Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Info Dumps in Fantasy Fiction

Typically, info dumps occur when a writer gives a good chunk of background or explanatory information in a story all at once. For example, I seem to remember in The Da Vanci Code that our first sight of the Louvre is followed by a couple of paragraphs of information “about” the building and its history.

Info dumps can sometimes be quite interesting on their own right, but they do seem to slow down the action of a story, and they are often considered a mark of lazy writing. Info dumps don’t accomplish any of the primary story goals, which involve developing characters and moving the plot along.

The problem of info dumps is, I think, exacerbated in fantasy, and probably SF, where huge amounts of information often need to be given the reader before they can truly understand the story. If you have your character transported to another planet, then the reader needs to understand something about the nature of the planet before they can truly involve themselves in the story. While much of this background material can be revealed gradually as the character interacts with his environment, that just doesn’t always seem possible.

Here’s an example from Wraith of Talera. One character comments about a particular race of beings by saying: “They breed like heen.” “Heen,” of course, is something I just made up that moment. They’ve never appeared before in any Talera book. So I have a dilemma. I could leave heen without any explanation and trust the reader will mentally replace heen with something like rabbits, which is the intent of the statement. But that feels incomplete to me. What if the reader just says WTF (fill in the meaning yourself here), and tosses the book aside?

The other choice, it seems to me is to give a quick info dump. Something like: “I knew of the heen. They are rat-sized predators that hunt in huge packs. In appearance, they are like miniature monkeys with big heads, but they have the teeth and feeding habits of piranha. They are notorious for the rapidity with which they reproduce.”

Personally, I feel OK about such short info dumps for two reasons. First, the dump is given from Ruenn’s point of view and it’s already established that he is telling, and eventually writing, this story down in first person for others to read. Since he knows “his” readers won’t know what a heen is, he explains it. I’m OK with that.

Second, I’ve actually always kind of enjoyed such little asides in Sword & Planet fiction, and I’ve been told by other readers that they kind of like them too. It just seems a kind of intimate way of learning little tidbits about the world and cultures that would not normally be examined in the main plot of the story.

So what do you folks thing? Should one let the readers figure out for themselves what “heen” means? Does it distort the flow of the story too much to have such asides? Or do you enjoy such things? And is there a better way to do it? I’m wondering.
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51 comments:

David Cranmer said...

If it's not done too many times than I say let the reader fill it in for themselves. Adds a little spice and doesn't slow things down one zano bit.

Avery DeBow said...

I have a problem with even mini versions of info dumps if they interrupt the flow of the scene--and thus my train of thought. I'd rather think, "Heen are like bunnies," and move on, right or wrong, than be distracted by what is interesting, but not necessarily necessary, information. Of course, if your hero is later saved/killed/befriended/romanced by a heen, then its physiological properties absolutely need to be discussed.

Steve Malley said...

Slow down? Info dumps stop the story dead, even if for just a few sentences. I'm with Avery: it's one thing if you need the info for a little 'Plant & Payoff' trick, but otherwise, let the good times roll...

ARCHAVIST said...

Yeah it's often difficult to work essential info into a story without slowing the action down. Ian Fleming was a master of putting info into the story in such a way that it all flowed - used to call it the Fleming rush.

laughingwolf said...

a tricky situ, one handled best by a word or three, then on to what av sez...

Sidney said...

I kind of like getting a hint of something, like a word in SF, then getting the explanation later or in context. I wrote an English paper once on the "new words of science fiction." Wish I could remember some of them now.

Crushed said...

What you could do is have an Appendix...

Tolkien of course, used to do that. Things that appeared in the text and an explnation could be found in the appendix, if you looked.

Even what wasn't in the appendix was writtebn somewhere.
Thus Gandalf refers to the staffs of the Five Wizards. It turns out that even if only three appear in the book, the other two DID have names and Tolkien himself knew those names.

writtenwyrdd said...

In your example I'd have left heen alone, but generally I adore bits of worldbuilding. I want to feel immersed in a world.

Cath said...

I think this info dump you do here is perfect and fits for two reasons -

1. It is short and to the point. It gives the information without labouring the point.

2. It is told to us by your character. It is perfectly natural in the flow.


The info dump in The Da Vinci Code was unnatural and too long. It wasn't information from a character either, but from the narrator. It meant I heard the narrator for too long. I liked the idea of the book and the story, but was interrupted too many times with useless information .

