I’m just completing a novel (which I will not identify) for my monthly book club meeting and have been trying to evaluate why it’s been a burdensome read. It’s a thriller, the kind of book that should keep you turning pages and reading late into the night. But that hasn’t happened for me. If I had to make a diagnosis, one symptom I’d target is the dialogue.
Consider the term “information dump.” Think of long, rambling paragraphs in which a character exposes volumes of background data to enable the reader to understand the premise of the plot. To do this, the author has one character “teach” another. You’ll most likely find this in novels that require knowledge of a specialized field in order to follow the plot. These stories might involve science, medicine, government protocol or religion.
How do you achieve the goal of giving your reader what he needs without lectures? Here are a couple of ideas:
- Avoid long rambling paragraphs by breaking up dialogue into questions and answers along with interruptions or description.
Here’s an example from “Winter is Past.” I needed to give the reader some basic information about the kidney transplant procedure. Here’s how I could have written the scene:
“You must be wondering what the process is. Kathryn will meet with a pre-transplant nurse. They will draw her blood and test it for blood type and antigens that will tell us if the donor is a match. Then she will meet with a transplant physician who will do an examination. After that, she will have her blood drawn every month until the transplant to make sure that there is no change. They mail it to the transplant center in San Francisco. It takes a while before you will know if there’s a match. Then the donor has to go through a lot of testing to make sure that they are healthy enough to go through the procedure and live the rest of their lives with only one kidney. (The donor) has to go to San Francisco for some of the testing. Today Kathryn will meet with a social worker and (the donor) has to go through a psychological evaluation to make sure that they are making a free choice to donate and that there is no financial incentive…”
Kinda boring, isn’t it?
This is how I wrote it:
“You want me to explain how the whole thing works?” I asked Michael. Without waiting for his response, I dug into my own memories of the experience. “First of all, Kathryn meets with the pre-transplant nurse who’ll draw her blood. Then, the transplant center doctor will examine her.”
“What kind of blood test?” Michael asked.
“Blood type and antigens, the proteins that the immune system builds up against foreign invaders. The same test they’ll do on (her donor) to evaluate their compatibility.”
Michael fixed his gaze on me, soaking in every word.
“While Kathryn’s waiting for surgery, they’ll draw her blood every month and mail it to San Francisco—sometimes things change.”
“How long before we know if (the donor) is a match?”
“I don’t remember.” I plumbed the archives of my recollection. “It seemed like forever.”
“I think Kathryn had to go through all kinds of poking and prodding,” Josh said.
“You’re right there were a ton of procedures. Didn’t she have to go to San Francisco for some of them?”
“I’d forgotten about that” Michael said. “Anything else?”
“Yeah.” I squirmed in the uncomfortable chair. “She’ll meet with a social worker today. I remember it well—I was so afraid something would happen to Kathryn but the counselor reminded me to trust, to leave it to them to keep her safe.”
Michael spoke up again. “Kathryn had a psychological work-up, too, didn’t she?”
I nodded and glanced at a couple entering with a teenage son, a boy the color of yellow chalk. “You bet. They’ll make sure (her donor) is stable and that there’s no financial incentive.”
The three of us watched as the young patient’s father helped him into a chair then went to sign in at the receptionist’s desk. A smile broke across the child’s face. He nodded in my direction and gave me a thumb’s up.
In this example I’ve deliberately obscured some of the information. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot.
- Another simple way is to include either a forward or a glossary that gives basic facts that contribute to the reader’s understanding of the story. In his novel, One Second After, William Forstchen explains EMP (electromagnetic pulse) with the help of an introduction by Newt Gingrich. That’s a thriller I found hard to put down (and thrillers aren’t a genre I usually gravitate toward).
I don’t want to ruin your reading experience, but take notice of how the authors you read give you the facts you need to know. Do you have other suggestions?