Let’s talk about opening paragraphs and the difference between a good one and a terrible one. I’ve come up with two examples just for this occasion.
1. Jim was a quiet man, albeit a hefty one. His golden hair had the tendency to look like it glowed in sunlight. He had just started working at his second-ever “grown-up” job, which was as a secretary at Awesome Corp. He had two sons, and his wife had died just two months ago. He had been grieving ever since. Plus, his older son had dropped out of college to become a meth dealer only a month ago. He wasn’t sure how he could work in these conditions. But he did. He had a big house that seemed rather empty these days. His younger son often brought friends over. Jim didn’t like them, but he put up with it because it was nice to have some life in the building again. Sunny California was his favorite place in the country, so he had moved there as soon as he got out of his parents’ iron grip.
What an info dump, right? What is this story about? Why are we supposed to care about Jim and his family? There’s basically no feeling behind this paragraph, so it’s hard to say why it matters. This is a case of telling, not showing. Now try this one.
2. Jim ran his hand through his golden hair as he looked in the mirror. He didn’t have to step on the scale to know he was overweight. Not much he could do about it. He sighed as he checked his watch. I was almost time to head off to the “grown-up” job. He didn’t mind being a secretary at Awesome Corp., but some days, it was just hard to leave the house. He would rather stay at home and read and cry. He knew no one would blame him for how he felt. He splashed his face with some water from the sink as if trying to wash away the fact that his wife had died and his older son had dropped out of college and became a meth dealer within the past two months. He’d been told he would have more time to grieve, but working helped some–kept his mind off things. The house was too empty without Robin there, singing as she cleaned. His younger son, Ben, brought friends over all the time, so that helped a bit, even if he didn’t like Ben’s friends very much. Noise was better than silence. Even he knew that was a bit contradictory for a man of few words such as himself. As he walked out into the crisp morning air, he couldn’t help but be glad he had moved to sunny California as soon as he could get away from his parents’ iron grip. If he had to push onward with his life, the he was glad to be able to do it in a place he loved. He took in a deep breath as a breeze went by and got into his car.
Instead of smushing all the information together, spread things out a bit. I got the same information out in the second paragraph as the first but instead used it to drive the action and give him thoughts, instead of being a narrator laying it all out for you. Readers don’t need to be spoon-fed information. You can sprinkle it in with actions and dialogue and inner thoughts.
The first one was probably pretty hard to read. It’s like I took a bunch of words and ideas and shoved them at you in a pile and asked you to read it all. A good paragraph is organized and has purpose. Info-dumping is not a purpose. Throwing gob of information at your readers is bad form. Don’t do it.
Readers aren’t stupid, but they will get overwhelmed if all you do is tell them what you want them to know. Slowly reveal it.
The idea for this post came from this post regarding back story:
Try it for yourself. See if you have an info dumps and fix them. Isn’t that so much better? Doesn’t that feel freeing?