How to Dump Info without Info-dumping-- Writing Lessons from Inception

Jun 29, 2011

I am a nerd. As a kid, I spent my summers doing science experiments in my giant white science book. For fun. And to this day, I get excited about things like sea slugs that absorb plant DNA and become photosynthetic. I get weepy about the space shuttle's last flight. It's why I write sci fi-- because I'm a nerd, and I love all that science stuff.

Here's the thing about writing sci fi: there's a lot of science in it. Which means there tends to be a lot of necessity for explanation, which leads to a lot of potential info-dumps. This isn't unique to sci fi, of course. Most authors have a lot of information to convey, and sometimes we have no choice but to reveal large bits of it at a time, potentially boring our readers just so they understand what the heck we're talking about.

I had some trouble with info-dumps in Devs, and it took me lots of revisions to get it right. And some of the biggest lessons I learned were actually from the movie Inception. There's a LOT of information they have to convey, but the movie never lags in its pacing. Here are the things I learned to apply in my writing. (Warning-- there are a few small spoilers if you haven't seen it before!)

1. Early in the story, weave as little information as possible to keep your reader engaged.

Inception doesn't start with Leo DiCaprio's character Cobb explaining the ins and outs of shared dreaming. We start with tension-- he's trying to convince Saito that he needs to train his mind to not be vulnerable to idea theft. Here's the thing. We learn, in a few brief sentences of dialogue, that someone can steal your secrets through shared dreaming. And THAT'S IT. We don't know how it works, or who can do it, or the history behind why it was developed in the first place.

We know just enough that when we learn everything we're watching IS a dream, we get it. Maybe we don't understand why Cobb gets dumped in the tub to wake him up, but we get it enough to be invested and intrigued. It's the technique of weaving small bits of information into a scene so we get small bits instead of large chunks. And especially for the first 30-50 pages of a novel, that may be as much as you need.

2. Have a character who doesn't understand what's going on so someone can explain things to them-- and the reader.

Enter Juno-- er, Ariadne. She's new to the team. She doesn't understand any of the history or the hows and whys of dream sharing. The team teaches her all the ins and outs, and as she learns, so do we. This neatly evades the "maid and butler" dialogue of "As you know, your subconscious is represented by all these people," and "Yes, Cobb, and they will attack us if they sense something is wrong in the dream." It's natural for Ariadne to be learning it, so it's natural for us to learn it too.

3. Don't explain everything at once-- use small chunks in addition to weaving.

The first time Cobb takes Ariadne into the dream, we don't get all the information about how dream sharing works. We get small bits. We understand that the dream can be changed by the people sharing it, sometimes in fantastic ways, and that the subconscious of the person dreaming can become aggressive when it's messed with too much. And, very briefly, we see again Cobb's projection of his terrifying wife. We don't learn much about the other parts of shared dreaming, such as the use of chemists, or about what on earth is wrong with Cobb's deranged wife. These things are woven in later as scenes.

Which brings us to another point.

4. Information should always be revealed as part of a scene.

Aka, NEVER SIMPLY TELL THE READER. Paragraphs that say, "and this is the history of x, and this is how y works," are the exact definition of bad info-dumps. In Inception, every single bit of information is worked in as part of a scene. In other words, it is not just giving you information. It's developing character, deepening mystery, and furthering plot at the same time. It brings tension around the very information we're receiving, and we're so engaged, we don't even recognize it as an info-dump.

For example, the scene where Cobb risks going behind enemy lines to find Eames, we learn about how inception is possible, and we learn about the idea of a chemist and using dreams within dreams. All around this information is the tension of Cobb being potentially caught by people who want him dead. And then, when we have just enough information, we get some action as Cobb is chased through the streets of Mombasa. We are kept engaged because it's a scene in a story, not an aside of information.

So, my friends, do you have trouble with revealing information in your writing? What are some techniques you use? What are some books or movies that you think do this well? And, just because I'm curious, did you like the movie Inception?

JuNoWriMo Lessons: The Joys of Mid-WIP Discovery

Jun 24, 2011

I've kind of eased up a bit on JuNoWriMo this week. I've still hit my goals every day but one, but I haven't been quite so nazi about it. It's funny how it gets done all the same-- and this way, I'm a little more relaxed about it so it doesn't wear me out so fast! I'm coming up on 50,000 words, which means I'm about three-quarters finished.

