, dialogue and internal monologue are the best ways to get your characters across, so you don't really want to cut it unless it's just too much at once.

...and if you're going to show people doing things, why
not show them doing AWESOME things?
With settings, you should always try to show people doing things. Don't tell us about an environment, find some way for a character to interact with it. Don't give us a history lesson, make someone need information about a place's history. Make that information mean something in the present.

There are no hard and fast rules on how to write characterization and exposition, or on how to cut them out when they're clogging up your story. The result you're going for is characters and settings that come to life without you ever conspicuously throwing the "on" switch. You don't want readers to know about your characters, you want them to feel their emotions. You don't need readers to pass a quiz on your setting's history, you want them to feel like they've lived there. So just toss your readers into the fray and let them sort it out. They can handle it in their real lives. Assume they're intelligent enough to handle it in your story.


Can You "Just Write"?

When I first decided to seriously pursue writing, I didn't think much about what I needed to do to prepare for a career as a writer. I just decided to do it, sat down, and started.

Why is that?

Can you imagine starting any other career that way? You wouldn't say "I'm gonna be a fireman!" and start running into burning buildings. You wouldn't say "I'm gonna be a stockbroker!" and start...actually, I don't even know what you would start doing. Go to a stock exchange and start shouting?

Anyway, I find it odd that writing is a career that people think they can just do. I mean, in a sense it's true; there's no national writing organization whose dispensation you need, no training you must complete. There are organizations and schools you can go to, but nobody is going to make you. If you want to be a writer, nobody is going to stop you.

But just because you can jump in head first, doesn't mean you should. Most writers agree that writing well is hard. No matter how good a communicator you are, there's a lot to learn when it comes to crafting fiction.

Writing fiction is like coding. Your manuscript is your coding environment--a blank text file, or the HTML template of a blog like this one. And the mind of the reader is like a web browser; it reads and interprets the code. Whatever you do in your manuscript has an effect in the mind of the reader. Sometimes it's the one you want. Sometimes it doesn't matter if it looks exactly the same to everyone, so long as it's close enough. And sometimes, if your code is faulty, the browser simply can't understand it.

You wouldn't say "I'm gonna be a web designer!" and start writing websites without learning HTML. You might do what I did and get set up with a platform like Blogger or Tumblr, but you wouldn't go tinkering with the site's template unless you at least knew HTML and CSS. Hell, this website's template still intimidates me a little, and I've learned a lot in the last year.

The point is that writing, for whatever reason, seems to be one of the few careers that people think they can jump into without learning anything new. What is it about fiction that makes us feel like we can start messing around without learning the language first?

My best guess is that we think we already know the language because we speak in our native tongue every day. But it's important to realize that everyday speech is a completely different language.

A language is more than words and their dictionary meanings. Ask any linguist. A language is a complex system of rule-based information exchange. Language can exist in any of the five senses, and often it exists in more than one at a time. English is a language we hear and see, but when we talk to each other we also receive signals with our other senses. When someone smelly comes up and talks to us, it colors our perception of their words. If we still have the taste of our partner's lips on our tongue, it changes the way we hear their words. If someone says something while caressing your inner thigh, you're liable to interpret it differently than if they said it while punching your face.

In everyday speech, we have the entire lexicon of human body language supplementing what we hear (or see, if you're using ASL). A speaker's posture and gestures give subtlety and nuance to their words. Depending on the speaker's face, the same sentence might sound true, sarcastic, dishonest, or exaggerated.

In writing, however, words are all we have. There are a handful of tricks like italics to add emphasis, and punctuation to organize things, but we don't have anything as intuitive as body language to help transfer meaning.

Therefore, when we write, we must choose our words much more carefully than we do when speaking--and not just because we have fewer channels open. When we speak to each other, the words themselves are ephemeral. We rarely recall the exact words we say, or that were said to us, we recall their meaning. Not even that, we recall our own interpretation of their meaning, whether or not that was their intended meaning. All but the most profound words disappear like smoke in the wind once they're spoken.

One of my all time favorite quotes about writing actually comes from the 1982 Jim Henson masterpiece The Dark Crystal. When the main character is asked what writing is, he gives the best definition I've ever heard: "Words that stay."

Writing stays. Writing is permanent (or at least semi-permanent). A writer must make sure she wants her words to stay. She must make sure they deserve to stay. Which is not to say they must be some James Joyce-esque outpouring of the eternal human soul, but they must create the correct effect in the mind of the reader, or they don't deserve to stay. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

Many of us write every day, even if it's just a grocery list, or our name at the bottom of a receipt. We fill out forms, write emails, and post sticky notes. It's writing, but it's still a different language than fiction, because the information they transfer seldom requires much imagination. Fiction invites the reader to imagine things which don't exist, and may never exist. There's room for interpretation, but if you want to write fiction, you have to know the code.

