You’ll find other lessons on writing in first person in this forum, but this particular lesson covers an aspect of first person writing that I’ve not written about before: info dumping.
Info dumping happens when you’re establishing a back story for your main character, perhaps to give her some motivation for what’s going to happen in the real story. So you give your reader a whole lot of information—perhaps about your main character’s childhood (or her more recent past), or about the setting. To an extent, this can be valuable information, and it’s usually considered a necessary part of the exposition of your story.
However, exposition can be taken too far. If you spend several paragraphs (in a Writing Challenge entry) or several chapters (in a longer work) in exposition, you lose out on the opportunity to accomplish the most important of the writer’s tasks: character development and advancing the plot.
It’s kind of the ultimate in “telling, not showing”—even if splendidly written. You are telling your readers what you think they need to know about the character, instead of letting the character show what she’s made of by doing and saying and thinking things.
Here’s an example of what info dumping might look like at the beginning of a challenge entry:
When I was a little girl, my mother tried to teach me to play the piano. We’d have a lesson together every Tuesday afternoon; she’d sit beside me on the piano bench and listen as I struggled through “The Old Gray Mare” and “Lightly Row.” Not a natural musician like she was, I made lots of mistakes, and I’d hold my breath as I stumbled through the notes on the page, waiting for her inevitable snort of disapproval. I remember her hands making small movements as if she was playing my childish songs on an invisible piano in her lap, and thinking that I’d never be able to live up to her expectations.
And she expected me to practice for a full half-hour every day—torture when each little song was only eight measures long, and I couldn’t ever get even those eight measures right. I’d be at the piano bench, trying desperately to remember if that particular black dot was an E or a G (and where Es and Gs were on the piano), and I could hear her in the kitchen, hissing with disappointment with every mistake. Thirty minutes of tentative plunking of the keys, my mother’s intake of breath, starting over, starting over, starting over…is it any wonder that I despise piano music to this day?
[By the way—total fiction. Sorry, mom.]
While there’s nothing in particular wrong with the writing here (it could use some editing, to be sure), it’s over 200 words in which the MC isn’t doing anything. She’s just a disembodied voice, narrating a time in her past.
Another kind of info dumping occurs when the writer starts with the 1st person narrator laying out their thoughts, beliefs, or philosophies about something that’s going to occur later. Again, even if written well, this is material that’s better worked into the story itself, and revealed as the character interacts with other people or events.
It would be far better to greatly reduce the info dump—or to eliminate it altogether—and instead, to tell the actual story that you’ve set out to tell. If it’s important for the story that your reader understand that your narrator hates piano music, work it into her ‘real time’ life. She can tell her date who wants to take her to a piano concert, or she can react strongly when asked to listen to her friend’s little daughter’s recital. You can work bits and pieces of her back story into her present story, allowing her to get on with the business of living.
This is a short lesson, but in summary:
1. It’s far more interesting to show your character speaking, acting, and reacting than it is to have her narrating memories or beliefs.
2. Exposition is important to establish the setting and a few necessary characteristics of your main character (gender, age), but it’s not necessary to provide an entire back story.
3. Those aspects of the back story that are important can be incorporated more naturally (and more interestingly) into the ongoing narrative.
Questions? Comments? Clarification?
I’ll be gone most of this weekend, but will reply to any posts as soon as I can. I hope to see some of you at the FaithWriters Gathering in Georgia next week! My husband and I are making it a road trip, and will be gone for most of two weeks, so I probably won’t be posting here again until mid- to late July. But I’ll definitely reply to your questions, and as always, I welcome ideas for future lessons.