Something interesting happened as I wrote this week. First, you should understand that on the Pantser-Plotter Scale, I have gradually slid from complete Pantser to over-the-halfway-mark-to-Plotter. I plotted TUGL more extensively than anything I've ever done. BUT. I don't think I could ever plot out each individual scene, like some people can. I actually tried, but when I start writing, the story takes on a bit of a life of its own and veers away from some of that plotting.

And while I fully advocate as much planning as you can manage (and maybe even more than you think you can), that pantser part of me is a wonderful thing. As I wrote one scene, I was surprised to discover a new "thing" in the middle of my scene. It led to creating a whole new scene, one that enhanced the world, deepened my character, furthered the plot, and (crazily enough) gave me an idea of a sequel.

AND THEN. Several scenes later, I had a moment where something terrible had to happen. I hadn't known exactly what that something terrible would be, but as I wrote the scene, it just flew out my fingers. I WOULD DESTROY THIS NEW THING. It would be emotionally traumatic for just about everyone in my story. In fact, I was so horrified with myself, I actually had to stop writing and convince myself that yes, this thing must be destroyed. As horrible as it is, that scene was so poignant and painful that I actually got choked up writing about it.

It was a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. And it all came because of being willing to discover new things in the midst of all my planning. I've got to say, being a pantser-plotter hybrid is the best thing I've ever done for my writing.

So, my friends, what have you discovered in the middle of your stories that you never saw coming? Are you a total pantser, total plotter, or somewhere on that sliding scale in the middle?

P.S. I've added some new pages off to the right. There is now an index of my most popular/helpful writing posts, as well as an index of all the books I've reviewed! Feel free to check them out.

How to Write Deeper Characters: Be them for a day

Jun 21, 2011

When I started writing TUGL, I had a little problem with my main character, Gena. I didn't get her. I didn't know who she was. I knew a lot about her, but I knew her less than I usually do when starting my stories. I typically get to know my characters quite a bit better as I write the first draft, but with Gena, I wanted to do a bit more. I wanted to get inside her head.

Gena is a dancer. She does ballet and jazz, and dance forms part of her worldview and is part of an important sub-plot. Here's the thing: I have not danced since I was a kid. So I did my traditional reading research, but I've also talked to dancers and plan to observe a dance class. Here's the funnest thing, though: I've been dancing myself.

I can't afford a dance class right now, but there's this awesome thing called a library that has all sorts of videos. Including dance instruction videos. For the last two weeks, my exercise has consisted of ballet and jazz steps, and it's so darn fun! It also helps me not just understand Gena, but to feel things like she does.

And, call me crazy, but I've tried to channel her a bit in daily life, too. While rollerblading in the canyon, I looked around me and tried to see things how Gena would, to notice the things she would notice. As I go through my daily routine, I imagine what Gena's routine is like, and how it's different from mine. While the Kiddo runs in mad circles around the yard and our resident garter snake sticks his head out of his hole next to my foot, I let myself feel how Gena would about it.

It's been surprisingly helpful to literally get inside Gena's head from time to time. The writing helps too, of course, as I get to know her through her actions and reactions. Maybe I'm a little nuts, but it's been fun to "be" Gena occasionally.

So, my friends, what do you do to get inside your character's heads? Have you ever looked at your world as they would? Have you done extra research to find out more about what they love?

JuNoWriMo Lessons: Don't Let the Goal Get in the Way of the Writing

Jun 18, 2011

This week, I hit the halfway point. Yay! But I always have a lot fewer of my scenes actually mulling around in my head for the second half of the book, which makes it harder. Yesterday, I got to a scene that I had no idea what to do with. I forced out some words, intent on reaching my wordcount goals.

It was a disaster.

The scene came to a standstill. It just wasn't working, and I could feel that. I knew what it really needed-- time for me to think about it. But I didn't have time! I only get so much writing time a day, and I had to get those words out, darnit!

I got incredibly frustrated and knew I wouldn't be able to write anymore until I thought through the scene. And I remembered something important.

This isn't about the wordcount.

Yes, my goal is 2,000 words a day, but the goal is just a means to an end. My PURPOSE in making this goal is to challenge myself to write more so I can get a better, faster first draft turned out. And by forcing myself to pound out words that weren't working, I wasn't reaching the purpose of my goal. I was letting the goal dictate, and it got in the way of the story.