Maybe you think you can "just write". Maybe you think your editor will just "fix it". I did, when I started out. But I was constantly frustrated by people misunderstanding or not understanding my stories. Eventually I had to accept that the burden of clarity was on me. So I learned the code.

Think you can make it as a writer without learning grammar and storycraft? Let's have an argument in the comments! Gimme your best shot!


New Story Available!

My newest short story Enemy of Existence is now available in the anthology Coming Around Again, on sale now! The book was put together by the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers Group, to celebrate the group's 7th anniversary. It's the second anthology they've put out, and I'm proud to be included this time around!

The book showcases writing from CASFWG members, as well as writers from around the country. The theme of the book is anniversaries and cyclical events. There are a ton of amazing stories included, it's great read!

Pick up your copy now, and don't forget to leave us a review when you're done reading it!

About Enemy of Existence

A new world. A reluctant band of colonists. A violent secret.

They came to find refuge from the war that destroyed their home. Instead they found an enemy more savage and relentless than any they had faced before.

With no link to the world he left behind, one man must fight a losing battle for humanity's existence, and it will change everything he knows.


3 ways to Plot a Short Story

Many (if not most) fiction authors begin their careers writing short stories before moving into novels. For most of the 20th century, it was almost a requirement to start out this way; write and publish enough short stories to build a name for yourself, then move on to longer books and a publishing contract.

The system works a little differently now. Big magazines don't publish as much fiction as they used to, and fiction-focused periodicals are fewer in number, and their readerships are smaller Anthologies are everywhere, but again, the readership isn't huge. You're not likely to see a themed anthology in the top ten any time soon.

But there's still a big niche for short stories today. The simplicity and affordability of online self-publishing makes it easy to send your short story out into the world. It also means the fiction market is saturated with poorly-conceived, poorly-executed material.

So how do you stand out from the crowd? How do you win the hearts of readers? How do you edge out the competition when submitting to a magazine or anthology?

There's no secret sauce, of course. It's the same as anything else: success is a lot of hard work, and a little luck.

For me, hard work has always taken the form of learning and applying technique. I love books about the craft, but I've found there's a shortage of writing advice on the short story form in particular. Recently, I read Let's Write a Short Story by Joe Bunting of the website The Write Practice. It wasn't a bad book, but I was a bit disappointed. I went in hoping for a detailed breakdown of how short story structure differs from novel structure, and how to approach plotting and editing a short. Instead, I found the same old advice about submitting, self-editing, and staying on task. It was good advice, but I've heard it all before (and written about it too).

Luckily, I've had some ideas about short story structure churning in my head for a while, and my disappointment with Let's Write a Short Story has motivated me to share them.

Why bother plotting a short story at all?

I mean, it's short, right? Why go to the extra effort?

Well, if you're like me, plotting is as much a habit as it is deliberate practice. It's hard for me not to plot. But even if that isn't true for you, any story, no matter how short, is worth sketching out in advance. I firmly believe that good stories are like icebergs: the reader only sees the tip, but there's a vast framework beneath. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

And as I've said before, it's easier to work out kinks in an outline than in a story. Your first idea is rarely your best, so when you're approaching a story it pays to sketch it out first and revise a few times before committing anything to the page.

So how should short stories be structured? I've thought about it, and I'm pretty sure there are three general ways to do it.

Compressed Four-Act Structure

If you haven't read my series on story structure, this might not be familiar to you. Please go read it, it's awesome and everything I say is 100% right, because I'm super smart.

Anyway, traditional story structure can be compressed down to a shorter format. When plotting out signpost scenes and major turning points, you try to express what you need to as simply as possible. Instead of an entire scene or series of events at Turning Point One, you write just a single moment that changes the game. Instead of a whole Save-a-Cat scene, you write one moment, maybe just one line of dialogue that will engender sympathy for your protagonist.

I tried this strategy when I wrote my short story Deep (available from major retailers!). The story began with a couple bickering, and to create sympathy, I had the main character apologize to an android that overheard the argument. Apologizing to a robot is meaningless, of course, but it showed that she was embarrassed, and embarrassment is sympathetic. That was the idea, anyway. Buy it, and let me know if it worked!

Compressed story structure can work on a surprisingly small scale. With Deep, I crammed my entire four-act structure into about 5000 words. Four act structure is more about proportion than amount. As long as the important turning points are spaced right, it doesn't really matter how much story they contain. The resulting rhythm will still feel familiar.

The Vignette

A popular form with literary fiction authors and art house filmmakers, the vignette isn't really a story in the technical sense. It's really just a single scene intended to highlight a particular theme, emotion, setting, or character.

Vignettes can be done well, but they are often misused. Sometimes, authors will write vignettes as a way of exploring a setting or character, but nothing interesting happens in the resulting story. The writer merely describes a person or place, and perhaps gives us some interesting bit of backstory or exposition, but there is no narrative present. Vignettes like that are useful to write, but not very interesting to read. They're notes, really, not proper writing.

