Tuesday, August 9, 2022

POVs, Dialogue, and Info Dumps

Writers have a laundry list of things we pay close attention to, not only when writing our books but when reading others’ works. Putting aside the typos or grammatical errors – we all make those in the first hundred drafts - the two things that I watch are dialogue and info dumps.

Dialogue is the force behind a good book. If it’s not done well, it can ruin a good story, no matter how good the story is. Is the dialogue stilted or natural? Would a person say that sentence or would only a writer write it? Would the speaker use that word? Those are questions I ask myself when I’m writing. It’s easier and clearer when your character says what you want the reader to know rather than telling it in narrative form. Show vs tell isn’t always action. The best way to know if your dialogue sounds natural is to read it aloud. I do it until I'm sick of my own voice.

In a series, we want each book to stand alone, without cliffhangers to the next book, at least I do. If a new reader unknowingly reads the second or third book in a series first, or if there’s too much time between the publications, it’s important to remind the reader what happened previously. TV series do it by simply saying, “Previously on The Last Kingdom,” and presenting a short trailer to remind the viewer what went on in the last episode. Writers do that too, but it’s tricky to do it without an info dump. So, how does a writer fill in what happened earlier without hitting the reader over the head?

Slowly and carefully, interspersing the backstory in little pieces.

As I mentioned, I do it through dialogue if possible. It’s easier in third person because the writer can always have another POV tell readers what she wants them to know.

EXAMPLE: third person, multiple POV

He loved the way her curly black hair moved when she walked, how the sun picked out the blue-black highlights.

In this example, the writer lets another character describe her main character because it’s awkward for the main character to describe herself.

EXAMPLE: first person

Diana looked in the mirror while pinning up her long, curly black hair.

NO, NO. Never once have I looked in the mirror and mentally acknowledged the color of my eyes or hair unless I needed to color it, which reminds me…

This is the beginning of chapter one of Mind Games, the first book in my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series: 

Diana Racine, Fraud of the Century

That was the headline in the morning’s Times-Picayune. She’d heard the accusation since she was a child. Charlatan in Miami, carny huckster in Detroit, and a dangerous witch in Boston. Others had called her a hustler, schemer, faker, pretender, gypsy, quack, phony, and scamster. That last was from Vegas. Totally biased reporting there.

They were all right. She was a fraud. And a damn good one too. A thirty-three-year old, five-foot-two bundle of fraud.

To a point.

Well here I am, people of New Orleans. Judge for yourselves.

She peeked around the curtain at the filled-to-capacity crowd, blew a curl off her forehead, and smoothed her skirt. After massaging her neck to loosen the tight muscles, she drew a deep breath, let it out slowly. They’re just people, Diana. You’ve done this a thousand times before. She stepped onto the stage to the welcome sound of applause.

 

What do we know about Diana right away? She’s famous or she wouldn’t be written up in the newspaper. She’s been called a fraud since she was a child. Why? She is a fraud but "to a point." Is she or isn't she? Hmm, curious? She’s thirty-three, five-feet-two, has curly hair, she’s in New Orleans, and she’s a seasoned entertainer because she’s done this a thousand times before, hence, that’s why she’s famous. She also wears only black and white, but that’s not mentioned until later, and it’s mentioned by the killer.

That’s a lot of information. Is it an info dump? Kind of, but not so it hits you over the head. That’s my opinion, but I’m biased. More importantly, does it make you want to know more about the character and keep turning the page?

To offer another example, I went straight to my bookcase for an author who describes his lead character’s physical stats at the beginning of the second chapter. His first chapter is always from the killer’s POV. Here is John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport from Night Prey:

 

“Lucas was a tall man with heavy shoulders, dark-complected, square-faced, with the beginnings of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. His dark hair was just touched with gray; his eyes were a startling blue. A thin white scar crossed his forehead and right eye socket; and trailed down to the corner of his mouth. He looked like a veteran athlete, a catcher or a hockey defenseman, recently retired.”

 

Is this an info dump? It’s a matter of style, and his style is to do that in each book. He also describes most characters on first meeting, including what they’re wearing. Believe me, I’d give anything to have Sandford’s sales, and I’m not criticizing his successful style. He’s consistent, and it works for him. He describes his character right off and doesn’t have to do it again. There’s a neatness to that. It leaves me wanting to know about the scar, which he discusses somewhere in the books.

Do you write in first or third, and how do you describe your characters in those POVS? Do you use dialogue or narrative for description? Do you notice how other writers do it? Inquiring minds want to know.

 

Polly Iyer is the author of ten novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, Indiscretion, and her newest, We Are But WARRIORS. Also, four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder, with a fifth book on the way. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

8 comments :

  1. I agree. And that first paragraph in MIND GAMES (great first novel, by the way) gives me a nice picture of Diana, but it really wanted to know why she was considered a fraud but still so popular. I found it intriguing.

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    1. Hopefully, it makes people want to read it to answer those questions.

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  2. I write in third person. Very interesting post but unable to comment further at this time. Very sick with COVID and fever following a hospital stay for diverticulitis with abscess.

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    1. Oh, Linda, I'm so sorry. Covid isn't gone, no matter how many people declare it to be. My granddaughter caught it in the first week of school. Get better and stay well.

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    2. So sorry to hear that, Linda! How awful. I hope you're better soon.

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    3. Oh my, Linda. I just saw your message now over a week later. I do hope you are better now. You certainly didn't need another health problem. Take care.

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  3. Very helpful post, Polly, and it was good to point out the description issue that I always cringe at, the MC looking in the mirror and describing themselves. You're right that people don't do that. The way you get backstory into your novels is terrific.
    Regarding Sandford and the way he does descriptions, sometimes it bothers me, although not enough to stop reading his books. But I've always chalked that up to his days writing for newspapers. When I did and was writing feature stories, describing the person was always an important part of the story.

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    1. Good point about Sandford. It's his style, but I still think it's an info dump. I feel the same way about him. I have almost all his prey paperbacks. He tells a good story. (Side note: I wish he never married off Lucas. I never saw the reason.)

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