Avoiding the info-dump

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Avoiding the info-dump

Postby taylormillgirl » 10 Mar 2010, 06:15

Hello all.

I'm still revising my novel, and I have a lot of information readers need to know quickly (a brief history of an extraterrestrial race and the doctrine of a paranoid group of humans who loathe the aliens), but I'm trying to convey this information in a less dumpy way. As it is now, I have my main character read some propaganda that I modeled after a Nazi pamphlet to illustrate how crazy/fanatical the humans are as well as deliver information on the extraterrestrials, but one of my readers said it's a major i-dump. I agree that it stops the flow of the story, so I'll condense what MC reads to a few main points, but I still need sneaky ways to introduce some important background info before the story begins.

I've read a few sci-fi books to see how other authors do it, but so far I'm not seeing anything inspirational: dialogue for the sake of conveying information, exposition and internal reflections i-dumping, and in one case (George Martin's Dying of the Light) the main character reads a research paper and delivers the facts to readers that way.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts and suggestions. My husband's not a writer, so when I posed this question to him he rolled his eyes and said, "Isn't that what all novels are? A massive info dump?" :-)
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby Holly » 10 Mar 2010, 06:34

Hello, I'm writing a sci-fi/fantasy novel, but it's more people/creatures and no doctrine, so you have a harder job.

My rule for myself: start scenes with action and watch out for explanations. I have a little backstory to slip in, and yes, it stops the action, so less is more.

Remember that readers are looking at your novel for entertainment. Readers don't have to know everything in the beginning. They can discover what the story is about as it unfolds.

I don't know how you've structured your novel, but possibly a character could read a letter, read a book, or learn all this history through another character. A character could sneak a look into a forbidden journel and someone could interrupt him/her, so he/she has to go back for more stolen looks. Some writers use flashbacks and briefings. If you have to do it, keep it interesting. Add some wine and cheese and a fat man or somebody with three eyes and a blue dog -- something to keep the reader awake. We all remember those classic movie scenes when the dying man tells the secret -- the dying keeps us watching.

Good luck!
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby Bryan Russell/Ink » 10 Mar 2010, 07:37

I think you have to make the information mean something to the immediate story. That is, it can't simply be relevant to what's going to come, as in "Hey, they need this information so I'll just stick it in here so they can get it." It has to be relevant to the specific scene and the specific characters. There should be something at stake in regards to this information. For example, if a character needs this information, and something is preventing him from getting it, and he has to overcome obstacles to acquire it... the information is no longer an insertion into the story, but rather a part of the story itself. Readers will invest themselves in this information because it has dramatic meaning. Because not only does the information have to be meaningful... but so does the acquisition of this information.

That's my take, anyhow. Make the information an active rather than a passive element in the story.

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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby Holly » 10 Mar 2010, 09:40

Ink makes some good points.

Tension and conflict are important.

Tolkien came close to an info-dump in the second chapter of Lord of the Rings, where he explained all the wheres and what fors of the ring. However, he placed the wizard and Frodo in a room with a dwindling fire in a fireplace and Sam the gardener clipping grass outside the window. The wizard reaches through the window and grabs the gardener at the end of the scene, thinking he's a spy.

Sometimes you can save a scene with background tension. It's probably not going to be interesting if one character gives a briefing to a roomful of other people. However, the same scene becomes more interesting if a servant comes into the room before the meeting, places a bomb under a table, and leaves.
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby taylormillgirl » 10 Mar 2010, 09:58

Here's how my info-dump scene goes down:

MC has just received an opportunity to work closely with an alien. She's a bit wary--but not enough to turn down the money, which she desperately needs--so she agrees. Now she has to break the news to her boyfriend, who is completely opposed to any human-alien interaction. He's trying to talk her out of it, he shows her the propaganda, and they argue.

I don't feel the scene is unnatural or contrived, but stopping the action/dialogue so my MC can read a 200 word pamphlet is probably not a good idea. I'm thinking I'll pinpoint the most vital information and condense it into the first paragraph of the pamphlet, then have her quit reading and resume the argument. Does that sound logical or will I still be in violation of i-dumping?
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby polymath » 10 Mar 2010, 10:06

The much deprecated info-dump, often misdiagnosed and ineffectively treated, is a form of telling. Info-dumps are a consequence of an author surrogate narrator feeling a need to tell information directly to an audience.

  • Telling is a narrator directly interacting with an audience, also known as diegesis.
  • Showing is a narrator depicting a viewpoint character's interactions with the character's personal space, otherwise known as semantic space, or meaning space; also known as mimesis: imitation.
One ineffective treatment for info-dumps is the "As you know, Bob." dialogue tell variety. The information is known by the speaker and Bob, but is depicted in dialogue, one step removed from narrative telling. At least the characters are conversationally interacting with each others' semantic spaces. But that's all. They're not interacting meaningfully. "As you know, Bob, the sun also rises on overcast days."