I'm glad I realized it in time, because after some thought, I came up with a better way to write this scene that actually requires some minor changes BEFORE this point. It will enhance the conflict, and make the story better. And that's the point.

So, my friends, how are your goals going? What frustrates you when you write? How do you solve those frustrations?

Why do you love writing?

Jun 16, 2011

I'm not going to lie-- I'm exhausted. I'm 1,000 words behind for JuNoWriMo, but most of the exhaustion comes from just having too much fun this week. :) I've spent a lot of time in the canyon with my little family, and I also checked out a DVD on Jazz dance from the library for research. My MC in TUGL is a dancer, and I haven't danced since I was a kid. It's been fun to do my exercise to the DVD, but it sure is exhausting!

So today's post is going to be short. I've been thinking a lot lately about how much I love writing. Not that it isn't hard, and I don't have moments where I want to chuck my computer through the window. But I really do love writing.

My mom says she knew I was going to be a writer from the time I was a toddler. Instead of taking a pencil and paper and coloring, I would draw careful circles across the paper in nice straight lines-- my excuse for letters. I remember writing stories in notebooks, and how excited I was to get to use my dad's old computer (it ran on DOS! Oy, that makes me feel old.) to write my stories. Even the actual act of sitting down to write still excites me as I wonder what will happen in my story today that's different from what I've already got planned.

I'm not sure why I've loved writing since I was so little, but I think it has something to do with the joy of creation. I've always loved reading because I could escape into new and exciting worlds. What I love about writing is that I get to CREATE new and exciting worlds. I get to invent new people, fascinating challenges, and vivid settings, all inside the frame of an entertaining story. And it is SO DANG FUN.

So, my friends, why do you love writing? Do you love the actual writing part, or do you love having written? How did you discover your love for writing?

4 Tips for How to Write a Mystery into your Novel

Jun 13, 2011

When I was in college, I had a roommate who made life extra fun. One day, she came walking in the door with a dart board. She'd walked into one of our friend's apartments during a party and lifted it off the wall without anyone noticing. She put it up front and center in our living room, and said she wanted to see how long it would take them to notice it was gone. If they noticed it was theirs when they came to visit, they could of course have it back.

And so began the Wall-O-Klepto.

It became an enormous practical joke, where we'd sneak things from our friend's places and put them on display. Most people noticed right away and got their stuff back. It took the dartboard guys a little longer.

And then there were the bowling pins. We stole them from a couple guys a few houses down from us, put them on top of the TV...and a few days later, they had been stolen from us. We got a ransom note, followed by several more (including a clever little one that came in the form of one of those "have you seen this person" postcards in the mail).

We were positive it was the guys across the street, and we HAD to get those things back-- after all, they weren't ours. We tried several tactics, including sneaking into their house while they were gone, but never managed to find those pins. And, of course, we refused to give into the ransom. In the end, it turned out that the culprits were actually the guys we'd stolen the pins from in the first place.

It was quite the exciting and hilarious mystery. And it gave me some clues for writing mystery into my novels, which most novels require! Whether you're writing a whodunit or not, there is nearly always a taste of mystery-- the reader wants to know the answer to the story question. In TUGL, my wip, there's actually a more traditional mystery than I'm used to writing, and I'm learning a few things.

1. Determine the Wants and the Obstacles
Nathan Bransford recently wrote a fabulous post on this, focusing on the idea that mysteries are about people. Your character WANTS something they can't get right away. There are obstacles. Even if you're a pantser, it really helps to define those wants and obstacles before you start writing. They may change as you write, but if you don't have them to start with, the mystery is going to take some serious rewriting.

2. Displace Suspicion
As I'm writing TUGL, I'm so afraid that it's obvious who the thief is. Because I know who it is! And I'm placing all these clues and foreshadowings. It seems so obvious. But one of my favorite techniques is to displace suspicion: make the characters have GOOD REASON to suspect someone else. Even multiple someone else's. It makes the reader's wheels spin as they try to determine who THEY think is the thief.

3. Let the Characters Get it Wrong
This goes along with displacing suspicion. As you place clues, let the characters get things wrong. They don't have to know exactly what the clues mean. Let them go down the wrong path and suffer the consequences. It makes things more exciting, and provides a handy obstacle. Of course, you don't want them to get everything wrong. Then when you reveal the true solution, the reader won't buy it.