Oh! that gives me a third positive for yours -
3. It IS necessary to the story!

My two penn'orth. :)

steve on the slow train said...

And I just got through posting an excerpt from my novel with, yes, an info dump. In the heen example, you might need to describe them if they're going to show up later in the novel. In my case, I wanted to show the image of a crumbling castle in the middle of Chicago, and I just couldn't resist mentioning that the Coliseum was built from the stones of a Confederate prison. It's just too bizarre to leave out. But maybe, if I can find a way to incorporate the info into the text more smoothly, I'll do it.

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh, and I SO hate appendices! If I have to have a flow chart and dictionary to understand the story, you didn't do a good enough job writing it in the first place. (Of course if it's a 12 book series like Wheel of Time I can see the need so you can keep the thousands of characters straight in your head.)

Cath said...

Just read Crushed's comment - excellent idea.
Richard Adams did it in footnotes for Watership Down. That worked brilliantly and he wrote a completely new language when the rabbits were talking! That was actually so effective, now I think of it, and so cleverly woven into the story, that I last read it about 30 years ago and I still know some of the rabbit words... ;0)

Cloudia said...

Yet another interesting and educational clinic for us writers. Thanks, Charles.

Personally, i hate to waste any research or "cool stuff" I've found that just won't "fit" in my piece. But flow is crucial to me. I wanted my little novel "Aloha Where You Like Go?" (available on amazon ;-) to be like a story you hear from a cabby on a long trip. in fact I "proofed" my story by reading it ALOUD over 3 days to a tolerant friend. I did all the voices, the pigin, the sounds....I'd LOVE to do it as an audio book!

People's time is valuable. I wanted the essence and no "waste" I purposely implied the passing of time by mentioning "midterms" (you know that the protagonist DID get into college) without a chapter of mere procedure that detracts from the narrative flow of the true story.....Aloha!

SQT said...

I don't mind the mini-dumps. Sometimes they're just necessary. But the long dumps that are so common in sci-fi, the ones full of technical info and scientific explanations kill me. John Scalzi is my favorite sci-fi author because he keeps the info easy to digest.

spyscribbler said...

The info dumps in The DaVinci Code were fascinating to me. In general, though, I am a skimmer. Give me dialogue, give me action, pull me in somehow, or off I go skimming.

In general, though, what Avery said. :-)

Venusian said...

Tough call. Making it funny can work. Sometimes I like (cough ) dumps, and sometimes I like the Delany, Herbert thing -" let 'em learn through osmosis." But sometimes I hate that.

Was I helpful ?

Greg Schwartz said...

i usually don't mind info dumps (especially in SF) unless they come at a moment where you're engrossed in the story, and the info dump snaps you right out of it.

Ello said...

I can like info dumps as long as it doesn't feel like an enforced regurgitation of facts that takes me out of the pacing of the story. Cause I think the key is that it keeps pace with the story. Once you remind the reader that they are actually just reading a story and they zone out, then the info dump has killed the story.

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, it probably also depends whether it happens at a high octane moment, or whether it happens during a slower paced period anyway.

Avery DeBow, another issue occurs with a series of books. Although I don’t intend heen to play any specific role in this book, they may well play a role in a later book.

Steve Malley, I still think info dumps are somewhat different in fantasy. You don’t need to give much info in realistic fiction. I mean, if you mention a mall well you don’t need to describe the kinds of stores that exist in it. But if you mention, say, a circus on an alien world, how much can you let the reader assume it’s a standard circus if there are unique qualities to it.

ARCHAVIST, I think it’s a lot easier to pull that off in realistic fiction than in fantasy and SF.

laughingwolf, yeah, a key thing is to keep it always short, short, short.

Sidney, that’s a good point and that is kind of nice. Hearing something that catches your attention, but leaving it as a bit of a mystery until later.

Crushed, a couple of fans of the series have suggested that to me, and I actually have one that I keep updated for my own use in writing the series. I probably will at some point put a kind of appendix in one of the books to give that kind of information.

writtenwyrdd, I know, I rather “like” that kind of thing, as long as it isn’t overdone. And it’s also very much common practice particularly in Sword & Planet fiction, I think. Even if I had an appendix, I’d still want the material to largely stand on its own within the story. You’re right in that you can’t just continually refer readers to an appendix. That would slow things down far more than an info dump.

