It’s Friday and that means it’s Deleted Scenes day! Please welcome our guest, Deborah O’Neill Cordes, who’s sharing how she tamed the dreaded info dump monster, a monster all writers need to harness. Deborah does it expertly in her latest novel, Dragon Dawn. I’m reading Dragon Dawn at the moment, and I don’t usually read sci-fi, but Deborah builds her worlds and characters so masterfully, I am hooked and rooting for the heroine. I want to go with the heroine in this story and you will too!
From the Oxford Dictionary: info dump
Syllabification: in·fo dump, noun
A very large amount of information supplied all at once, especially as background information in a narrative: The movie begins with a lengthy expository info dump.
Ah, the dreaded info dump! I’ve always envisioned it as a monster, lurking in the trash heap of bad writing. It bedeviled me for years, until, through trial and error and lots of sweat equity, I tamed the bloody beast and finished multiple novels and one epic screenplay. My advice to authors who find themselves delving into the monster’s realm? Dip in and then swiftly back off; in other words, work your information in slowly, slyly, and perhaps even shyly. Don’t proclaim your research skills to the world in a heavy handed way. Instead, do it with stealth. The raging beast will shrink before your prowess and then hopefully disappear, never to return.
During the creation of my sci-fi novel, Dragon Dawn, Book One of the Dinosaurian Time Travel Series, I found myself with the daunting task of introducing a parallel universe where dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct on Earth, and one species subsequently evolved to sentience, creating a spacefaring civilization. How would I describe their appearance without info dumping all of the morphological characteristics? In my original version, which has long since vanished into the ozone of Delete Land, I tried to put as many physical characteristics into one big, long, boring opening narrative. I’m glad it’s gone, although it might be fascinating to see it now, in all its horrible glory.
Time has passed, and I’ve worked hard to develop my craft, ridding myself of the aforementioned beast along the way. Since Dragon Dawn’s opening sequence has saurian astronauts discovering an alien on Mars, this gave me the opportunity to avoid the dump by comparing and contrasting the alien’s appearance with that of a saurian astronaut-physician, who is examining him for the first time.
From Dragon Dawn:
…They passed through a vast chamber of glittering amber walls and stumbled upon a door. A handprint had been carved on it, the figure in bas-relief, three-fingered with long claws. Incredibly, the alien print nearly matched their own trio of digits.
How is this possible? Shanash stood for a long moment. As a physician-scientist, she knew the enormous evolutionary odds against such a thing happening. Puzzled, she reached out and touched the handprint, but after barely grazing it with her gloved fingers, she pulled back. What lurked beyond the door?
The door shuddered and then swung wide, the space around it alive with whirling motes of dust. Mustering her courage, Shanash stepped into a vacant chamber and surmised it was an airlock. With a wave of her hand, she motioned for the others to follow. The door automatically closed, sealing the room tight for pressurization. Shanash heard a deep whoosh as air rushed in, yet she and her companions remained safe within their spacesuits, for the atmosphere here was surely alien and unbreathable.
On the far side of the airlock, another door opened, revealing a chamber with a large, rectangular structure of polished red stone. It resembled a queen’s sarcophagus from Erraz, an ancient Shurrrian civilization. Could this possibly be an alien tomb? And if so, who was buried inside?
Shanash stared at the tomb, transfixed, and then roused herself, beckoning everyone forward. Straining with the effort, they pushed and pulled on the heavy lid and forced it aside.
An alien rested within, copper-skinned and perfectly preserved.
Breathing deeply, Shanash willed herself to a semblance of calm, knowing she must examine the corpse with scientific detachment. The creature looked much like her species, the head containing sensory organs – eyes, nose, and mouth – the trunk broad and powerful, with paired appendages, two arms and two legs. Yet it retained a structure saurians no longer possessed, a long and well-muscled tail that she guessed the alien had once used to wield a mighty swipe.
Through her helmet’s headset, Shanash listened to her colleagues as they studied the creature: “It appears to be asleep – so well preserved.”
“Yes, like someone in a nesting bed.”
“Did you see that? Is it breathing?”
“By the Goddess, it’s alive!”
“What?” Shanash moved in closer, almost within touching distance of the alien. Unexpectedly, she detected a hum, faint at first, but steadily growing louder, until a great rum rum rum echoed in her ears, the sound traveling all the way back to Shurrr, or so it seemed.
She reached into the sarcophagus and touched the shimmering cloth covering the alien’s lower torso. Through her gloves, she could feel a vibration. Was this a stasis-vault instead of a tomb?
As if in response, the creature groaned and blinked its eyes – blue eyes. Stunned, Shanash fell back, bumping into the others, their startled hisses echoing within her helmet as they ran for the door…
How many physical characteristics did I work into this segment? Three fingered hands. Sexual dimorphism. Heads with sensory organs, and trunks with two arms and two legs. The creature’s powerful tail, which the saurians lack because of evolutionary reduction. There are many more if you take a second look. Will readers be able to visualize not only the saurians, but the alien as well? I hope so! Throughout the novel’s first chapters, I added even more information, such as the saurians’ head feathers and greenish, snakelike skin. And the info weaving doesn’t stop there. Until the very end of my story, I blended other facts and interesting snippets of information into dialogue and narrative, giving my readers a sense of other universes and disparate paths of existence, a glimpse of “what might have been.”
Writing is difficult, but your efforts at creating the best possible work will be rewarded. After months of rewrites, the final proof of Dragon Dawn gave me much satisfaction. The only beasts found were my fictional characters – the info monster had vanished. Dive into your research and find those treasures, but take your time and weave them into your story with care. Your readers will thank you.
Time snakes between alternate universes. Ever watchful, an alien intelligence survives on Mars, waiting to be found by spacefarers from Earth. The alien’s ultimate goal is to send human astronauts back in time, where they will alter the past and thwart the extinction of the dinosaurs. A race of intelligent dinosaurs, resembling the alien’s extinct species, subsequently evolves to rule the world. But a human female astronaut, through a strange twist of fate, survives the change in the space-time continuum. After finding herself in a dinosaurian body, she must race against time – and the formidable alien – to restore the universe to its rightful course.
Deborah O’Neill Cordes is an award-winning screenwriter and novelist of historical and speculative fiction. She is the author of the sci-fi time travel novel, Dragon Dawn, Book One of the Dinosaurian Time Travel Series, which blends fields of study she loves in equal measure; Deborah holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s degree in history. She is also the co-author of the Morgan O’Neill time travel novels. Deborah resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two West Highland White Terriers, who, alas, are precocious terriers and therefore never white.
Deborah’s website: http://deborahoneillcordes.com/
Morgan O’Neill website: http://www.morganoneill.com/
Stay tuned next week for Elaine Calloway who shares how to listen to your inner voice while editing!
April 18th – Elaine Calloway
April 25th – Jana Richards