4. Do More than Leave Clues-- Foreshadow
In order for the reader to buy that ending, it helps to foreshadow things ahead of time. This can be in the form of clues, but it should include other things that aren't clues. You can have a character make an off-handed comment, or make a note of a character trait, or any number of things. It will make the reader scream, "I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!!" at the end, which is much better than, "Huh?"

So, my friends, what kinds of mysteries do you like to write? What kinds do you like to read? What do you do when writing to enhance the mystery of your own story?

What Constitutes "Dark" in Literature?

Jun 8, 2011

As I was standing in James Dashner's signing line at the Utah Festival of Books on Saturday, a teenage girl asked me a question. "A friend told me The Maze Runner is really dark. Did you think so?"

I was quite surprised by the question. I told her that the book was about a bunch of teenagers in a very horrible and sometimes violent situation. However, I didn't find it to be dark. To me, the book focused on these boys banding together to win over the atrocities that were done to them. While terrible things happened, it never felt dark to me.

With the recent hullabaloo about YA getting too dark, I found this to be an interesting question. Is YA getting too dark? I think it depends on your definition.

I'll admit, there are some subject matters in YA that I personally don't want to read. There are some books I would have to read myself and discuss with my (future) teenager before I'd determine if I'd let them read it. I do not like books in general that have intense amounts of swearing, sex, or gory violence, and I won't let my kids read books that have too much of any of those. (Though that's NOT to say I would order any book banned from general consumption-- everyone has a right to make their own choices.)

This is a personal opinion. And that is where the issue of darkness comes to: we all have different definitions of what is inappropriate, and different ideas of what "dark" means. I had a friend in high school who refused to watch the Lord of the Rings movies, because she said they were too dark. I was surprised. I found the story to be inspiring. Good triumphs over evil, right? How could Frodo and Sam's friendship be anything but inspiring? That doesn't mean I'm right and she's wrong-- we simply looked at the movie in different ways.

In my opinion, darkness isn't just something inappropriate. It's what you find when a terrible situation is presented, and in the end, the darkness wins. And actually, that's not even entirely accurate. In the book 1984, Big Brother wins. But I didn't find that book dark. Frightening, yes. But it was a warning, a message to be careful what we did with our world. Darkness is when something evil is portrayed as good, as acceptable. And that is a kind of book I won't read.

There are tough subject matters in many books, YA or not. I found The Kite Runner to be very difficult to read. It was eye-opening in a horrendous way, but I won't ever read it again. It's not one that I necessarily recommend, even though I didn't dislike it and even though it ended on a note of hope. There are books in YA that deal with some of the difficult issues kids face today. Some I've read; some I haven't; some I don't want to. Some I don't want my kids to read, either. Those books might be right for some people, but not for me.

So, my friends, I want to know. What do you think constitutes "dark" in literature? Are there things you don't read, and choose not to let your children read? What do you feel is inappropriate in books? I'll be taking part in the discussion in the comments today, rather than by email, so let's talk about it.

It's no BEA, but the Utah Festival of Books Rocked

Jun 6, 2011

On Saturday, I packed the Kiddo into the car and headed off to my alma mater, BYU, for the Utah Festival of Books. I was excited for books and the people who write them. He was excited to be outside. It was a win-win situation.

It was fun and a little surreal to be back on campus again, pushing a stroller. We started off with the kids games. The Kiddo colored a lovely paper hat he refused to wear, and enjoyed watching the people dressed as children's book characters: Madeline, Winnie the Pooh, Clifford the dog, and, um, Darth Vader. Yup, he's the first one I think of when children's books come to mind. He went fishing and got a sticker, and then won a book on the Book Walk.
We stood in line for quite a while for James Dashner's signing, but the awesome thing about waiting in lines like that is you meet people who love the books you do. I got my book signed, and to my surprise, James remembered me from BYU's Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium (and from winning one of his signed ARC's of The Scorch Trials-- it helps sometimes to have a weird name!). I, of course, had forgotten my camera, but he was kind enough to post for a cell phone picture. Twice, since I accidentally deleted the first one.
I met the awesome Kiersten White, as well, and got Paranormalcy signed. Meeting the authors I admire always gets me a little giddy! It's inspiring to meet the people who write books, just like the rest of us, and have reached those goals I'm still reaching for. It's like a pep talk without the talk. Sadly, I couldn't get a picture with her because my cheapo phone camera doesn't work well outside. I also met this lovely lady in line. Go check out her fabulous book blog!

