This blog post is the summary of my research to answer one question. How to write a biography like a story, not a Wikipedia article? Most biographies give interesting facts but there don’t read like a story. And more importantly, how can I revise my biography manuscripts—picture books and middle grades—to be like a story?
The first suggestion I found was that these books/manuscripts have info dumps that were partially applicable to my manuscripts. So, I studied info dump types, and below is a succinct summary.
What is an Info dump?
We call it an info dump when the writer lets chunks of information slip into the story. Consequently, the flow of the story slows down and bla bla bla bores the readers. The reader either leaves the book or ignores the info dumps to get into the interesting paragraphs— to the story!
I found an interesting analogy in this blog post: Info dump is like a painter who doesn’t know how to skillfully apply the colors. She takes each tube of paint and splurges the contents all over the sketch. Another analogy I found was in this blog post: imagine a construction site and a truck full of bricks. If the truck’s driver doesn’t know where he should deliver the bricks, he would simply dump the bricks somewhere on the site and leave!
In both examples, brick, and colors are indispensable elements. So is the information for the story. The story is merely information about characters and events! The problem is that the info dump gives TOO MUCH info on the WRONG PLACE.
Info dump appears in any type of story. However, biographies are more prone to this mistake. Because writing a biography demands vast research. It is quite probable that chunks of information bubble up in the story. The first and foremost reason is that the writer drowns in the ocean of information (this is me now), and loses control of the Narrative Structure. Or, even worse, when the writer hasn’t envisioned a story’s trajectory in the first place.
Info dump types are:
- Backstory dumps
- Worldbuilding info dumps
- Technical info dumps
- Emotional info dumps
We’ll look at each of them.
A backstory, background story, back-story, or background is a comprehensive overview of a character’s history that extends beyond the story. Devising backstories is an indispensable part of character building. Part of the backstory could be gradually revealed in the story. Or, depending on the story, it may not. Writing a story without a backstory is impossible (I mean it is possible. The character will be one-dimensional, tasteless, and a cliche).
For fiction, we create the backstory. For biography, we research the backstory. Information about parents, childhood, school, achievements, marriage, …. This is an ocean of information. It is so easy to get drowned in this ocean.
The difficulty is we cannot write a story without a backstory. We cannot write a story with a backstory either. What to include and what to exclude makes the difference.
Many picture book biographies start with birth information. They give too much information, too early, and too irrelevant to the story. The intense backstory dump right at the beginning kills the story flow.
Imagine that you go to a party and meet many strangers. You shake hands and introduce yourself. People do the same. Right? No one says their birth date, parent’s profession, or school they went to while shaking hands! You may grow close to one of the guests and become friends. Then, gradually (very gradually) you get the know the person. It is the same with the story. The reader meets the character for the first time on the first page. Why would a 5-year-old reader care about the character’s brother’s name right on the first page? Or, why would the reader care that the mother of the character was a musician?
Any grain of backstory is permitted to appear in the story under one condition: it develops the story or it reveals a character’s trait. Let’s look at an example. I took this paragraph from the second spread of a brilliantly crafted SECRETS OF THE SEA: THE STORY OF JEANNE POWER, REVOLUTIONARY MARINE SCIENTIST (2021) by Evan Griffith and Joanie Stone.
The paragraph reads:
On the next page, we read:
Without this paragraph, the previous one was just an info dump. Why would we need to know where Jeanne was born? Or, where she worked! The author gave this backstory for a purpose: to explain Jeanne’s situation. Jeanne was a successful seamstress in Paris (past). She is married, moved to Sicily, and doesn’t know what to do (present). Without knowing this background, the sentence “What would she do?” makes no sense.
This introduction SHOWs (not TELLs) the reader that the character is persistent. She wouldn’t easily become a successful seamstress in Paris. Now, she search for something to do with her life in Sicily. In the rest of the book, we are shown other situations in that Jeanne didn’t give up.
Biography is all about motivations and decisions. It portrays situations in which most people would give up. Many biographies either TELL the character was a curious child or TELL the character was persistent. Both are obvious facts: all children are curious and all successful pioneers were/are persistent. The art is to SHOW the traits twisted in a story.
Now, compare the book’s paragraph with this info dump sample which I wrote: Jeanne was born in a tiny village in France. She worked as a seamstress in Paris. When she married and moved to Sicily, she didn’t know what to do. Do you see the difference? The problem with info dump isn’t only in the writing style. I can ornament that paragraph with a better word choice. Yet, it doesn’t change the nature of this paragraph.
Consider the subtext and message this approach gives to children: “it is fine if you don’t know what to do with your life. Jeanne didn’t know what to do also but she figured it out. So do you!” This is the purpose of storytelling—to learn something new for my own life. Otherwise, I would shrug at all of this information. So what! Good for her! When we see the character have doubt, we relate to and root for her. Many biographies depict their characters as flawless determined persons. To create a lovable memorable character you need flaws, not perfection.
