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CCXIX  

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

This poem is a double sonnet and an acrostic.  Read the first letter of each line from top to bottom and compare that with the verse in the title.  Trinity Fellowship was a church I planted in Toccoa, Georgia.  It had  a decade of good ministry in the 1990s before the reality that it was too radical for its sleepy little Southern town set in and it folded.  I had to try, for reasons the poem makes clear.  I have no regrets.

1 TIMOTHY 3:15

The Founding of Trinity Fellowship

University Church in Athens, Ga., was the model for Trinity Fellowship of Toccoa.

Hard the path of men who live alone:

Outcasts, Eliot’s Magi with their race

Uncomprehending, staring, blank of face;

Seeking—those who ought to be their own,

Easily the hardest, hard as stone;

Hearts that claim and mouths and hands that trace

Outwardly the elements of Grace—

Lacking life, corruption over bone.

Daring to believe the Message still,

Onward plodding, leaving Hope behind,

Forgetting hunger for the kindred mind.

Grace has not forgotten all its skill:

Onward plodding, shows us in the trip

Delights unlooked for:  founds the Fellowship.

Me preaching at Trinity Fellowship in the early days before we had a building to meet in–well, sort of. 😉

Supper of the Lamb together shared;

Useless baggage seen and laid aside;

Prayer from deepest need—the need supplied;

Preaching from the Text—the Text declared;

Odes of ancient praise renewed and aired;

Royal priesthood serving side by side,

Tasks imposed by Scripture not denied;

Old and new, the treasures are prepared;

Flock responding to the Shepherd’s fife;

Truth digested into will and heart,

Realized in acts—at least a start;

Unction of the Spirit bringing life;

Together finally, Boaz and Ruth:

House of God and pillar of the Truth.

The building in which we did not meet.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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Science Fiction Problems: The Information Dump (Part II)

This is the second part of a series. To see Part I, click here.

In this post:

  • The Stalker Stare: long descriptions used to dump all of the information regarding a character’s appearance and personality on the reader. Solution: carefully disperse the information throughout the story, and focus only on traits that make the character unique
  • The Villain/Hero Monologue: One character insists on explaining a large number of plot points to another character, no matter what happens to be going on at the moment. Solution: find another way to address this information! This method of information dumping is far to cliche to use seriously anymore
  • The Flashback: A character thinks back on some past event, shifting the story to that place and time so that the reader can explain what happened. This often makes the storyline very confusing. Solution: keep the memories within the action of the present so that the reader doesn’t lose his bearings on the sequence of events

Hello again, and welcome to another Science Fiction Problems! Last week I talked about several different ways in which people mishandle the distribution of information in their science fiction, and today I’ll finish off my thoughts on this deadly habit. Without further ado, here are a few more common ways in which people inflict the Information Dump on their readers:

The Stalker Stare

This one is a bit of a rookie mistake, mostly because new writers simply do not see the awkwardness of this particularly universal Information Dump. Allow me to demonstrate:

 

Let’s say we have a new character coming into the room. His name is Bob. His eyes are dull and vacant, yet his hair is of that perfectly-tousled style that you see on TV but know for a fact that it is impossible to attain without getting a second mortgage to pay for a top-notch hair dresser… or to get off exactly the right side of the bed this morning. Accidentally-attractive hair aside, Bob is rather pale and gangly, obviously not the type to hit the Bowflex very often, and his shoulders slouch as he stands with his hands in his pockets. He’s wearing khaki cargo shorts and a Hawaiian-styled flower-print shirt of almost offensively-loud colors, and grimy flip-flops that he was probably born wearing…

(I could go on, but by the time I’ve finished that last observation, we’ve been staring at Bob for about 5 minutes. Bob has become very uncomfortable, and is now quietly retreating through the door he just came through as we continue to stare into the empty space he occupied moments ago.)

icanhascheezeburger keanu reeves creepy stalker

No wait, he'd probably be ok with a bunch of people staring at him.

This sort of description is usually the result of an impulsive need to completely describe a character within the first instance of their arrival in the story, all in order to assure that the reader immediately has a complete mental picture. While this is usually an innocent, well-meaning exercise, it usually amounts to an extremely in-depth description of exactly what kind of jumpsuit the woman is wearing, or precisely what color her eyes are, or other such essentially useless information that has little bearing on the character beyond this initial scene.

