The Updike Cure for Infodumps (& Win a Copy of Faery’s Bargain)

Today, we welcome Madeleine Drake, author of the new erotic urban fantasy, Faery’s Bargain. At the end of the blog, Maddy will be giving away a copy of the new book in eBook form–comment for a chance to win, plus one additional entry each for blog follow, Twitter follow @Suzanne_Johnson, and a Tweet or RT. And remember, you can still comment on posts (scroll down) to win a copy of the complete Dark is Rising series and a copy of a book by JR Ward (your choice).
 
The Updike Cure for Infodumps
by Madeleine Drake
Like most beginning writers, I used to have problems with infodumps.  Writing fantasy and science fiction means extra worldbuilding, and extra information that has to be communicated to readers.  But every time I slid into exposition, my critique partners would holler, “Infodump!”
I cut my exposition to slivers, only squeezing in the barest amount of information that I thought readers needed in order to understand that was happening, a sentence at a time.
But they were still infodumps.
I made a rule:  I would only put exposition in interior monologue.
That was better, but those expository passages still stopped the flow of my story.
I made another rule:  I would only put exposition in interior monologue, and I would always include an external stimulus to trigger the internal monologue.
This kept the flow of the story going, but it didn’t stop my critique partners crying “Infodump!”
In desperation, I turned to John Updike.  I’d recently taken a workshop where the instructor had praised Updike’s ability to keep a story moving in spite of the need for exposition.  So I bought an anthology containing his story “A&P,” and I sat down to read it with pen in hand, ready to learn from the master. 
By the time I finished the story, I was indignant.  “A&P” is full of exposition.  How did Updike get away with paragraph-long infodumps when I couldn’t manage to pull off a single sentence?
Some dark chocolate and a few deep breaths later, I read the story again, and in my calmer state of mind, I noticed something that the main character, Sammy, doesn’t tell us about his hometown or the people who live there.
Sammy jokes, complains, and makes snarky comments about his hometown.  He guesses what other people might be thinking, he compares himself to the people around him, and he’s defensive about the fact that he doesn’t fit in.  He shares his teenage philosophy on life, and he has knee-jerk reactions to everything.
That was when I realized…
Exposition = boring. 
But exposition + attitude = interesting.
As soon as the information about Sammy’s small town is filtered through the youth’s point of view–his attitudes, his desires, his fears–it’s no longer just exposition.  It’s been transformed into characterization, showing who Sammy is and what he wants via his reactions to small-town life.
Brilliant, eh?  Maybe Mr. Updike does deserve his reputation as a master writer after all. 
I still keep my exposition short, and I still tend to confine it to interior monologue.  But now, when I edit, I always look for a way to include the POV character’s attitude toward the information I want to convey to the reader.  If a piece of information isn’t important enough for a character to react to it…then maybe that information isn’t important enough to include in the story.
Leave a comment and be entered to win a copy of Faery’s Bargain, first book in the Tribes of Danu series by Madeleine Drake. Please note this is erotic urban fantasy; rated H for hot!
ABOUT THE BOOK:  

–A witch gets more than she bargains for when she lends her magic to a sexy Fae warrior–

 Tara’s witchcraft has failed to save her naga-bitten nephew: the only cure is a rare Faery herb, impossible for a human to obtain. Kane, a warrior of the Morrigan tribe, is bound to a baigh-duil; he needs a witch to help him send the soul-devouring monster back to its own realm, and he’s willing to bargain.
       It seems like a fair trade — the herb for help with a single spell.  But what will Tara do when she realizes Kane can only perform sex magic and death magic? Available from Cobblestone Press

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Madeleine Drake writes feisty, fast-paced paranormal romance and erotica that spans the space-time continuum. Raised by a pride of cats, a friendly mutt, and the Sonoma County library system, she loves to read about ancient history and mythology, anthropology, gender roles, and sexual archetypes.  Her current releases include Blood Hero (Excessica, 7/9/10) and Faery’s Bargain (Cobblestone Press, 10/8/10), and her short story First Date appears in Just One Bite, Vol. 3 (All Romance Ebooks, 11/25/10). Her homeworld is located out past the constellation Orion, but she currently resides in Texas.  You can find her online at www.madeleinedrake.com.