World Building Info Dump
In sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction the story’s world is different from ours, through explanation, the writer has to build the story’s world. Otherwise, the reader wouldn’t get the story. You may guess the rest! The writer may fall in the love with the fictional world she builds and explains and explains and, more explains. Ta-da! Info dumped on the reader. In writing a biography, we accumulate piles of information. It is heartbreaking to leave many of them unmentioned in the story! But, we have to do so. And be careful: lyrical writing and purple prose are two different things.
Technical info dumps
Technical info dumps don’t appear often in fiction unless the character has a special profession. This blog post gives a nice example of an info dump (read the paragraph about pottery) and shows how to fix this type of info dump.
In contrast, in narrative non-fiction, we see big chunks of technical info dumped into the story, especially the stories about natural scientists like astronomers, cosmologists, or physicists. You may see terms related to advanced topics that physics students learn in university appears in a children’s book!
Emotional info dump
The number one sure-fire candidate in killing the story’s pace is an emotional dump, especially emotional dumps around the Climax of the story or at the moments when the main character decides on something serious.
The text goes like this: [Character name] felt sad/upset/ but he/she has a big dream. [Character name] decided to continue. Here we go. Dull sentences with zero feeling dumped in the story!
How to avoid/fix info dumps?
The first step to fixing info dumps is to recognize them. If you doubt whether a paragraph is an info dump or not, exclude it from the story and read the text. If the story remains undamaged, with a high probability you have found an info dump piece.
The next question is how to fix the info dump.
- How does the info matter to the STORY?
Does it matter the character’s mother was a musician? If the story is about a musician whose mother taught her music at an early age, the mother’s profession matters. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter to the story. The problem with most info dumps is that they give TOO MUCH information. Without two lengthy paragraphs, the story would move forward faster and smother.
Take paper and pencil and explain your reason in one sentence: my character studied in [name of university]. This matters because…
Because of what? He met a professor there and this ignited his interest. Or, because the observatory of that university has the most advanced telescope? If your justification lacks a reasonable BECAUSE then it is an info dump!
- How much does it matter? Priority matters.
Some information may matter to the story. Yet, not significantly.
- Can it be told in an existing sentence?
Remember the example we discussed in the backstory dump and compare the sentence I wrote with the book’s paragraph. Sometimes an adjective or a short sentence can convey the information to the reader. Or, the illustration can add that info to the story without a word in the text.
- Create a scene around the info
I removed info dumps from my manuscript but it still didn’t read like a story. The Narrative Structure was in place. Plot Goal looked good and I assumed the Character Arc is fine (which turned out that I was wrong). BUUUUUT I knew it isn’t really what I want. My manuscript was a skimmed version of a Wikipedia article, not a story.
Accidentally, I found what my manuscript lacked: a CHARACTER
Character versus Characterisation
I found the answer in STORY: STYLE, STRUCTURE, SUBSTANCE, AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING (1997) by Robert McKee. The focus of this book is screenwriting but since the time of publication, it became the reference book for any type of storytelling. Robert McKee understands the spirit of storytelling.
In chapter 5, STRUCTURE AND CHARACTER, he discusses which is more important: character or plot. Interestingly, he says this question has no answer because character and plot are the same things. Here came what I should learn: Most people mistake Characterization and Character. This chapter is short, only 10 pages. However, reading this chapter shed light on my question and deepened my understanding of building characters.
According to McKee [Pages 100 and 101]
This key sentence encapsulates my misunderstanding: This singular assemblage of traits is characterization but it is not character.
Fine. Now, how to show the character?
Then he gives a brilliant scene example and discusses how an event reveals the true character. I strongly suggest you to read that example (pages 101-102). When I read these paragraphs, in a moment of epiphany, I saw my mistake. As McKee said, my manuscript consisted merely of characterizations. It didn’t read like a story because it had characterization, not a character. No character, no story!
To write the Character, not the characterization, I need to select the events that as McKee wrote strip away the mask of characterization.
Easy to say! Very difficult to do. In a biography, nothing could be created by the writer. My scene choice is limited to documented events. But, at least I know what I should search for. Or, I think I know!!!
I wrote this blog post as a part of my blog posts about picture books. However, this topic is relevant to middle-grade biographies too.
My research to find out how to tell stories in biographies is going on. I would love to read your thoughts and suggestions.
I write blog posts about the craft of writing regularly. The lists of the previous posts are in PictureBookPedia and ChapterBookPedia, you can read my blog posts about chapter books. Also, I publish a quarterly newsletter that includes links to my recent blog posts.