I went to see the movie “Wild” a few weeks ago and enjoyed it a lot. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. Two Oscar nominations have come from this film, one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Reese Witherspoon, and one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Laura Dern. The movie is based on a book by Cheryl Strayed about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from southern California to northern Washington state in an effort to revitalize and recharge her life after the death of her mother, a disastrous marriage, and some destructive life choices she made. Before I saw the movie, I’d heard about the basic plot line, and had some routine expectations about the movie before I ever entered the theater.
It pays not to make too many assumptions.
I expected the movie to start near the beginning of Cheryl’s life and run in a closely chronological order up through the hike, and end at or near the end of the trail. It didn’t. The movie started as she was preparing for the hike, and the important incidents that led up to her decision to make the hike in the first place were interspersed at intervals throughout the entire movie. In a writer’s parlance, this is known as “avoiding an info dump.”
An info dump is when a writer gives a lot of information about a character, or the character’s background, or about a situation, or perhaps even an item of scenery all at once in one big lump. It’s just a lot of information that stalls the story, adds little or nothing to the plot, and turns the reader off. What the hell, the reader may ask, is this doing here? I could care less about how many buttons are on his overcoat. So often the details in an info dump are unimportant to the plot, and could be eliminated entirely. That doesn’t mean all info dump information is unnecessary, however. Many times some of those details really are essential to the story line. The real problem with an info dump is that the reader can’t tell which details are essential and which are not, and so tends to dismiss them all. So, the dumping of all of them in one place can really screw up an otherwise good story. This is what the movie did not do.
Cheryl’s early life (that is, before the hike) was placed in vignettes scattered throughout the movie, not concentrated in any one place, so that the major action in the movie remained fixed on the hike itself. It wasn’t what I expected, but I was glad to see it was well done. And writers can (and should) take a message from this. Make no mistake, the background of a character is almost always important to the story, certainly. As readers, we want to know what a person did to get himself or herself in this difficult situation. Background tells us that. But having it all dumped in our figurative laps all at once is disconcerting and frustrating. It should come in small spoonfuls as the narrative progresses. We want to stay focused on the action. Don’t knock us out of the story. Talk to Cheryl.