Beware the dreaded info dump! One of the fastest ways to alienate your readers is to lecture them. Too often, we’ve spent so much time learning all there is to know about a subject, we feel an obligation to show our readers how hard we’ve worked.
In a word: Don’t.
When I spoke to the Coroner’s Office, my contact filled me with all sorts of, “we would do this, and we can do that—until I had pages of notes. How much makes it onto the page? Very little. For this scene, it was important that I NOT show things that were wrong (showing I didn’t do my homework), rather than showing everything that was right.
However, I did need to have my characters behaving realistically. And that’s the bottom line—it’s about the characters. Once you’ve got the facts, you have to decide what your character would do with them. Under no circumstances, should the author step in. Nothing brings a story to a screeching halt faster than an author intruding to explain in depth (and often, more than 2 sentences is getting too deep) about things that aren’t relevant to the scene.
What I’d learned was that my cops would have to remain at the site where they found the bone until someone from the Coroner’s Office showed up to make the determination that the bone belonged to a human or a deer. While my cops were waiting, I could filter in some logical (I hope) information. Here, the patrol officer knows more about bones than the police chief. Just because I’ve got a hero doesn’t mean he has to be the best at everything.
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And on with today’s post:
Here’s their discussion:
Solomon slipped on a pair of gloves and picked up the bone. “Too bad the ends are chewed up. Might be a deer, might be human. I wouldn’t put money on either one.” He smiled. “That’s Asel’s job.” He poked at it with a fingertip. “Old, though.” He held the bone out to Gordon. “See how it’s brittle, and my fingernail leaves an indentation.”
I think that’s enough information, delivered quickly. The reader should now understand that it’s the ends of the bones that help determine the species it came from, and that if bones have been buried a long time, they’re brittle, and will show the indentation of a fingernail.
Once the coroner arrives, I don’t need to repeat the above information. He knows it, the cops know it, and now, the reader does too. The fact that I know pages more about bones after doing my homework doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be on the page.
Now, in the scene it is logical for the cops to be asking questions. They have an knowledgeable source (although the coroner has established that he’s not a forensics anthropologist, and although he knows more than the cops, he won’t have all the answers. The information I felt was important for this scene is in the following exchange (one note: prior to this scene, the coroner, Asel, was considered a pain in the neck, and not supportive of the police. Neither Gordon nor Solomon was looking forward to dealing with him. But right before this excerpt, Asel explained why he’s been a grouch, and has become much more professional.)
“How old was the victim?” Solomon’s question brought Gordon back on task. Right. Knowing as much as possible about the bone might help them find its original owner. “It’s impossible to pinpoint,” Axel said. “But it’s clear that the epiphyses are closed, so we’re looking at someone at least twenty-five.” “Huh?” Gordon said, more because he was still absorbing the radical change in Asel than because he really wanted to know. Asel pointed to a spot near the ends of the bone. “Here. These are growth plates. When they close, you stop growing. That usually happens in your mid-twenties.” “Got it. Can you tell whether it was male or female?” Gordon asked. “With DNA, yes. Which I doubt we’ll get approval for, unless we know we’re going to have something to match it to. Low priority, too costly, and it’ll take some time. The experts might be able to speculate based on the diameter of the bone’s head—if we had it. The dog destroyed most of it, but it’s a remote possibility.” Where had Mister Intellectual Nice Guy come from? But as long as Asel was on a roll, Gordon wasn’t going to question it. “How about overall height? Asel held the bone by its ends. “There’s a formula for determining height based on the length of the bone. Another job for the experts.”
You should notice that the coroner isn’t speaking in science-ese; he’s speaking to the cops, not to other experts in the field. When he does use a technical term, a question from the other characters will give him a reason to define it. And that’s something else to keep in mind. Characters have to sound like themselves.
Lastly, you’ll notice that I prefer using dialogue to present the information. This makes it less like “me” on the page. However, if done in the character’s voice, and if it’s something a character would logically be thinking about, narrative can work.
So – let me know. This is still a draft scene, and can be fixed. Do you think there’s too much information, or does it flow logically and sound like the characters are talking?
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