Solution: Conservative Dispensation

The false premise upon which this particular Information Dump is based on is that Description = Characterization, that the more the reader knows about what the character looks like or how he acts, the more they will connect to and understand the character. The truth is, any information not frequently relevant (i.e., they are missing their left leg and are forced to shamble about on a badly-made prosthetic), the reader will immediately forget it. Only concern youself with providing information that uniquely represents the character, and let their personality through dialogue and action define them, not their appearance. Use short, concise phrases to describe and hint at the character’s appearance; little things to notice along the way instead of an intensive examination:

“He scratched his two-days’ growth of beard as he stared out the viewing window, scanning the floating scrap with his tired, grey eyes.”

“She absently swiped a stray wisp of long, fine hair as it floated lazily across her cheek.”

“He stood up, towering above the other soldiers as he thumped slowly away from the table, his bushy eyebrows furrowed.”

Distribute this information throughout the story, carefully building on the reader’s perception of your character. This way, not only will your audience fully appreciate what makes this person who he/she is, but they will actually be interested to learn more about them.

The Villain/Hero Monologue

incredibles syndrome buddy incrediboy villain monologue

"You sly dog! You caught me monologuing!"

The villain has the hero on the ropes, gasping for breath under his boot, and the guy goes off on a 15-minute monologue about his brilliant plans because, hey, no one else is around to hear it, and this guy’s gonna be dead in a minute, right? Alternately, the hero may have actually gained the upper hand, and as the villain is cornered on the rooftop of his burning lair, the hero sees the need to tell the guy exactly why he failed and why the powers of good have triumphed.

 

Cliché as could be and often completely unrealistic, this particular style of Info Dump has one character, usually during a climax in the story, explaining a great number of plot points to another while  they would normally be quite busy doing something else (i.e., actually fighting). No other characters ever think this is strange, and will often willingly extend the conversation even as the doomsday device’s timer runs out or the rope by which the princess dangles over a cliff slowly unravels. In short, it doesn’t matter what horrible/intense/absurd situation is going on in the background, this character is going to say what he wants, for as long as he wants.

Solution: DON’T DO IT!

If the information simply must be given at that moment in that context, avoid a monologue at all costs. Make it a dialogue, intersperse it with movement and action, but don’t just have one guy or another standing there and explaining anything, let alone his plans for world-domination. If the scene doesn’t work without a monologue, rewrite the scene. This kind of information dump is simply to cliché to be taken at all seriously anymore.

The Flashback

funny picture vietnam 'nam cat flashbackNow here’s a noobie favorite if there ever was one! Stuck on how to explain your character’s shady past? Procrastinate! Just start writing where the action starts, and you can just come up with a flashback later to explain anything from that nasty scar over his left eye, to his deathly fear of open windows overlooking freshly-bloomed flower gardens!

This technique can actually be very useful and effective if used correctly, but if you’ve done it well, it’s not an Information Dump. When it’s used by an inexperienced writer, the flashback leaves the character deep in thought and takes the reader far away to another time and place. This is similar to the Spontaneous Navel-Gazing technique in that a badly-executed flashback isolates the reader from the action of the current story, so that when he is brought back to the present he’s forgotten what was happening.

Solution: Integration

Flashbacks can be very useful for building tension and mystery into your narrative, and can be a very effective way to control the revelation of plot points to the reader- but only if you don’t accidentally lose that reader to a confusing mess of shifting perspectives. If you want to use a flashback, make sure that: A.) it does not take an unreasonable amount of time away from the main story, and that B.) it is clear what the actual order of events are so that the reader knows where the pieces you’re giving them fall into the overall story. That way, your reader will not be thrown off by flashbacks, and the information given through them supports the story and doesn’t detract from it.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now! Watch out for those Information Dumps and follow these steps to create a clearer, more effective, and above all more interesting flow of information in your story.

Anyone have any examples of Villain/Hero monologues

 

Science Fiction Problems: The Information Dump

If you haven’t already, check out Dr. William’s fantastic poetical compendium, Stars Through the Clouds!

In this post:

  • Information Dumping is the bad habit of dropping large amounts of exposition on your reader
  • This is very ineffective writing and can be avoided
  • In some cases, the writer has a character explain plot points at length to other characters who already know about them. This is unrealistic and cliche, and can be avoided by making sure that there are characters present that actually need the explanation, and by making the scene less like a monologue.
  • Another bad habit is the use of extended internal monologues in which a character explains a great deal of plot points to himself. This cuts off the story and confuses the reader, and is usually entirely inappropriate for the character. This can be fixed by integrating the thoughts into action and keeping the exposition at a minimum.

