Action anchors: one writer’s way around the dreaded infodump

The Writing Problem Defined: Backstory and Infodumps

I’m revising (okay, completely re-drafting) a scene (12.1) that started with Kary driving down the road, and then backtracked to all the things she’s done for two days (ie, into backstory). The scene crashed.

It started as a short thought about what had just happened. But then, because it had been a while since the character had had a scene in her pov, the backstory got longer and longer – all of it necessary, because this is also the last scene where some of this backstory can go before it is needed in the story.

And by the time it was all in, I had the dreaded infodump: a two-page block of musings and internal monologue that read like a summary of the past month’s soap opera. Eek!

And my brain wanted to clean up the language, poking at a word here, a thought there – or throw the whole thing out.

Full Brain-Stop

As is customary with MY brain, and MY process, writing ground to a halt.

I dragged out the idea of forming a spine for a scene/beat from dialogue, but Kary is alone for most of this beat. No help until she gets to the next beat – and then it is too late.

She’s driving her truck for a half hour to get to a meetup.

Driving is so NOT exciting. She doesn’t listen to the radio – and then introduced dialogue would have to provide the triggers for thoughts… It quickly got even longer and messier.

An Action-Anchor Spine?

I got out the mental map I’ve created from the physical location the scene is based on.

I checked the map: the solution was staring me in the face. Driving is an activity we all do much without thinking. But in this case, it involved:

  1. leaving a home protected by a gate (for a good reason);
  2. stopping to make sure no one gets in while the gate is slowly closing;
  3. heading out (select and use the direction);
  4. driving on roads which are in an uncertain state of repair – in places completed repairs haven’t had their lines painted back on;
  5. slowing down to drive through a small town;
  6. speeding up – and worrying about getting there at the time promised;
  7. entering a State park – slower speed limits just as approaching the destination;
  8. finding a parking spot in an unexpectedly crowded lot;
  9. and finally spotting the person she is to meet.

I don’t do this kind of transportation scene often, so writing one once in a while, if done well, won’t drive (pun caught only upon re-reading – leave it in) the reader to distraction.

The drive itself – and all the little actions – can trigger many of the thoughts associated with getting the backstory in in an interesting way.

And we have a sense of a ticking clock – minor, but stressful – again driving thoughts.

Conclusion and Process

So we’ll break it up a bit, keep the action/anchors. With TRIGGERS for the thoughts.

Layer the thoughts in where they make SENSE.

Drop anything not truly necessary.

Add thoughts from the muse.

And now the beat FEELS natural.

To make it even easier, I print out the list of the action/anchors (above) on a single sheet with big spaces in between. I get out a pencil, and assign each action a letter A.-H.

Then I go over the draft – each block of thought/backstory needs to find its logical place and get a trigger from the actions to get it going. The blocks get labeled with the letter on the action spine where they make sense.

The next step is cut-and-paste: literally, if I can’t do it on the computer (sometimes I have to go back to Kindergarten).

Then move blocks of text – physical or virtual – until the whole organized thing creates the next draft of the beat.

Print out – editing on paper is necessary when making big changes that may require further rearranging.

Type in the edits.

Phew. Done for now.

Final thoughts:

All of this wouldn’t have happened if, at any of the above steps, I had the ability to go surf the web (I set Freedom for two hours to make that difficult). Because each of the steps gave me an unhappy tummy – which is my signal from my body that something is wrong. Or going to be hard to fix.

Or a reason I should give up writing forever.

The instinct is to flee – but it feels so much better to stop and take a stand. And FIX it.

And making all this conscious will help the next time I get stuck in a similar way.

What works for you when repairing the dreaded infodump?

Editorial note: I am still fulfilling the 22 posts about process for WeSeWriMo (August 2013, which I have given 42 days to extend it to September 10th). This is not an authorized method. CFS makes me slow – I decide to finish things.

2 thoughts on “Action anchors: one writer’s way around the dreaded infodump

  1. LastTechAge

    I write a tech-light blog and run into this a lot. Your musings and explanations help me think it through. Lots of times I start a single blog and find the “musings” start to make a huge, inedible text block. Your procedure points are really good — cut and paste, chop stuff not really needed and print for edit. That last I never told anyone about, seems so 18th C. So how did do original composition bach then? Certainly couldn’t print a cleam image to cut/paste. Hmmf.

    Liked the musings, it added to my list of steps.


    1. ABE Post author

      I’m a combination of high tech (for a writer): Macbook Pro, Scrivener, planning to self-publish; and extremely low tech: scissors and tape, hand editing on paper, eraser!

      IF your brain works, like Bach’s obviously did, you can clean things up in your head BEFORE you write them down.

      Lawrence Block and many other writers claim to do this in their heads. Their rough drafts are then not too rough. I envy them in part; but, although I can turn out grammatically-correct and properly punctuated rough drafts (not doing it drives me crazy), the story only emerges after much thought, which is weird because of the tight plotting I claim to do.

      All I can say is there isn’t any other way I seem to be able to write. Maybe it’s the CFS, maybe just me. I have no writing from before to compare myself with.

      Readers crave SOME kind of structure in what they read. Many otherwise-acceptable books I love the contents of have the same problem. They have a rough order, and a lot to say, but they are not the cleanest and most efficient way to do the job – so they are infuriating when I try to go back and find specific information. How to get control of your time and your life, Alan Lakein; Getting Things Done, David Allen; and a bunch of my go to books for writing suffer from this flaw: I think they DESPERATELY need editing. So much so that I’ve make my own crib sheets so I don’t have to go digging in them.



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