Show, Don’t Tell: Avoiding the ‘Information Dump’ in Fiction

28 Mar 2008


The key to good fiction is giving your readers a reason to keep going — little mysteries and mini-conflicts that add suspense and create tension. After all, if you feel like you know everything about a character in the first few pages, is there any real reason to waste time finding out what will happen to him?

Here’s what I mean:

Pete works at a pharmacy. He’s in his mid-20s, and he loves Asian cuisine and professional wrestling. He lives with his mother, but he wants to move out on his own when he saves up the money. He likes a girl at work named Myrna, but he’s afraid to ask her out on a date.

This is critical stuff: We have hints of a few conflicts: Pete is shy, but he’d like to go on a date with a coworker. He wants his own apartment, but he can’t afford it right now. And, we know a little about his interests and goals. But, it’s dull, dull, dull. It’s an information dump — in a rush to introduce Pete, we’ve put our readers into a coma.

This one’s a little better:

Pete set down his plate of teriyaki and stared at Myrna from across the break room. Even dressed in her white, polyester lab coat, she was stunning.

I wonder if she likes wrestling, Pete thought. I’ve got two tickets to next week’s match. Maybe I should just ask her out. Just as friends. Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t even afford my own place — who wants to go out with a guy that still lives with his mother?

Myrna looked up and met his gaze. Pete snatched a newspaper and opened it to a random page, trying to look casual. That’s when he saw the advertisement: “Wrestlers needed for amateur match. Saturday night. First prize $5,000.”

The hints of conflict in the first version have become specific questions: Will Pete ask Myrna on a date? Will he put on tights, get in the ring, and win first prize? Focus on showing — revealing details through a character’s speech, thoughts, and actions — rather than simply telling the reader what’s important.

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