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SET UP versus INFO DUMP
GD Deckard
Posted: Saturday, January 28, 2012 9:33 AM

OKAY, I admit it. I know more about writing than I understand. Take setting up a story so that what follows doesn't confuse the reader: I need to better understand when info becomes dump.

Anybody got a suggestion?


Angela Martello
Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 9:05 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394


The whole info dump issue is a bit of a struggle for me, too. How to get sufficient background info in without ruining the flow of the plot or boring your readers to death seems like a fine balancing act.

Not sure if this is any help, but when I'm rereading a chapter, if the narrative voice in my head (yes, there she goes again, talking about the voices in her head) drops into what I call "small print mode" then that section is probably a pure info dump. By small print mode, I mean the tone of voice the narrator takes in all those pharmaceutical commercials when he/she starts rambling off the list of potential side effects (hair loss-nausea-diarrhea-weight loss/weight gain-memory lapses-blurry vision-unexplained fever-death) and info about who shouldn't take such and such a drug (womenwhoarepregnant,maybecomepregnant,orarenursing), or in other ads when he/she talks about all the limitations to a special, deal of a lifetime offer.

When I come across a passage that shifts into small print mode, I try to figure out how else to insert the information into flow of the story. I usually end up working the info into dialog. But here, too, I try to make sure the character sharing the info doesn't switch into what I call "preacher mode" - endless paragraphs of explanation without a peep from any of the other characters in the scene (unless, of course, the character is a preacher giving a sermon or a politician giving a speech, etc.).


Rommel Luna H
Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 9:55 PM
Joined: 1/20/2012
Posts: 12


I agree with Angela. But you gotta be very careful if you use the "dialog-info-dump". There's nothing that can turn fake in a story more rapidly than a dialog.
I usually try to mix the info-dump with the dialog, and leave big chunks for later. Spread the information, after all, you don't really have a space restriction in these matters (unless you do, e.g. short story contests).
Think of it like it is in real life. You don't really understand all about a political movement the first time you hear about it, right? Or a murder case, rarely you get all the facts on the first report.
Pace yourself, and you won't have to worry about boring your audience (and ultimately, think that your audience is "your-own-self", so, if it bores you, you went into the info-dump territory; retrace your steps and leave something for the imagination!)
Cheers!

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 9:58 PM

I need to better understand when info becomes dump.

That’s easy. It’s when you appear on stage. The moment you describe the scene it’s telling because it’s not something the character is focused on. Instead, it’s something you’re focused on. That matters because you’re not in the story. And if you’re not, how can you talk about anything?

It’s a point most new writers struggle with, because all our experience with telling stories is verbal, and there, since we’re the only one on the stage, of course everything comes from us.

On the page there’s the problem that when we do speak to the reader they can neither see nor hear us, so all the emotional content we may place in our words through our delivery is lost.

The trick is to use the character’s senses, not our own. If we view the scene we focus on what’s happening, and what the place looks like—in other words a cinematic approach. And too often that reads like a report. But in the character’s POV the focus is on what has attracted the character’s attention in that moment. If someone’s hunting them they’re not going to look at the big view of the scenery, and everything they do look at will be seen in the context of the problem they face. It’s a much tighter focus than the view the storyteller has.

The trick is to slip the description in as a secondary element, in passing, and as enrichment to the primary function of the line.

Here are a few examples:

Melody hung, weightless, studying the empty lobster trap before glancing at her watch. It was time to admit that this had been a wasted trip and begin the long swim home. With a sigh that sent a plume of bubbles upward, she turned toward the coastline.

Nowhere did I say she was wearing scuba gear, or did I give detail on the situation. I simply gave her viewpoint as she sees the trap and makes a decision as a result of it. But with two sentences the reader knows whose skin they’re wearing, where they are, and the beginnings of what’s going on.

Cooled by Maine’s chill water she shivered, in spite of the wetsuit. The time spent on this quest was expensive in terms of lost body heat. But sunshine and the warmer water of the surface would solve that, so she finned through the algae-green water, slanting toward the surface some forty feet above.

Three sentences, and we know several things, none of it told to us by the author:

• She’s been in the water, at depth, for long enough to be chilled.
• The season is probably summer or fall because the water at the surface is warm.
• It’s daylight, and a nice day, to boot.
• The water isn’t clear as it would be in tropics.
• She’s already turned toward the coastline (so probably has a compass) and we know it’s a long swim. Now, she slants up as against simply rising, so she’s beginning the swim as she surfaces.

