Info dumps and wilful ignorancePosted: February 6, 2013
I just finished a young adult (YA) novel that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I considered writing a review, but thought that rather than naming and shaming it might be more beneficial to instead outline the two main reasons I didn’t like the book. As a writer, I’ve found I learn just as much from bad books as good ones. Maybe I can share my learning without inflicting the object of the lesson on you directly!
This particular book was originally self-published. After it had good sales, it had a quick copy edit done (I presume, as some of the Goodreads reviews mentioned typos and I didn’t see any) and was then published in traditional form. You could tell it hadn’t felt a structural editor’s deft hand, though, because many of my objections were all things a good editor could have fixed.
The book featured a supernatural race and a main character who didn’t know she was part of that race: all fairly standard for YA urban fantasy (hell, my book has them!). The author clearly wanted to establish early on the signs the character was different—but it was done awkwardly, by way of the narrator explaining things to the reader in a giant info dump. You’re probably familiar with the concept of “show, don’t tell”. This was all tell.
Also, none of the supernatural indicators were that striking. The race easily passed for human. So it wasn’t “by the way, I have a tail and cloven hooves”, it was “by the way, I don’t like seafood and the colour pink” (yes, I made those up). It made the main character look fussy and difficult, although it was clear to me as a reader what was going on.
The end result of all this was that it took me out of the story and made me notice the (poor) craft. As a writer, taking your reader out of the story is the number one thing you want to avoid.
Wilful ignorance as a plot device
The author clearly wanted to dole out information about the race and its society over the course of the first half of the book. I get that. A slow reveal, when handled well, can be like a strip tease, making you stick around to see just a little bit more…
Unfortunately, in this case, it wasn’t at all sexy. Because it resulted in the main character not asking obvious questions, which made her look stupid, callous or both.
Likewise, the supporting characters, who were meant to be inducting her into her race, kept her deliberately ignorant when it made no sense for them to. And then they had the nerve to scold her when she did the wrong thing out of that ignorance! In one example, one guy told the leading lady it wasn’t his place to explain something—only to explain that same thing a chapter or two later with no indication of why he’d changed his mind. I wanted to slap him upside the head. With a semitrailer.
It’s challenging to have a “discovery” storyline when the teachers know everything and the reader and main character don’t. Managing the reveal is tricky. I get it. But if the reader starts to get frustrated and feels like they are being deliberately kept in the dark, you’ve pulled them out of the story again.
Another example of wilful ignorance was when, at the end of the book, the main character abruptly decided to do something that seemed out of character (based on her previous actions), justified by some extremely flimsy logic. Presumably this was to set up the start of the sequel, but it bugged me enough that I doubt I’ll ever know…