A common propensity among novice writers is to perform what I call a “data dump” when wanting to inform the reader of setting, location, time and date, character appearances, dress, emotional makeup, and the like. Oftentimes it gets to the point of being stifling, taking the reader out of the forward motion of the story, which stops dead while the dump takes place. Here is an example of a scene loaded with data dump.
December fifteenth, Detroit, six o’clock in the evening. The day was bitter cold. The sun was setting in the clouded sky, filled with seagulls, squawking and vying for tidbits as John stood next to the Detroit River throwing scraps of bread in the air. He had on a corduroy jacket, black slacks and pair of running shoes. He loved to jog, and did so almost daily. John, at twenty-five years of age, was well over six feet tall, slim but muscular, had a bronze complexion and deep blue eyes with thick, coal black hair. He worked at the casino and was glad to be finally done for the day. It was Friday night, and time to party soon. His life was so boring during the week, but his friends were taking him out for his birthday celebration tonight, so he was smiling with anticipation. His wife of three years had just divorced him a month ago, and he needed some R & R. It had been difficult for him to get over his loss. He had caught her red handed in an affair. The memories of that event, and the caustic, castigating divorce proceedings, were painfully vivid in his tortured head. Lately he had been so sullen and depressed his friends had insisted he put that behind him for at least this night and go out for a good time.
His smile had all but disappeared, thinking thoughts off loss and better days. Suddenly his best friend, Albert, a five foot six, thirty-year old, not very well educated but still smart, chunky two hundred pound, pale skinned fellow with thinning hair and squinty gray eyes, dressed in a sheepskin coat, wool pants and ear muffs, walked up from behind and said, “Hey, bro – you ready to get your party animal on?”
Now, as the reader, we are certainly well informed. We know the day, time, location, all that, we know exactly what John and Albert look like, what they are wearing, and also have some background information on John, with some insight into his emotional state. The problem is, this type of writing is extremely pedestrian, lacking in immediacy and intimacy, with very little motion in the story.
How much story has happened in those two paragraphs? Almost zilch. John stands by the river, reflecting and feeding the seagulls, and his friend walks up to greet him. That’s it. To this author/editor and writing coach, it’s just plain lazy writing. In addition, the majority of the information is delivered through omniscient POV, rather than the more intimate and immediate third or first person POV’s, so the effect is quite dry. Now let’s look at this following rewrite. I will use third person POV, and give you most of the same information as above, but I will give it to you as the story line moves along.
Dang, it’s cold, John thought as he adjusted the collar of his jacket up tight around his neck. He pulled another wad of bread off the loaf he held and flung it into the air. He smiled as he watched seagulls squawk and fight for food bits in the air above the Detroit River. He smiled wider as he thought about tonight. Going to be fun. And god knows I need a break. After what I’ve been through, the divorce and all. He looked down at his well-worn running shoes. Don’t even feel like jogging today. So not like me.
The Hart Plaza clock bell struck six times. John tossed a chunk of bread at the birds and braced against another frosty gust of wind. Sun’s almost gone, he noticed, as he turned around to see a sliver of faded golden rays peeking through a thin, lateral opening between the thick blanket of clouds and the city’s skyline. His chin fell to his chest with a weighted sigh. Marcia, Marcia … how could you have done that? What did that guy have I didn’t? What we had, the love, the marriage, the plans for a family, it was so real, so …
John felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Hey, bro … ready to get your party animal on?” Albert said as John spun around.
“God, man, you scared the crap out of me,” John said, then chuckled and regarded his best friend. “Sweet coat. New? Looks like sheepskin.”
“Mind if I throw some bread at the birds?” Albert said, and proceeded to do so. “Yeah, just got it a couple weeks ago, winter comin’ and all. Man – those gulls get nasty with each other, eh?” Albert squinted at John and sighed. Hey, dude, I can see it in your face. Your normally bright blue, woman-slayer eyes are like, glazed over and dull, man. You need a couple strong ones. You been like, I dunno, some kind of Doctor Doom here lately.”
John shrugged and shivered, kicked at the pavement, his eyes downcast, his mood as gloomy as his friend’s prying eyes were gray.
Albert tossed another chunk of bread. “So – you’re off at the casino for the weekend, right? No work ‘til Monday?”
“Right.” John looked at Albert’s pale, but cheery round face, then noticed his head. “Albert – as freezing as it is, and with as little hair as you’ve got left, don’t you think a nice warm hat would be better than those pathetic little earmuffs?”
“Well, least I got me a warm coat, not some flimsy corduroy jacket. Just cuz you got a full head o’ black hair don’t mean you shouldn’t have no hat on, neither, pal.” Albert gave John a playful punch in the ribs. They both laughed and started walking after Albert pointed and said, “C’mon – car’s over this way. Time to tie one on—all the gang’s waitin’ over at the Shamrock. Can’t let the birthday boy go home alone tonight.”
As they neared the vehicle, Albert stopped them both, looked at his friend. “So what’s it now—quarter of a century old?”
“Yes, I’m getting old. But I’ll always be five years younger than you,” John made a wide-eyed expression for emphasis, “old man.” He could see a pang of jealousy flash across his pal’s face as Albert looked him over, obviously searching for a come back. He envies my flat tummy and svelte frame. I envy him his happy-go-lucky attitude. Much rather be overweight and carefree than thin and tortured inside.
Albert looked up into John’s eyes. “Yeah, you may always be younger than me, but I ain’t never gonna be over six feet tall, neither.” They laughed together at the reverse-meaning irony of Albert’s statement as they got in the car.
Did I get all the information in the second passage as in the first? Not quite, but pretty darn close. In fact, if this were a real manuscript I would have left out even more. Save it for later, give bits and pieces as the story unfolds, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. It makes for a more engaging, interesting read, all the details coming within the forward motion of the story. Much better than being told all there is to know in one great big data dump, hmm?
Marvin D Wilson, multi-published author and editor with All Things That Matter Press, using the pen name “Professor Old Silly,” posts writing tutorials on his blog each Tuesday. The above tutorial is a re-post from the archives of his blog at: http://theoldsilly.com.