Note, too, that the final sentence is worded as her decision in response to the empty trap and an admission that the trip had been a waste.

The reader has a fair amount of data on the situation, but none of it was given them by an invisible voice, who can somehow speak underwater.

As her head broke water Melody spit out the mouthpiece of her regulator and substituted that of the snorkel, blowing it free of water with a puff that sent a cascade of droplets upward, only to patter down on her hood in a tiny rainsquall.

Here I appear and describe what she’s doing. I’m not thrilled with this, and the fact that I do, but it’s a short story and because of the word limit there’s more telling than in a novel, so I tried to limit my telling to what she would do first as a response to surfacing.

My point is that the reader has been given a fair amount of data, but it was fed in as enrichment, not as the focus of the line. And much of it was something that caused the reader to draw their own conclusions (which, hopefully, were the ones I wanted them to reach).

Hope this helps.



GD Deckard
Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 10:47 PM

You're right Angela, there is a different tone. It's like something I feel obligated to say but don't want to hear. Ha! I'm gonna enjoy leaving out that stuff. Thanks.
O, and, I've learned to ignore the voices in my head. I just concentrate on doing what my Rice Crispies tell me to do.

Rommel, I know what you mean. Even reading (especially early) Clarke and (later) Heinlein there are paragraphs that glaze my eyes over and I always enjoy the story without knowing what was in those paragraphs. It's a little harder to know when I'm boring myself, but luckily, my wife will happily tell me. Thanks. Boring is a good indicator.

That's a useful technique, Jay: write from the character's POV. It should have been obvious to me but it wasn't. Now that I look at my writing with that in mind, I can see specific ways to fix paragraphs that trouble me. Yep, this helps. Thanks.


Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, February 2, 2012 11:44 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


angela, small print tone, I like it.

Jay has it dead right with the telling vs showing. As well as letting people draw thier own conclusions. Especially in my favorite field, Sci Fi, don't assume that your readers are stupid. They will recognize cliches and tropes, you don't have to explain them!


As for masterful use of set up in dialogue, may I suggest Asimov's Foundation?

Angela Martello
Posted: Thursday, February 2, 2012 6:42 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394


Hi, Rommel - I agree. Forced dialog for the purposes of dumping info can really kill the flow of a story. Unfortunately, I'm encountering a lot of that in some of the best-sellers I've been reading. It's almost as if, after a point, editors/publishers won't touch/delete a word written by their cash cow authors. Dialog is something else I read out loud sometimes - just to make sure it sounds like a real conversation; make sure it still follows a natural rhythm.

Jay - Great examples. Thanks!


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, February 3, 2012 12:26 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Such great responses. I see that Jay is always helpful as is usual.

I have something to add. Don't do what I do. I am so terrified of info dumping that I have a tendency to forget to describe things. Most of my info comes up in dialogue when it would feel natural, like when two people from different places speak to each other for the first time. I've been told I need more "scenery porn" so that people can get a better idea of my world and how things function.

I agree that some best-sellers need to learn how to edit again. It drives me nuts when I see an info dump by a "lauded" author. Its a pet peeve of mine.
NoellePierce
Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 10:10 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 227


Those are some great ideas and examples, guys. I'm struggling with this issue because the entire first act of the story I'm writing is in a different place (not Earth). While the concepts I'm using as setting aren't foreign, there are jobs and expectations and vocabulary that aren't familiar. Finding that balance between atmosphere and bashing the reader over the head is killing me.

Any suggestions for good fantasy/urban fantasy that take place in a non-Earth setting? And by "good," I mean publishable by today's standards, which unfortunately leaves most of the classics out. I've built the world already, I just need to see good examples of showing it in these first few chapters. 

HELP!

x♥x
Noelle
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 12:34 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438


Hi Noelle, 

It's hard! You need to prioritize. For example, what details about the world do readers need to know right off the bat so that they are not completely confused and thrown off by the story? Start with the essentials and then slowly work your way into the world. There is no way that you can relay everything about the world in the beginning; the reader wouldn't be able to absorb it even if you were. 

Keep in mind, though, that urban fantasies rarely take place in a non-Earth setting. They are usually set at least partially in a city or urban environment. My handy-dandy reference book says that urban fantasy "features tales combining the contemporary urban problems of runaways, drugs, crime, and homelessness with the world of faerie." 

One famous fantasy series that comes to mind is Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy. Not sure if it quite fits what you're looking for, though, as the series features a fictional version of Medieval France.