No, go forth and win!

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate’s Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man’s Curse; Black Diamond).

30 thoughts on “The Updike Cure for Infodumps (& Win a Copy of Faery’s Bargain)

  1. I’m struggling with the dreaded infodump curse myself. Second books in a series are the worst 🙂

    I wish you’d posted a couple of examples of how you’d done yours…I think they would have been really helpful.

    Good luck with the new book!

  2. I try to weave backstory in very small doses, or show it through action, Deborah. I pulled this from my WIP–it was a way to plug backstory in about how the location these people are in is isolated, why an injured man couldn’t go to an ER, and the danger the town is in. Don’t know if it’s the best example ever, but it was the first thing I found!

    –From REDEMPTION by Suzanne Johnson–
    Aidan’s mind ticked through the options as he waited for Mirren to get on the main road out of Penton. The nearest hospital was forty miles away, and a 9-1-1 would prompt too many questions. Mirren couldn’t take him in―a six-eight tattooed bear of a guy with fangs, hauling a bloody victim into a small-city ER? The local deputies would have the man convicted of every unsolved crime in three counties. So a hospital was out, and thanks to Owen’s attack last month, Penton no longer had its own doctor. Which left one option, and Aidan didn’t like it.

    Mirren’s voice cut through his thoughts. “On the way. Know who did this? One of Owen’s scathe?”

    “Owen himself. He scented my bond on Mark.” Aidan had avoided his brother for four centuries, moving across continents and finally settling in one of the smallest, most remote outposts imaginable. Penton had been perfect, an isolated corner of east Alabama far outside the Vampire Tribunal’s radar. Until he’d run into Owen in Atlanta last month.

  3. Interesting! I have to say, I’m not big on characters with snarky attitudes, but if the comments are funny and insightful at the same time, that’s a great way to get across information without an information dump.

  4. An example…okay, here’s one from Faery’s Bargain.

    INFODUMP:

    Tara’s nephew Jimi had been bitten by a naga, a creature that was half-man, half-snake. The doctors had no idea how to cure him. Tara was so frustrated.

    Boring, right? Can’t you just feel your eyes glazing over?

    INFODUMP WITH THE UPDIKE CURE APPLIED:

    (I added the character’s reaction to the information — her frustration with the doctors plus her recognition that the problem is not really one that a doctor can solve — and a touch of sarcasm as she imagines herself telling the doctors what’s really wrong with her nephew.)

    Meanwhile, Jimi continued to weaken under the care of his confused doctors. She didn’t blame them, of course. Even if she could make them believe her, what could they do? My nephew was bitten by a half-man, half-snake monster straight out of Hindu mythology. What do you mean you don’t have the right anti-venin?

    Better, yes?

    Plus it shows that Tara is the kind of person who doesn’t take her frustrations out on other people, but she does sometimes take them out on herself.

    -Maddy

  5. Me too, Sandy! I like there to be some mystery at the beginning of the story, and to have the situation unfold as the characters try to figure out what’s going on.

  6. Hi, Deborah! Thanks for the good wishes. Yes, getting new readers up to speed without boring those who read the first book is quite a trick. 🙂 I loved your class on writing paranormals, btw!

    See the example a couple posts back re: how I applied the Updike Cure to Faery’s Bargain…

  7. *waves to Kelly* I wasn’t an Updike fan either, especially when I read him in high school, but dissecting his short stories was a tremendous learning experience. He’s a master at writing tight and implying a lot of info with a couple of sentences.

  8. Hey, Teri–recognizing the problem is half the battle! Whenever I find a spot in my story that isn’t working, I remind myself that if I can figure out how to fix this problem, I’m not just fixing it for this story, I’m also giving myself the tools to eliminate it from future stories.