 

Info Dumptruck information dump stick figure

Drawing courtesy of Melissa Rogers

Hello everyone! This week I’m getting back to my Science Fiction Problems series with a more basic problem that many forms of fiction, and narratives in general, tend to run into. You may not have heard it addressed before, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it: the infamous Information Dump. A prime source of boredom and confusion, this nasty little habit seems to rear its head more readily in the pages of Science Fiction, and so today I will do my best to arm you with the tools you need to defeat it

 

Information Dumps are common in science fiction usually because, depending on how hard the science is, science fiction tends to need a bit more explanation, especially when it is written for people who are not familiar with the jargan and terms of the discipline involved. Also, the author has usually put a great deal of thought into their story’s technologies, so they’re understandably excited to show off. This innocent intent leads to breaks in the story, overdone exposition, and generally annoyed and/or confused audience. All that said, you can’t just not give the reader that information, or else they won’t understand your intricately crafted futuristic world!

Fear not! Here are a couple of the biggest ways people attempt to handle their information in science fiction, and my tips about how to manage it effectively.

The Impromptu Seminar (a.k.a.: “As you all know…”)

Tsk tsk- this one has to be the worst, and is definitely my biggest pet-peeve. We’ve all seen this technique before, usually at the beginning of a story, but frequently somewhere later after a big realization or event has happened- one character starts talking, making some kind of big presentation to the rest, and spends the next 5 pages explaining the interractions of humankind with the dreaded aliens, how the rapidly-evolving virus will destroy all life in the universe, or various other plot points that everyone in the room already knows about, usually because they were there. Everyone nods and makes glib little comments, accepting the absurdity of the situation and moving on to tackle the problem.

No exposition should ever begin with “As we all know.”  If the characters already know what they are being told, then

info dump information dump cognitive overload humor funny

If you overload your reader, they will become confused, frustrated, and distracted- not good if you want them to keep reading

the presentation is a waste of their time. This method of portraying important information is a rather weak attempt, artificially constructing an unrealistic situation in which the author can shoehorn exposition so that he can get on with the action. It is both cliche and obvious, and while many readers won’t mind overly much, this technique will still generate quite a few groans, and may turn some off to the rest of your story.

 

Solution: Careful Scene Writing. The goal here is to present all necessary information in the most effective way possible while not halting the story and keeping the reader interested and entertained. The Impromptu Seminar technique scrapes by with the first and may manage with the second, but only if the reader has not seen this done 4000 times before. If you feel that this sort of situation is appropriate and necessary (which does happen), have a character or two there who legitimately need to hear the explanation- don’t invent anyone strictly for that scene alone that won’t be seen ever again, but have someone there to whom this is actually new. If your heroes are about to rescue the king from a fortified lair, it would be reasonable to have some extra troops present for the planning session. Regardless, make sure that this is not a monologue unless it really should be, and have an ample amount of dialog between characters so that it does not feel like a lecture.

Spontaneous Navel-Gazing

The weight of your hero’s burden upon his mind has become too great, and he has finally snapped, becoming prone to extended periods of talking to himself and staring blankly into space. Well, not really- but that’s how it might seem if you try to explain too much through the thoughts of a character. This method is similar to the Impromptu Seminar technique in that the character is explaining information to another character (himself) who already knows it. If you think about it (heh), people don’t generally go into very much detail while thinking about things they already know, usually sticking to new ideas that are related to the problem they’re pondering. So, if you have your character inexplicably running through the entire history of the United Space Confederacy in his head while sorting his laundry, you’re going to make your readers think that either A.) He’s finally lost it or B.) You couldn’t figure out anywhere else to put this information. You will also disorient the reader with long, uninterrupted thoughts such as these, so that by the time the character’s done thinking, everyone’s forgotten what he was doing.

no dumping sign $500 fine

Now there's an idea- extra revenue for the Grammar Police, perhaps?

Solution: Proper Integration. This method only works in short bursts, and even then it’s likely that you could find a better way. However, there are times when a character would certainly be deep in thought about recent events or even contemplating very intricate issues (we all do that sometimes), and it can be done well. The trick is to integrate this process without trapping the reader inside the character’s head (unless that is the desired effect), and allowing the thoughts to mesh with the actions of the scene. Use your better judgement here, and tread carefully. Would Captain Marsus really be thinking so hard about the dreaded Zagriphth Plague and its impact on world politics, all in the midst of a full-scale bar brawl? Maybe he would, but it would certainly have to be consistent with his character, and you’d need to have him landing a few punches and dodging a few bar stools here and there so that it doesn’t seem like he’s mindlessly standing in the middle of the room.

 

These are only a few of the patterns I’ve seen in science fiction, and next week I’ll cover a few others as well as their antidotes. With a watchful attitude, this menace (like the apostrophe crisis already discussed by Stephanie, among other grammatical issues) will be defeated, and your story will stand above the amateur ramblings of the unenlightened.

So, what are some expositional faux pas you’ve encountered in your science fiction? Leave your comments below!