GD Deckard
Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 9:24 AM

Jay Greenstein's post (in this thread, above) is detailed and offers clear examples of how to give the reader information without spelling it out in an info dump.

If the information is such that a reader cannot be expected to be familiar with it, maybe you could use a "go-between" character, one who is already familiar with both worlds and can be used to ease your reader into the unfamiliar world.


NoellePierce
Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 11:29 AM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 227


Nevena,
The genre is another sticking point for me, but there are going to be Earth/City scenes, but not until act II, so I'm keeping my eye on UF stories.

I'll check out that series. Even if it's not similar enough to what I'm doing, I'm always on the lookout for new books/series. 
Carl E Reed
Posted: Friday, February 15, 2013 12:41 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608


Jay Greenstein did a great job there of showing us how to avoid the info-dump. Thanks, Jay!  

For those of you who, like me, have a perverse affection and fondness for the well-written, astutely placed and brief info-dump, here are some 20 classics from famous sci-fi novels: http://io9.com/5481558/20-great-infodumps-from-science-fiction-novels 
Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Friday, February 15, 2013 12:41 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438


I think that as long as you have some scenes in an earth/city setting, you'll be fine genre-wise. 

I have one question, do you start the novel in the magical/fantasy/otherworldly setting or in the earth/city one? It would make a difference in the way you introduce details about the world and handle worldbuilding more generally.
NoellePierce
Posted: Friday, February 15, 2013 9:45 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 227


This is my new Purgatory story, and my MC is in my version of Purgatory, with a few scenes just outside the gates of Heaven. She doesn't get to go to Earth until Act II. 

With regard to whether it changes how I introduce details...I'm not sure. On the one hand, I'm short with setting descriptions in general (I tend to write mostly dialogue/blocking in first drafts). On the other, I assume people have a basic knowledge of what a cop does (earth-set story), but maybe not what a Ferry or Temptor (UF/fantasy story) does. 

When I have a little more written, I'll post it for some feedback.
Lucy Silag
Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2013 3:17 PM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359


Nevena did a Q&A with Urban Fantasy author Anton Strout for the blog today, and he had a really beautiful way of explaining how to know when to provide information:

 

NG: What’s your advice for budding fantasy writers on how to avoid infodumps? Can you talk about your personal strategy in the series? 

AS: There are things that you the writer need to know that the audience simply doesn’t. I get it, writer…you came up with this amazing world and want to give it ALL to me, but that’s the kiss of death. Your world is the seasoning to flavor the dish that is your plot and characters. Too much salt kills a stew, too much infodumping ruins a book. I ONLY care about the details of your world insofar as they affect your character in the moment.  For example: I don’t need to have the Fodor’s Guide to Your World in the first fifty pages. But the second your character is hungry and doesn’t have the three distaris for a loaf of bread, I know the currency, and the value of something familiar from my world. Over a book you can dole out all the awesome you thought up, but it’s a mistake to show it unless it’s affecting the characters directly in a scene. 

--edited by Lucy Silag on 10/31/2013, 3:17 PM--


Ian Nathaniel Cohen
Posted: Thursday, January 9, 2014 9:37 AM

Mind if I run something by you guys, touching on points already addressed?

 

I'm working on the opening scene of Suicide King: A Chronicle of the Four Families set in a fictional country during the 1630s (modeled loosely on the Republic of Venice, in-universe and in real life).  The story opens with the inaugural parade of a new doge.  Our main character is a captain in the local peace-keeping militia and the younger son of one of the four most powerful and influential families in the republic.  He's on crowd control during the parade - watching for everything from cutpurses to assassins - and as he does so, I bring in the set-up of the history and current structure of the state and what today's inauguration represents to the people by having the captain ponder it (along with the influence of the Four Families and why they're such a big deal, and how he feels about being a member of such a family).  His thoughts don't come out of nowhere - they're triggered by things he overhears from the crowd while waiting for the parade to start. 

 

I'm trying to keep his ruminations on the history that brought everyone to this point it as brief as I can - currently it's at three paragraphs, but I'm working on trimming it as much as possible.  Length aside, however, does this approach work?  (I can post the scene here if anyone's curious or needs to see the actual execution before commenting.)

 

 


--edited by Ian Nathaniel Cohen on 1/9/2014, 10:24 AM--


Jay Greenstein
Posted: Thursday, January 9, 2014 11:43 PM
Ian Nathaniel Cohen wrote:

 

"...and as he does so, I bring in the set-up of the history and current structure of the state and what today's inauguration represents to the people by having the captain ponder it..."


