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How to Write: Divulging Information in a Limited POV Tale

I was recently discussing a novel-in-progress called The Fisherman of Cat Island, about a Frenchman named Pierre, with the story's author. I raised in my critique of his work the topic of the infamous "info dump." Here are some thoughts about sprinkling that information in a contextually-appropriate manner.

I think every writer has their own method for revealing information. If a story is told from the POV of a certain character, the reader may still be interested in the back story and physical appearance of said character. The problem is, in real life you and I don't sit around day in and day out thinking about how we look, so it doesn't make sense for a character in a story to do so--if we want the character to be real and the story to be true-to-life, that is.

Information is contextual in a story like in life. There are times when you muse on your appearance: perhaps when you are getting ready in the morning, shaving, or dressing up for a special occasion. Perhaps you see a photograph of yourself. During the course of the day you probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about how you look, but there are contextually appropriate times each day, I'd reckon, when you pay close attention to your appearance.

What you need to do is create a contextually appropriate time to describe your character's appearance. Pierre sitting in the boat thinking about how he has no home is not the time for this. In Pierre's case, he might catch a glimpse of his appearance if he gazes into that gulf water (for whatever reason is up to you) or, in his travels, has his rugged good looks called into question by a rabblerouser. If someone calls him ugly, he's got a reason to think about his appearance. Conversely, if the sultry waitress gives him a wink, it's probably not because he's toothless and haggard. She might even call him "handsome." Then the reader knows it. So does Pierre.

Those are just ideas. At the core is context. It goes not only for his appearance but also his back story. There are significant events in each of our lives that define who we are--a birth or a death, for example. As time passes, we think less and less about these events, but every once in a while, when the planets are aligned, we find ourselves remembering when this happened or thinking about so-and-so. That's reality, and it's entirely appropriate to create a scenario in a story in which your character thinks back. You, as the writer, know what the past is. You also know what the trigger is.

I have two examples of this in my introductory chapter. I manage to squeeze my POV character's physical appearance in by having her see her own reflection in a piece of polished stone. She doesn't sit and think for three paragraphs on how she looks. She doesn't consider her eyes or muse on them. She simply sees them for a moment, and in that moment I'm able to tell the reader what color they are. A moment later, she brushes hair from her eyes. I'm able to show the reader one, her hair is short, and two, her hair is black. I accomplished this with contextually appropriate action.

Back story is a little easier, in my opinion. I recently had a discussion with another writer about why my story starts on the day it does. I mentioned above the moments in life we recall, and specifically deaths and births. If you consider something particularly traumatic in your life, you know that there is a bit of disconnection with the trauma; this is a coping mechanism. Nonetheless, when the planets are aligned, something will happen to get your really thinking about the trauma. That's exactly what happens in my first chapter. My character had years to develop calluses toward her past, yet it is a question asked in innocence that sets her dwelling on her past. She thinks about it in ways she normally does not and it thus becomes entirely appropriate for her to consider at length her past. Thus the story is satisfied, as is, hopefully, the reader.