Remember; the key to good fiction is conflict. To keep readers interested, something has to be wrong, and it has to be wrong now, not in the murky, shapeless past. If you can't find the conflict, you're writing notes, not a story.

Good vignettes will paint a detailed picture of a theme or emotion. In Coffee and Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch uses the vignette to explore the theme of awkward, tenuous conversations. The scenes he presents vary widely in tone, but at the heart of all of them there is some form of uncertainty, and that provides the conflict.

Vignettes can be extremely short, or relatively long. The thing that makes them vignettes is that they happen in a single time and place. A long vignette can be a riveting slow burn if you lay the tension on thick enough. Think of the opening scene in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. That scene would probably make an amazing short story.

The key to using a vignette effectively is to keep the tension in focus. Even in the longest vignette, there's really no room for exposition. Get to the conflict, and let the reader stew in it until the scene comes to its close. Afterwards, the emotion you developed will still be ringing in their ears.

Sequence Structure

If you haven't read my article on sequence structure, here's a brief summary:

A Sequence is a group of related scenes. It consists of two phases, Action, and Reaction.

The Action Phase has three parts: A Goal, some kind of Conflict that impedes the character's progress toward that goal, and some Outcome (usually bad) that results from the conflict.

The Reaction Phase also has three parts: An emotional Reaction to the outcome, a period of Deliberation on what to do next, and a final Decision, which provides the next goal.

For more, read my article, or check out K.M. Weiland's series on this topic (I think my terminology is easier than hers, but the idea is the same...because I stole it from her).

Sequence structure as a short story plotting framework is new for me. I haven't actually written anything I've plotted this way (I've plotted, but I haven't actually written). But knowing how well this framework translates into novels, it stands to reason that it's a good way to write a short story. Gripping stories all have that domino-effect feeling, whether they're short or long.

In a novel, you typically have several main sequences linked up by smaller ones. The smaller ones can be cut short or interrupted, but the main ones should usually proceed unhindered. In a short story, I think you probably just need one, or one and a half. Let me explain.

The beginning of any story needs some kind of hook. Something has to be wrong right away or the reader isn't likely to get interested. To me, either a goal or an emotional reaction can provide this.

A goal is a desire with a plan. It can be established quickly, and then you move right into conflict. A goal in itself is already something wrong: wanting something means you don't already have it. Depending on what your character wants, that can be enough right there. Imagine a story starting off with one character wanting to kill another. That's conflict!

In sequence structure, the emotional reaction is a direct result of the preceding outcome. If the outcome is usually bad, that means the reaction is already fraught with conflict. You could open on a character fuming with frustration, buried under anguish, or blinded by rage. If you paint a good picture of what this person is like when they're frustrated, depressed, or enraged, you will supply a vivid portrait of the character (which is good to do early on), and you'll be starting with internal conflict that a reader can sympathize with.

Whether you start on Action or Reaction, all you need to do from there is proceed in the natural order. In a short story, I don't think it's a good idea to interrupt the flow of sequence structure. That might work in novels, because you have plenty of time to tie up any loose ends you leave dangling. But even meaty short stories need to be relatively compact. If you feel the need to interrupt or break sequence structure, maybe what you're writing would work better as a compressed four-act structure, or even a full novel.

Wherever you begin, I feel it's probably best to end on an outcome. This seems natural, because an outcome is more or less a synonym for an ending. You could end on a decision, but you'll want it to be one of those momentous, life-changing decisions that portends great or terrible things. Executed properly, a decision can create a resonant ending, which you always want. In general, though, I'm willing to bet readers will prefer ending on some kind of result.

So if you want to start with the Reaction Phase, your outline might look something like this:

  • Reaction: Bob is angry at Sheila for sleeping with Dave.
  • Deliberation: Bob goes back and forth about whether or not to kill one or both of them.
  • Decision: Bob decides to kill them both.
  • Goal: Bob wants to kill Dave and Sheila, so he goes to buy a gun.
  • Conflict: The gun store owner knows Bob, and is suspicious about his motives for buying a gun.  
  • Outcome: Bob takes his anger out on the store owner, and winds up getting arrested.

If you want to start with the Action Phase, your outline might look something like this:

  • Goal: Bob wants to Kill Dave and Sheila, so he goes to buy a gun.
  • Conflict: The gun store owner knows Bob, and is suspicious about his motives for buying a gun.  
  • Outcome: The owner refuses to sell Bob a gun.
  • Reaction: Bob's anger intensifies.
  • Deliberation: He thinks of other ways to kill Dave and Sheila.
  • Decision: Bob takes a knife from his kitchen and waits for Sheila to come home.
  • Goal: Bob wants to kill Sheila.
  • Conflict: Sheila returns home with their kids.
  • Outcome: Bob can't kill her in front of the kids. He buries his anger, and we're left with the sense that life from then on will be very different.