Is it something he would really think? Would you were you him? I can't tell without reading, of course, but it sounds as if it would be obvious that you're giving him an excuse to info-dump rather than his thoughts flowing naturally.

 

I have to ask: why does the reader need to know all this history? For the character the situation exists, and someone born in that society who never went to school would get along fine, because like us in our every day living, they work with what is, not what was. Must I know how my government came to be to handle the situation I'm faced in a given day? Only if there's a history test that day, or the knowledge is necessary for some observation or decision.

 

Here's something to think about: let's assume a given reader only has time for your story at lunch. Given that there will be days when other things keep the fromm reading, and that they only read about ten pages a day, it might be a month reaching a given point where that knowledge is necessary. Will your reader remember the opening lecture? Can you depend on that? No.

 

Why not give context where context is needed? If we truly are in the POV of the protagonist, when they use that information in making a decision we'll learn exactly what the protagonist needs for that decision. Why do we need more?


Ian Nathaniel Cohen
Posted: Friday, January 10, 2014 12:27 PM
Jay Greenstein wrote:
Ian Nathaniel Cohen wrote:

 

"...and as he does so, I bring in the set-up of the history and current structure of the state and what today's inauguration represents to the people by having the captain ponder it..."


"Is it something he would really think? Would you were you him? I can't tell without reading, of course, but it sounds as if it would be obvious that you're giving him an excuse to info-dump rather than his thoughts flowing naturally."

 

Honestly, yeah, he would definitely think about it.  His family played, and continues to play, a vital role in the history and development of this country.  The inauguration he's working crowd control for would not be taking without his family's direct involvement.  It just seemed natural that he'd be thinking about it - heck, most of the people in the crowd certainly are.  I certainly would be thinking about it if I was him.

 

"I have to ask: why does the reader need to know all this history? For the character the situation exists, and someone born in that society who never went to school would get along fine, because like us in our every day living, they work with what is, not what was. Must I know how my government came to be to handle the situation I'm faced in a given day? Only if there's a history test that day, or the knowledge is necessary for some observation or decision."

 

Without going into too much detail, it's a murder mystery, and the history and government structure of the country play a direct role in the motive behind the killings (the first of which takes place at the doge's inaugural ball the same night the parade took place).  Since the protagonists already know this history, it wouldn't naturally come up as a shocking discovery in the course of their investigation.  Also, I'm following Agatha Christie as a model.  In a number of her murder mysteries that I've read, we get to know the victim and the potential suspects before the murder ever takes place.  Thinking like a reader, this approach creates empathy with the victim and the suspects - they're characters I've gotten to know and like, and I'm emotionally invested in who survives and who the killer is.  (The protagonist has a similar sort of empathy that the reader feels - he's well acquainted with the suspects and victims alike.)

--edited by Ian Nathaniel Cohen on 1/10/2014, 12:32 PM--


Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 11:10 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438


We know you guys like to hear advice straight from the horse's mouth... Here's some excellent worldbuilding commentary from SF/F Penguin editor Danielle Stockley (read the full Q&A here): 


One final piece of advice regarding worldbuilding that I can offer is that sometimes less is more. You wouldn't assume that a society that has invented the wheel is also familiar with heart transplants, steam locomotives, and programmable coffee machines. Just because your world contains characters with psychic abilities doesn't necessarily mean it also contains wizards, enchanted objects, demons, and a parallel universe. And if it does, there needs to be a good reason why you are spending time talking about all those things in the same novel.

 Thoughts?

Nevena 

BC Coordinator


Julie Artz
Posted: Friday, April 11, 2014 12:44 PM
Joined: 11/11/2013
Posts: 43


Thanks for pointing us to this Q&A, Nevena. My WIP is also my first-ever attempt at creating a post-apocalyptic world. On the first draft, I (cleverly, I thought) inserted a letter into one of the beginning chapters that basically gave a huge info-dump. I guess what I've learned is that if it's an easy solution, it's probably not the best solution. 

 

I've gone back and pulled more than 15k words of backstory out of the manuscript and now I'm going back through feeding bits in as they become relevant. My most recent reviewer indicated that I'd pulled a bit too much backstory out and created a bit of confusion, so now I'm taking a second pass through. It's interesting to realize that I could write 75,000 words just on the world I've created, but for the most part no one needs to know all those details except for me. I'm keeping the bits I pull out saved in a separate doc. Who knows, some day I may have my own version of the Silmarillion