Are you telling a story or trying to show the reader how smart you are?

Often a fiction author will launch into a lengthy explanation of X,Y or Z that may only tangentially relate to the actual story being told but shows off the author’s knowledge of whatever subject is under discussion. One of our clients calls these data dumps – and we are of two minds about them. Readers do like to learn about things. But data dumps, unless they are handled skillfully, get in the way of the story.

Here is an example of a data-dumping from Abraham Verghese’s CUTTING FOR STONE. Hema, a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology in an Ethiopian mission hospital reflects on advances in medicine in the developed world.

“But of late she felt the huge remove between her practice in Africa and the frontiers of scientific medicine epitomized by England and America. C. Walton Lillehei in Minneapolis had just that year begun an era of heart surgery by finding a way to pump blood while the heart was stopped. A vaccine for polio had been developed, though it had yet to make its way to Africa. At Harvard in Massachusetts, a Dr. Joseph Murray had performed the first successful human kidney transplant from one sibling to another. The picture of him in “Time” showed an ordinary-looking chap, unpretentious.”

This information is not necessary to the story and we wonder if it would really be rattling around in Hema’s head. Verghese makes the point again two paragraphs later in a more succinct and believable way:

“When she read her “Surgery, Gynecology & Obstetrics” (each month’s volume arriving by sea mail weeks after publication, bruised and stained in its brown wrapping), the innovations read like fiction.”

CUTTING FOR STONE is a hugely successful book and readers, we have talked to, all mentioned what they learned about Ethiopian society and practice of medicine. We, however, found ourselves skipping over many of the data dumps to try to get to the story and we wonder if other readers didn’t self edit as well.