Another ineffective treatment for info-dumps is the leavening technique of a narrator uttering intrusive asides in the middle of showing. Information is dribbled in in short, quick narrative interjections. However, leavening information in is still telling information. Mark wiped frost from the window. A blizzard raged outside. --He remembered the winter windows of his childhood bedroom.-- The radiator gurgled.

Information timely important to an audience is when it's timely to a viewpoint character. Information essential to a viewpoint character is best depicted through the character's semantic space interactions.

Ink's post identifies several effective methods for providing information through a viewpoint character's semantic space interactions.
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby Holly » 10 Mar 2010, 10:38

taylormillgirl wrote:Here's how my info-dump scene goes down:

MC has just received an opportunity to work closely with an alien. She's a bit wary--but not enough to turn down the money, which she desperately needs--so she agrees. Now she has to break the news to her boyfriend, who is completely opposed to any human-alien interaction. He's trying to talk her out of it, he shows her the propaganda, and they argue.

I don't feel the scene is unnatural or contrived, but stopping the action/dialogue so my MC can read a 200 word pamphlet is probably not a good idea. I'm thinking I'll pinpoint the most vital information and condense it into the first paragraph of the pamphlet, then have her quit reading and resume the argument. Does that sound logical or will I still be in violation of i-dumping?


That sounds like an opportunity for a rip-roaring fight. She could read a small amount it out loud as they interrupt and argue with each other. "I'm not going to stand here and read a 200-page document." "Well, you ought to know what you're getting into--" "I know plenty. I know that I'll be earning more money than I ever have in my life--" "And you'll be working for somebody with six eyes and eight arms who wants to eat grandma for breakfast!" "This pile of papers exaggerates everything. You just don't want me to try anything new." It sounds like it's not comedic, but you could have a great exchange and slip in the backstory, too.
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby shadow » 10 Mar 2010, 12:06

Spread it out throughout the beginning is all I can really suggest. Rather for readers not to know much and focus on actions to grip em.
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby maybegenius » 10 Mar 2010, 13:01

I think having her scan the first few "bullet points" of the pamphlet and scoffing at it is a good way to do it. Also, since she's already fighting with her boyfriend about it, you can have him interject his own prejudices (which speak to the anti-alien movement as a whole) instead of her quietly reading through this document. I agree that you can also spread out your relevant information - she overhears people talking on the street about how an alien just murdered the Pope (or whatever), she sees "no aliens allowed here" signs, there's a program playing on the TV/radio where a zealot is frothing at the mouth over "those creatures." I think that would be plenty effective to set up the fact that humans and aliens aren't on friendly terms.

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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby r louis scott » 10 Mar 2010, 13:26

Depending on how prevelant a theme this is for your book, you could always use the Issac Asimov Method. He put a "quote" from the Encyclopedia Galactica at the beginning of each chapter to help give the reader some backstory. Since it prefaced the chapter, it didn't interfere with the flow of the story.
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby dios4vida » 11 Mar 2010, 09:22

I agree with Holly - if you have two characters of differing opinions, there is no better way to get your reader the information they need to know than to have them try to convince each other they're right. Working the information into the boyfriend's anger at her can make it more interesting and then the knowledge will come to the reader in a much more natural way. I've done this a few times in my fantasy novels and once you get the hang of it you'll find your use of info-dumps decrease dramatically.

Good luck!!
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby danielguiteras » 12 Mar 2010, 13:18

When I read your post I immediately thought of Michael Crichton's novel Airframe. Crichton needs to bring the reader up to speed on some technical airplane information quickly. So uses the main character who is an expert on airplanes and maintenance, to explain to the CEO's nephew—who is new to the company—how everything works. Now this may not be a new or inspiring method, but I never felt dumped on once. MIght want to give it a look.
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby ryanznock » 13 Mar 2010, 16:32

The trick is that if you want to do a conversational infodump, you have to have a character the reader identifies with to be interested in the info. It's fine to have a tourist ask a local, "Hey, why are all these aliens screaming and throwing glow sticks at me?" because it matters to her.

It is not okay to have two locals do the old cliche, "As you know, humans look exactly like a horror movie monster that was very popular with we aliens." "Yes, friend. Why, I loved that scene where the peach-colored monster scares the main character, and he screams and throws his glowstick at her in terror." "Ha ha, yes. I hear kids these days do that all the time when they see humans, just to screw with them."

However, I prefer the immersion style, where you write as if the reader already knows what you're talking about, and you only drop a few hints. Mostly you expect the reader to pick things up from context. It can be hard if the world diverges wildly from our own, but . . . y'know, it's the old saw to show, not tell.

Like, hit me. What's the complicated nature of the aliens that you think need to be explicitly revealed?
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Re: Avoiding the info-dump

Postby MoiraYoung » 14 Mar 2010, 18:10

You could try to work it into the dialogue. E.g. [Character glances at pamphlet.] Dialogue: "[Quote propoganda]? Seriously, [name of boyfriend]?"
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