  9. Good info–it’s something I’ll try to keep in mind. Sometimes writers can forget the subtle way to do things!

  10. That’s a great example in the comments, Madeleine, thanks for sharing. That perfectly illustrates how to make an info dump not sound like an info dump. 🙂

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  11. I recently had an epiphany about this that almost exactly parallels yours. I was critiquing this character whom practically every word out of his mouth was world building nonsense, and I suddenly realized that the problem wasn’t that the world building was boring. The *character* was dull, and therefore the effort to understand his world was unappealing.

    So I went back to *Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone* to study how Rowling introduces us to Quidditch. Millions of people around the world somehow know *exactly* what a Quidditch match looks like. Had the movies got the tiniest of details wrong, all those people would have noticed immediately. That’s pretty amazing, if you think about it. So how did she do it?

    My study of Harry’s scene with Oliver Wood was very enlightening. It’s a cheeky performance by Rowling. She *perversely* goes out of her way to make Quidditch absurdly complicated and nonsensical. She does take care to describe all that nonsense very clearly, but it’s still just nonsense. This is the stuff of fantasy manuscript nightmares, but it works because Rowling has established something very compelling about Harry’s character: his intense desire to prove himself. Harry needs to master all those details to prove he’s worthy of a place in the wizarding world; we identify with Harry, therefore we study those details just as enthusiastically as he does.

    Quidditch is both a tour-de-force of world building and a masterpiece in the art of the shaggy dog story. Absolutely *none* of the silly details of Quidditch have any narrative significance except one: if two teams are anywhere close to competitive against each other, victory depends entirely on the performance of a singe player, the “seeker”. That’s Harry of course. That’s ridiculously improbable, but Rowling slips it right under our noses in the middle of the whole parade of wacky rigmarole. Once we’ve swallowed that whopper, she’s got us right where she wants us. We’re primed for her trademark set pieces of Harry’s broomstick derring-do

    That’s genius.

  12. Personally I feel that the whole Infodump thing is overdone. You get slammed with it yourself and as a result you just can’t wait to slam your critics with the same flaws that they purport to have found in your writing. Human nature plain and simple. It turns into a contest to find a paragraph, sentence, even word in every other work that you hear to be able to shout it out first. And once one person claims to have found it everyone else wants to chime in. Overall it makes everyone feel like crap about their own writing and worry that they’ll never be good enough. You find it because you’re looking for it instead of just gliding along with the story itself. That very thought ruins hearing a story for me.

    You are completely right about the inherent difficulties of building an entire fantasy world. The best thing that the WB Harry Potter movies have going for them is that they don’t have to explain it at all. Everyone has already read the books and just wants to see those words visualized on the silver screen.

    Personally I feel in simply providing the information by the time that the reader needs to know it. The how is not as important as the when. Most of my writing requires immense worldbuilding if you want to understand robots or fantasy creatures, but I don’t stress over it. I simply ensure that by the time that the reader arrives at the point where they need to know something, that it has been revealed to them one way or another. The characters may not yet know it, but the reader does.

    One trick I do use is to have my protagonist start out as ignorant as the reader themself is. The protagonist learns it along the way by observation, while the reader gets a peak behind the scenes sometimes of what is happening while the protagonist is away.

    Overall my stories require someone to be interested in the ideas I’m writing about in the first place. Why else have they bought that story? I feel – and readers have told me that they agree – that if the story is already interesting, then the information about it is interesting as well. So write about interesting things and people will be hungry for every additional tidbit that you can provide to help them better understand the world that you’ve drawn them into.

    That’s just my thoughts.

  13. Thanks for your ideas about info drops and how to avoid them. I am thinking of how I can use that advice as I go back and work on my edits now. 🙂

    Christine.

  14. Oh yes the dreaded info dump. Hard to get around it and even harder to weave the info into the story. I usually look for telling vs. showing sentences and try to turn them around, add some inner thought, action, facial grimace and what not so far I haven’t been accused of dumping.