We got a little lunch at the Scoreboard Grill, bringing back some lovely memories. By then, the Kiddo was sick of sitting in the stroller, so I let him run around. He ended up leading us to the Museum of Art, where we found what I'm fondly calling the Big Block of Books. It's big. It's a block. It's made entirely of books. It was freakin' awesome.
And then, home we went. It was an awesome day with just me, the Kiddo, and a whole lot of books. I leave you with this quote from the few minutes of Brandon Mull's presentation I caught: "Just because you grow up doesn't mean you have to break up with your imagination."

So, my friends, did you do anything fun this weekend? What is your favorite book-related event you've been to?

JuNoWriMo Lessons: You CAN Keep Writing When You Think You Can't

Jun 4, 2011

So the first week of JuNoWriMo is a success! I got just over 2,000 words every single day, and TUGL is now sitting pretty at 16,000 words. Honestly, I'd forgotten how much I love first drafting and the joy of discovering new directions and details. It's so much FUN!

And, well, so much work, too. I plotted the novel ahead of time, but I didn't plan each and every scene (that's just not how I work!). So sometimes, I knew I hae to get from point A to point B, but wasn't sure how to get there in an exciting, character-revealing way. I'd be ready to throw in the towel for the night-- but then I'd check and realize I still had 800 words to write for that day's goal. I learned something quite important this week: Even when you think you can't write another word, you'd be surprised to find you can still squeeze out another 800. It was incredibly helpful to force myself a little bit in those tough sections. It actually pushed my creativity a little farther than it's used to going, and I discovered I can do more than I thought.

2,000 words a day takes me between 2 and 3 hours. It's sometimes tough to find the time-- in fact, on the first day of June, I got an enormous work project due the next day (I work from home), and had to spend 4 precious hours doing that. But with the help of the ever-supportive Hubby, I still got my writing in. It's been a challenge, but so far, it's a challenge I'm loving! And it's teaching me that I CAN keep going, even when I think I'm ready to stop (or don't even have the time to start).

So, my friends, what writing goals did you reach this week? What lessons did you learn? What are your goals for next week?

P.S. Check out my new pic on the sidebar-- I chopped my hair off! 10 inches gone and donated, and I love the new cut. :)

How to Write Fascinating Characters by Making them Contradictory (AND it's JuNoWriMo!)

Jun 1, 2011

It's here, my friends-- JuNoWriMo! Pick a writing goal, any writing goal, and join the party! I may not be as active in the blogging world this month as I try to bang out my personal goal of 2,000 words a day, but I'll still be around.

Let's talk about something to get the JuNo writing gears flowing. Characterization is a big focus for writers, as it should be. We often talk about how to make them likeable, and relatable, and complex, but today I want to talk about making them fascinating.

You see, my favorite characters were the ones that were larger than life. They have huge imaginations like Anne Shirley, or brilliant, tortured minds like Ender Wiggin. Those characters stick with me because they stand out in a crowd. One way I learned to do this is quite simple: give your characters contradictory traits.

In Brandon Sanderson's writing class of pure awesome, we did an exercise with characters. We started by picking a gender and age of a character who might be walking down the street in our story. Then he had us yell out a profession they might have-- and picked the most contradictory one. For example, we had an 80-year-old woman who was an assassin. Then we picked another character trait that was opposite the profession. Our 80-year-old assassin was a champion knitter.

See how fascinating that character is? We don't even have a story for her to be in yet, but we already want her to be in a story because we want to know what she'll do. She stands out in the crowd.

If you're doing YA, you can still do this with characters who don't have a profession. Pick a hobby instead, and then pick traits that contradict your expectations. Here are a few examples from my JuNoWriMo project, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee:

Estelle, the French ballet teacher who is Muslim. (And yes, that actually CAN work with her religion.)
Kai, the bouncy-ball-collecting nerd who is sometimes frightening in his intense desires to save the world.
Kai's father, the minister who became a bar tender to reach more people.
Gena, the pacifist ballet-dancing protagonist, who wants to be an astronomer and ends up fighting the system to save the world.

See how fun it is to create contradictory characters? They're a lot of fun to write, too.

So, my friends, do you like to write contradictory characters? Who are some of your favorite contradictory characters in books or movies? What other strategies do you use to make your characters larger than life?

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