We can extend that to characters in films, games, box sets, blog posts and just about anything else that you might care to invent. You understand that I’m talking mainly but not exclusively about fiction, right?
Characters also tend to know what they look like. I’m the character here - because somebody needs to act as the example - and I’m not going to spend any of my third paragraph glancing across at that handily placed mirror and describing what I see there.
Any more than I’m going to sit here reflecting – in detail – on the lifetime’s experience that has brought me to this moment. Not even the relevant bits.
Which is a problem if you’re trying to write a novel that starts with a bloke sitting on a sofa writing a blog post (who is feeling a bit dishonest because the only mirror he can see is actually showing him the ceiling). You’ve written your opening scene, let’s say, and now you need to fill out your character a bit more before he sets off on his quest.
Or doesn't, given that I'm quite busy today. Maybe we could pencil in the quest for tomorrow?
You could do an “info dump” – there’s even a term for it – but like I said, I know all that stuff. I’m just not – sorry – going to sit back on this slightly saggy old sofa, in this cluttered but comfortable room with its view of the harbour through the two front windows and the glass panel on the front door, and tell myself my own back story.
Even if it does add depth to my character.
The harpoon gun and the framed photograph of me with [REDACTED] are going to remain unmentioned. I’m not suddenly going to think back over that time I saved [REDACTED] from [REDACTED] with a spanner and a chisel. When I write a blog post, I think about the blog post, not about my past.
Info-dumping kills any narrative momentum you might have built up, and the worst thing is, it’s incongruous. Like I said, characters just don’t do that.
But you have to get the biographical information across to the reader somehow. If you’re trying to write a fantasy novel, you also have to convey the world you’ve built.
But how do you do that, if you don’t want to stun your readers with all the “necessary” verbiage?
Okay. Yes. You do have to drop bits of information into the narrative. You’re right. But look at this another way. Info-drops (not dumps) can be useful. For one thing, they can be used to change the pace of the narrative.
For example, I’ve just single-handedly fought off a dragon with a frying pan and a domestic fire extinguisher. That scene was so nail-bitingly fast that I think we could all do with a leisurely description of the editorial office I once shared in Holborn, which had a view out over a medieval plague pit. That was a green rectangle of grass among the office blocks. The plague pit where I once found a ring…
What does it say about my character – as a character – that I can remember that green space more clearly than the magazine I was editing back then? What does it say about London, that the ancient dead are left undisturbed? Those ancient dead, anyway. I wonder…
But look! There! On the horizon flying towards us! More dragons! Back to the story and let’s pick up the pace.
Ouch! Sorry. Just caught the ring I’m wearing on the arrow rest of my longbow. It’s an old ring, very old, with an inscription…
Find your own answer to the “How do I tell the reader what she needs to know?” question. There are no rules except the ones you can work out from your best friend telling you “The beginning was good, but I just haven’t had time since then…” and then changing the subject.
Characters know stuff. They don’t feel the need to explain it. But they might mention it in passing.
Be careful not to repeat yourself.
And trust your reader. They – she, if we’re talking about my imaginary reader, who is currently grinning at me from her perch just above my laptop screen – will pick up the slightest clue. Possibly fall asleep if you over-explain, but hang around for more if you under-explain subtly enough. And if all else fails, you can arrange–
“Where did you get that scar?”
–for a convenient interruption by a secondary character you’ve intro–
“Secondary? Excuse me!”
–very important character, crucial to the plot, whom you’ve introduced because the whole book would fall apart without her. Not just because you need somebody to ask a question.
Real reader, I'd like you to meet my imaginary reader. She's the one doing the interrupting (avoid superfluous stage directions). And now excuse me while I answer her question.
“That scar? I was running. The alarm was sounding. The bulkhead door was open, but without thinking, I put my foot on the bottom sill of the bulkhead. That lifted me enough to hit my head on the top sill of the bulkhead.”
“Ugh! Did you get blood in your eyes? Were you on a warship or a submarine? You were on a mission, obviously?”
Good questions, but let’s not answer them. Real readers (let’s hope) will be interested enough to wait around for more detail. If you were writing this, just suppose, I would suggest that you wait until later to reveal that I was recruited – then – and trained – there – in martial arts among other skills.
You’ve said enough already to leave the rest of it until I kick-box my way out of a tight spot.
But really, make up your own rules. What matters is keeping people reading your book. Nothing else matters, not even what your creative-writing teacher says about characterisation. You can invent characters who interrupt–
“Your imaginary reader is a girl?”
“Most people are.”
“I’m a woman, thank you!”
“Most people are female, I meant.”
–as and when you need them. If you have an Invisible Friend as a character, as well as an Imaginary Reader, and let’s give them capitals, your Invisible Friend can interrupt as well, and you can use all the interruptions from both of them to get–
“Don’t tell me you’re bringing him into this! He's invisible!”
–some quite intricate stretches of dialogue, but–
“I’m needed. We’re about to do the he said/she said thing.”
“Go away! This is the one about info dumps.”
[Said my Imaginary Reader. I’m losing the plot here.]
“But if there are three of us–“
[Said my Invisible Friend.]