Okay, maybe those aren't really great stories, but they illustrate my point. Sequence structure is an adaptable framework that allows you to create a domino effect of any length. This makes it perfect for short stories, because their length varies.


I've thought a lot about short stories. I'm a lifelong fan of story cycles like Bradybury's Martian Chronicles and Asimov's Foundation Trilogy (which is actually a collection of related short stories). But for whatever reason, there just isn't much material out there about how to write and structure them. There are hundreds of books about how to write a novel, but the only book I found on writing short stories had more to say about the publication process than the task itself.

These three structures are all I can come up with. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but when I plot short stories, it's always in one of these ways.

How about you? How do you plot short stories, if you do it at all? Can you think of any other structural frameworks I could include? Comment and let me know!


How to Handle Description

Description--how much to use, where to put it, and how to write it--is one of the most troubling issues for writers. Not enough description and you've got mannequins talking in a white room. Too much, and you've got a boring list of facts that's sure to knock readers right out of your story.

The common wisdom is that good writers supply just enough description to kick-start the reader's imagination, and the reader fills in the rest. A further refinement of that maxim says that writers should only report the details that aren't obvious. The reader will fill in the obvious things.

But how do you know which is which? And how do you know when to stop, and when to keep going? This is when I use a little trick I like to call The Inverse Coco Chanel Principle.

Fashion icon Coco Chanel said that when you're accessorizing your outfit, you should "Put everything on, then take one thing off." This means once you have your outfit on, put on earrings, bracelets, necklace, watch, brooch, rings, scarf, headband, etc, etc, then, once it's all on, take one item off, and the outfit is complete.

When describing something in fiction--be it a character, setting, or prop--I take the inverse approach. I pull up a blank document, and write every detail I can think of. I describe it as exhaustively as I can, holding nothing back. Then I begin deleting things until I am left with only those details I cannot bear to part with.

If you can get it down to a single detail, great, but I find that's often not practical; and not generous enough to the reader. But I try to get it to three or less at any cost. Thus, The Inverse Coco Chanel Principle can be stated:

Put everything on, then take all but one (or two) thing(s) off.

And the thing is, this process can still result in a nice, long paragraph, because there are multiple orders of magnitude at play.

Say I'm describing a coffee shop, and the two details I choose to point out are the mural on the wall, and the guy working the register. Each of those things may be a single detail of the location, but they are in themselves detailed things. So for each of them, I can choose one or two details. Each detail can be described in any variety of ways; with a metaphor, or with information from any of the five senses (the more senses you involve, the better, but that's another post).

So if each second-order detail gets a sentence, you still get a generous paragraph of description, organized in such a way that you aren't just listing boring facts about a place, but giving concrete images that spark the reader's imagination.

It's tough to do this right, and it takes time, but the results are always worth it. The trick is to make sure you have the right amount for the situation.

You have to keep in mind that descriptions are observations, and observations belong to somebody. Assuming you're not writing from an omniscient point of view, then any description must belong to the POV character. If your POV character is experiencing an extreme emotional state (like, say Captain Picard in the Cardassian interrogation room), the setting does not deserve a full two-level description, because people under duress seldom pause to consider what the furniture is made of.

However, if the POV character is relatively calm, and the location is important, you should go into more detail. The first time you visit a location you plan on returning to at least once, give a full two-level description of the place. The concrete, sensory details you supply the first time can be used as anchor points every time you return to that setting. The next time your character goes back there, simply fire off one of the details from earlier, and the reader will quickly re-sketch the scene in their minds.

The same goes for a character. If you're introducing a character in the midst of a tense or emotional scene, don't pause and talk about their clothes for ten sentences. Just give us a quick one-level description (or none at all), and make sure the details are congruent with the emotion of the scene. If you introduce a battered mother in a scene where the eight-year old POV character walks in on his deadbeat dad slapping her around, don't talk about her freshly-laundered dress, or her shiny shoes. Show us the messy hair and mascara-streaked cheeks (sorry for the dark example, but it's the best I could think of).

If you're introducing a character in the midst of a relatively calm moment, and if they're going to be a regular in the book, go ahead and give them a two-level description; perhaps one to three details about their face, and one to three details about their clothes.

In each case, the easiest way to arrive at the right details is to brainstorm every detail you can think of, then only supply the ones you cannot part with. Those will be the strongest ones, and they will be the keys that unlock your reader's imagination.

Description is a tricky business, and it has close ties with settingcharacter development, and point of view. The Inverse Coco Chanel Principle is an effective way to make sure that your description is precisely proportioned to the needs of the scene, and easy to refer back to when you need to re-anchor your reader.