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How to avoid clobbering your reader with too much information

Before I Go To sleep

Successful writers know not to “info dump” on their readers. In other words, they don’t stop the flow of their story to give the reader paragraphs or pages of detailed information.

Information dumping or fire hosing, as I like to call it, slows down the story, the narrative, and everything else. When I come across a book that stops to describe, in great length, a new character—everything from their looks to their clothing—I cringe. If it happens close to the beginning, then I know it’s going to be like this the entire way through.

I finally had to stop reading one fantasy series because every time the main character changed clothes, we had to read about it. The sad part is that the storylines kept me interested, but I just couldn’t read one more time about the protagonist’s favorite pair of Nikes.

If you want a lesson in how to layer information into a story, read S.J. Watson’s novel Before I Go to Sleep. This is the story of an amnesiac who can’t remember her life from day to day. She has some memories from when she was younger but every morning she wakes is a blank slate. The protagonist has to be reminded every single day who she is.

The premise interested me but I wondered if the author could write a story about an amnesiac patient who can’t remember one day to the next AND keep my attention for 350+ pages?

I was nicely surprised. Not only is the writing clear and fresh, but the plot kept my attention the entire way through. Once or twice in the middle of the story I thought, “Okay, I’m ready for the next thing now.” No sooner did I think that then the “next thing” was presented.

Watson perfectly layers in all the details—from character descriptions to setting to the storyline or plot—in such a natural way that we’re right there with the character, learning her secrets with her. Instead of fire hosing us with too many details at once, the layering technique creates a suspenseful read.

When working on your next story, whether it’s a novel or short story, think about how much information the reader absolutely needs to know at any point in time.

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