Info Dumping a Problem In Your Fiction? Consider a Doubting Thomas

Thursday, June 13, 2019
I didn't have a good photo for this article,
and I'm from St. Louis, so...
I recently had a conversation with a novel writer about how to get needed backstory across to her readers without it being an info dump. My suggestion was to make one of her characters a "Doubting Thomas." Now those two sentences are full of jargon that you may not know, so let me define these terms first, and then explain what happened:

Backstory: The information that happened before the story started AND that the reader needs to know in order to understand the story.

Info dump: A section of a novel where the author puts all the backstory in one place, and it is not naturally worked into the story. It can be in narrative, but it is often worked in through a character telling another the needed backstory through dialogue.

Doubting Thomas character: A character who doesn't believe some facts that everyone else believes or knows to be true. This character can often be argumentative or questioning or even naive--someone whom other characters have to naturally explain things to so that the prose doesn't sound "fake" or "info dumpy" when information is revealed.

In my student's novel, a family is going through a huge crisis, and the grandmother is explaining why one of the characters is so sick. Through her explanation, she reveals her entire philsophy of life and her belief system, which is important to the plot and characterization. Readers need to know what she believes and how she has lived her entire life with these beliefs. But, in the novel, the grandmother starts explaining these fundamental beliefs to her other family members, whom she lives with. Not only do they live with her, but they are a very closeknit family. It wasn't believeable that Grandmother would need to explain this to everyone, and the dialogue came out stilted.

All the author needed to fix this was to make the grandson a Doubting Thomas. If the grandson said something like: "Grandma, come on. This can't be true." Then readers could easily believe that Grandma would explain things to her grandson and maybe even sternly. Grandma may even explain the background to her grandson of why she believes what she does and how it is been true in her life. In other words, a Doubting Thomas grandson would make Grandma stating her beliefs natural and understandable--and better fiction.

Of course, this is not the only way to work in backstory or needed information in fiction works. But if you have readers who have given you feeback or critique that there is an info dump or parts of your novel feel too much like an encyclopedia or stitled, consider making one of the characters a Doubting Thomas and easily fix this issue.

Have you ever tried this method in your writing?

By the way: I'm writing this as the Blues just won the Stanley Cup for the first time ever! Let's Go Blues! Play Gloria! See photo above...

If you want to take the WOW! Writing a Novel With a Writing Coach class this summer that Margo teaches, go here to sign up (Classes start either July 5 or August 2). She is offering Muffin readers a special deal with the class--for the price of $130, you can choose to a) do the traditional class of 4 sections of 4500 words or less of a novel or book-length work in one month b) deal #1 which is turning in a section every two weeks--for writers who can't make the weekly deadline c) deal #2--five sections in one month for the price of four--for writers who have a chunk of a novel already done and need some help and feedback. Sign up, and Margo will email with you to decide what works best for you! To find out more about Margo, go to her Editor 911 site here


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--I am not a sports fan, but I am glad the Blues won. Underdogs always get my support.;)

The idea of a "doubting Thomas" is a clever one. I had not ever thought of that.

I DO struggle with revealing information (not as much as a dump--hopefully) that would already be known by the characters. I have to constantly think, "Is that how the characters would talk to each other? Does it make sense?"

Thanks for this suggestion. Hopefully, if I ever plan on backing up a dumptruck and dropping a load, I'll remember the strategy of using a Doubting Thomas.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I've never used a Doubting Thomas character but I'm also a fiction newbie. My character is returning to her home town so I'll need to get info across to the reader without all of the other characters saying, "Clara, we were there!" Maybe a new person to town could ask a question...

Margo Dill said...

Sioux: The Blues were a Cinderella story for sure, and us writers cannot resist a good story. :) I think any writer worth her weight in salt struggles with this because we want to make sure the narrative sounds authentic and not forced. It's so hard! But worth it when you figure out a way to let readers know what they need to know in a natural way.

Sue: Yes, a question asker is also good to help get info across.

Mary Horner said...

I love this idea, Margo. Turning an information dump into an argument also makes the information more compelling. Thanks for sharing!

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