Building a World Without Dumping Info
by Susan Kaye Quinn
One of the comments I keep hearing about Open Minds is how the details of the world come alive to readers without there being a lot of info-dumping (large paragraphs of text that go into excruciating detail about the type of furniture or technology in the world). This makes me very happy, because if you read some of my first writing, when I started out about three years ago, you would realize this weaving in of backstory does not come naturally to me.
Given that I'm a technical person by training (that Ph.D. in Engineering can feed the tendency to be hyperspecific), and that I like to build worlds packed with cool technology, social change and complicated backstories, you can see I'm swimming upstream against my natural tendency to info-dump. I love to create gadgets like the flushable trash in Kira's house or the mindware interface of her refrigerator, as well as more complicated things like the transportation infrastructure that replaces major tollways with a system of trains, buses, and auto-programmable taxis. But more than a passing reference to these things will leave my readers glassy eyed and flipping pages. Too much detail, just like too little, can weaken a story.
There's no short-cut to integrating a complex world or backstory into your novel without sending your reader off to snooze-land. But there are a few guidelines I keep in mind, even today, as I'm drafting the beginning of Closed Hearts, the sequel to Open Minds (beginnings are the trickiest, where every word can either pull your reader in or put them off for the rest of the story).
Horde Your Reveals Like Treasure
Got a cool invention you want to place in your story? Make it meaningful to one of the characters and hold off on revealing it until the last possible moment, where the impact of that reveal is greatest.
Got a juicy tidbit from your character's past that explains everything about who they are and why they do what they do? Save it, create a scene around it, then ramp up to the reveal of that bit of backstory. Even better, plant something earlier in the story that hints at this crucial backstory piece, but don't reveal it yet. Then, when the reveal comes, the reader will connect the pieces together and have a deeper understanding of your character. If you give everything away in the beginning, you're robbing your reader of this very satisfying experience.
Go Deep into Your Character's Head
Info-dumping is almost always the author's voice sneaking in, trying to whisper some crucial bit of information to the reader so that the story will make sense. But the story should already make sense to your character. Diving deep into her (or his) head and telling the story from there will keep you from going into extraneous detail about the exhaust system of the hydro-propulsion engine of her mom's car or the international banking system that has replaced all currencies with a single, universal credit system. (Are you yawning yet?)
If there's some backstory or aspect of the world that's crucial for the reader to understand in depth, then have your character discover it along with the reader. Understanding the world of mindreading and mindjacking was an important aspect of Open Minds, and Kira (the main character) discovers all the details of how these things work as the story moves along. But the story isn’t about mindreading and mindjacking, even though there is a lot of that going on. It is about the struggle of a girl to find acceptance in her world, and ultimately acceptance of herself.
Treat Your World Like a Character
Kira is in deep conflict with the world of Open Minds. At first she’s a zero, an outcast in her world. Then she’s a mindjacker, someone so outcast they are hidden beneath the surface of society. That conflict creates a lot of the tension that drives the story forward. Treating your world like a character will help you find ways to reveal aspects of that world, and have the world evolve, just as a character would.
Trust Your Reader
Readers are crazy smart. Not only are they intelligent to begin with, but years of reading books and watching movies has trained their intuition to pick up clues about a world as they read along. If you tell every detail of your world to your reader, they will start tapping their toes and peeking at their iPhone, waiting for the good stuff to start happening. Keeping ahead of these very savvy readers, keeping them guessing about the story, is no small trick. Trust your reader to pick up the clues that you leave, to read between the lines. You’ll have to work hard to keep ahead of them!
Overall, it was great fun to build the mindreading world that Kira lives in, but it was a challenge to craft the story such that the world was revealed at just the right pace to keep readers interested and moving forward. But I’m already having fun doing it again in Closed Hearts, taking the world I built in Open Minds and diving deeper to find all the cool gadgets, powers, and story still to be revealed.
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When everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep.
Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can’t read thoughts or be read by others. Zeros are outcasts who can’t be trusted, leaving her no chance with Raf, a regular mindreader and the best friend she secretly loves. When she accidentally controls Raf’s mind and nearly kills him, Kira tries to hide her frightening new ability from her family and an increasingly suspicious Raf. But lies tangle around her, and she’s dragged deep into a hidden world of mindjackers, where having to mind control everyone she loves is just the beginning of the deadly choices before her.
Open Minds (Book One of the Mindjack Trilogy) by Susan Kaye Quinn is available for $2.99 in e-book (Amazon US (also UK, France and Germany), Barnes & Noble, Smashwords) and $9.99 in print (Amazon, Createspace, also autographed copies available from the author).