“Trying to write a blog post here, people.”
[That was me.]
–you need to keep track of who’s speaking at any given moment. Putting in he said/she said can seem cumbersome, but when it’s necessary, it’s absolutely necessary.
“Told you. It’s he said/she said this week. We can do it with three people.”
“You don’t need me, then.”
“You're not listening! Read that last bit again. We’re doing he said/she said, and you’re the only she.”
“Said the Invisible Friend who’s turned up in a ballgown.”
“It’s not a ballgown! It’s a cape.”
“It’s a cloak,” said the person who’s actually writing this. Me. “Black. Heavy-duty cotton. Mostly. I dreamed you up, so I can dress you how I like. I thought about giving you a scythe, but–”
“I like your ring. Haven’t seen that before.”
“She said! Put in she said! People are going to think I said that!”
“Oh, thank you. I dreamed it up a few paragraphs back and started wearing it straight away.”
“Nobody’s going to think you said–“ she said. Began to say. Was interrupted while saying. My Imaginary Reader, I mean. She said that. To my Invisible Friend. Because she didn’t think that you would think that my Invisible Friend would say – sorry, I’m over-explaining. He seems to be Visible now, anyway.
“What does the inscription say?” said my Invisible Friend, politely ignoring the over-explanation. Visible friend.
“Oh, just some stuff about, don’t wear this, blah, blah, if you do, I’ll come and get you, et cetera. I think it’s a prop
from another story.”
“Is this my Easter Egg? I love chocolate! Oh, thank you!”
“What’s that odd scratching noise? Is there somebody at the door?”
“More like slithering. That musty smell. Who’s that moaning? There’s definitely somebody at the door.”
“Talk about an obvious stage direction!” [I’m not sure who said that. I just added it in the read-through.]
“Oh look – suddenly the inconveniently glass panel in the front door, which you specified earlier, is opaque. We can’t see through it.”
“Gosh! There’s a shadow behind it.”
“Hang on, I’ll just see who it is. No – on second thoughts–”
“You've given me a scythe! Thank you!”
“–maybe you should get the door.”
We grow up with it, entertain ourselves with it, and throughout history, we’ve believed it to be close to us. I had Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as my childhood companion; I’ve enjoyed planning for the Zombie Apocalypse; these days, I’m as convinced as I need to be that Global Warming is really happening.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. But this is an odd kind of panic. Celebrities, activists and others are still trying to convince us that we have a problem. They’re not exactly facing resistance, and whole organisations are now dumping single-use plastic, but down here at “ordinary people” level there’s still a degree of inertia. How do We, capital W, shift that?
[If you’d prefer to replace Zombie Apocalypse in that list above, by the way, I could go with Plague – we were worried, weren’t we, that air travel would spread Ebola to the parts of the world where health insurance is rife?]
Life’s boring without an existential threat – discuss.
Maybe we just don’t know what to do.
There’s a quiet movement gathering up waste plastic, taking milk cartons to the recycling centre, et cetera, but there’s a noisier, less organised movement dropping litter and eating/drinking out of non-recyclable plastic containers. Smoking roll-ups and dropping the filters.
I’ve seen panic. It doesn’t look like this. Felt it, too. Doesn’t feel like this.
Maybe we do know what to do, but we don’t think our own contribution is significant enough to matter. What’s one plastic bottle in the scheme of things?
I don’t know how to answer that, except to say that as the years go by, I become increasingly convinced that we have more of a collective consciousness than we realise. We’re all against certain things that we weren’t against a generation (or two) ago, and no leader, no government, no single influencer caused that change.
We were nudged, yes, but what really happened was: we just changed our minds – our mind. And they – it – stayed changed.
One day, perhaps, dropping a plastic bottle, or a cigarette butt, will be as unacceptable as downing a final double whisky before climbing back into the muscle car and hitting the road at pedestrian-killing speed. But not yet.
We’re not quite ready to stop teetering on the brink of climate change. I suspect that might be it. There’s something in the human mind, et cetera.
There’ll come a day when – I don’t know – food prices go through the roof. The global tobacco crop fails. Whole states, whole countries (and not just small ones) disappear under rising sea levels. I don’t know what it will take.
But on that day, we’ll fix it. Try to fix it. Perhaps fail. Definitely fail.
On that day, we’ll be too late. We need to act now. But how do we shrug off the inertia? Get past that something in the human mind?
Perhaps – I’m more than half serious about this – we need to find the next existential threat before we can move on from this one. If we could buy into the next imminent catastrophe, we’d no longer need to teeter on the brink of this one.
Maybe government agencies could tell us a different scary story. Maybe then – about two-thirds serious, given that after all the official talk and target-setting, there’s still plastic blowing in the hedgerows – messing up the planet would become as boringly distasteful as drink-driving. [Yeah, dangerous too, but my whole point is, that doesn’t seem to work as a primary concern.]
Hey, NASA, we need you now! Isn’t there anything heading towards us on a collision course? Are you sure? Check again. Centres – sorry, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doesn’t anybody contagious ever get on an aeroplane anymore?
And you in the global food industry – yes, you! Enough with the healthy alternatives! We need comfort food, now!