Thinking about the information dump (#3)

This is the last of my thoughts on the information dump, at least for a while. There is a third kind of info dump that you can land yourself in, again not bad or wrong, but it can be difficult to manage properly. This example tends to be strongly associated with fantasy, and has prevented me from being able to really get into a number of different books. Some of which came to me highly recommended and are, in fact, quite good. As a reader though, I just couldn’t get past the issue.

What I’m talking about I’ll call the ‘family’ info dump. There’s more to it than that, but that seems to be a common way you see the problem. What I’m talking about is in the beginning of a story, right off the bat, the author introduces half a dozen characters and tries to explain how their all related or not. There’s one example spinning through my head, but I can’t seem to dig up the reference, so instead I pulled a book off the shelf. Lo-and-behold, it’s got an example of what I’m talking about. Once again, I want to point out that having an information dump isn’t a deal killer, it can be done well, but it can also be done horribly. The sample I pulled is from a book called The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay. I never made it past the first chapter. As a reader, I actually need to be hooked by a main character in addition to the conflict, it’s just a quirk of mine, so books that start out with an ensemble generally don’t hold my interest long enough to get past the first chapter or two. That said, I have it on good authority this is an excellent book. My example starts on page 9 of the paperback copy I have, here is a quote:

“Dave Martyniuk stood like a tall tree in the midst of the crowd that was swirling like leaves through the lobby. He was looking for his brother, and he was increasingly uncomfortable. It didn’t make him feel any better when he saw the stylish figure of Kevin Laine coming through the door with Paul Schafer and two women. Dave was in the process of turning away- he didn’t feel like being patronized just then- when he realized that Laine had seen him.
“Martyniuk! What are you doing here?”
“Hello Laine. My brother’s on the panel.”
“Vince Martyniuk. Of course,” Kevin said. “He’s a bright man.”
“One in every family,” Dave cracked, somewhat sourly. He saw Paul Schaefer give a crooked grin.
Kevin Laine laughed. “At least one. But I’m being rude. You know Paul. This is Jennifer Lowell, and Kim Ford, my favorite doctor.”

The first thing I want to say about this is that it’s well written, packed with examples of good approaches to stuff, and if you must do an info-dump like this, it’s a good example of how to do it pretty well. That said, Guy Gavriel Kay is an excellent writer, and for folks like me, who are still trying to become excellent writers, introducing six characters in the span of less than 150 words is probably not going to go well. In the interest of full disclosure, I did have a difficult time with this.
First off, we’re introduced to Dave Martyniuk, which is a difficult name to pronounce in my head. I am stumbling on it right now. This made it hard for me to follow to begin with. Then we’re immediately introduced to Kevin Laine, interchangeably called Kevin, Kevin Laine, and Laine. That may be a neat trick in helping the reader to remember Kevin Laine, but it’s a lot of information when taken in context. So, I’ve been introduced to six characters and I’ve already forgotten three of them. When I get on to the next few pages, I’m not going to remember which one of the women are doctors, and whether or not it was Laine or Paul who had the crooked smile. So, if I’m not going to remember it all, then why give it all at once?
For me, personally, I approach my stories in such a way as to avoid the hell out of stuff like this. Maybe someday when my writing is a tight as this author’s, I might try to pull off an ensemble from the beginning of chapter one. For now, I pretend the reader is like Beorn in the Hobbit. I try to introduce no more than 1 or 2 characters at a time. In a single scene, this might get me up to six, but it’s spread across a chapter to give the reader time to digest the introduction. Ironically, in the Hobbit, Tolkien introduces thirteen characters all at once. Same end result though, you never get to know most of those Dwarves.