Cath, I think that’s a real good point. It’s easier to accept an info dump if it’s coming from the character rather than from some supposedly absent narrator. I mean, as humans we actually “do” explain stuff to folks sometimes when we’re talking to them, if they don’t know what we are talking about. I forgot about the appendix in Watership down but you’re right. That was a nice little element to the book, I thought.

steve on the slow train, like I said, some info dumps can be very interesting in their own right. And I guess we have to weigh the interest level of the information against the costs to the pace of the story. I think info dumps are more of a problem in thrillers, where the pace has to be very fast, than they would be in historical fiction or say a standard mystery where the pace is slower.

Cloudia, as you indicate, the “type” of the story is also very important. A conversational story would allow for more information exchange because that’s really the way people talk. Whereas a heavily plot driven novel would pose more of a problem.

SQT, I agree. I just don’t think you can always escape them in SF/fantasy. Yes, those long boring ones really do push you to the edge.

spyscribbler, Some of them were interesting but I think it was partly a problem because the story was such a thriller in format and pacing is so important.

Venusian, I went back through A Princess of Mars after posting this and found that ERB did quite a few of these kinds of info dumps, but they worked because they really did flesh out the world. In the first couple of Taleran books, I actually used the fake “footnote” strategy, which kind of worked but I thought I’d try to incorporate the info more directly in the text this time. All such thoughts are helpful.

Greg Schwartz, I think that’s a big point. You have to chose a time to give the info when the action has slowed for a moment.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, you must have posted while I was posting. But indeed. The key is to enhance rather than detract from the story.

Erik Donald France said...

Either way can work for me, depending on how good it is.

Seems like "outsiders" are always a good vehicle for conveying "insider" info., if sometimes a little forced. It's convenient, if nothing else.

the walking man said...

I am guilty of info dumps, i have one in a rather long piece that has been nagging at me for years to correct.

Remember Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land? He never really gave a lengthy explanation what "Grok" meant but in the end of the day you just knew it's meaning and place. I loved that about his work.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, yes, if the character is learning the stuff as he or she goes along and shares it with the reader it works pretty well, I think.

Mark, that osmosis kind of experience definitely works well for material that is repeated, like Grok, or like the "historical" books that Herbert quotes from in Dune.

BernardL said...

I liked the way you handled the info dumps in the Talera series. It's always better as you say if the info is discovered in an interaction between characters.

Sarai said...

I think as long as its not too long and doesn't distract from the plot its okay. If I don't want to read it I will skim anyway LOL. However, if like the last book I read, there is so much information it takes 5 freakin pages to read then it needs to be cut and explained better by showing or make a less complicated world

Jon said...

I don't think you can generalize about this. I'd treat each case individually.

In the example you gave, I'd stay well away from the info dump. "They breed like heen!" is great. It reveals something about the alien race and the attitude of the character doing the talking, its perfectly obvious what it means and its funny too! Just leave it unexplained.

In other cases a footnote supplies the information but can be ignored by the reader who doesn't want to be slowed down.

I know you've thought hard about footnotes before. How about a glossary?

Lana Gramlich said...

I'm with Crushed, I think. I preferred that fantasy books had glossaries in the back that I could refer to. I might not remember the description when you mention the heen again 100 pages in, but I could flip easily enough to the glossary again.
It took me 3 tries to read "Dragonflight" by Anne McCaffery, getting more frustrated every time, before I realized there was a glossary (without which that book really would have made NO sense.)

SzélsőFa said...

I prefer Ruenne (sp?) giving out a handful of information, too.
I'd prefer it short and perhaps, as a dialogue with R's partner, so as to keep the pace from slowing down.
To be honest, these four-five sentences seemed over too much for me, although this is a miniature excerpt from the book.

Patti said...

I guess I'm having trouble separating info dumps from back story. Back story can be informative if it points out why a character acts the way he/she does. And can't the back story be just as interesting as the story. I really struggle with this.

Patti said...

I guess I'm having trouble separating info dumps from back story. Back story can be informative if it points out why a character acts the way he/she does. And can't the back story be just as interesting as the story. I really struggle with this.

Patti said...

I guess I'm having trouble separating info dumps from back story. Back story can be informative if it points out why a character acts the way he/she does. And can't the back story be just as interesting as the story. I really struggle with this.

Venusian said...
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Venusian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Venusian said...

( I was inspired....)

Tell a story - " I know about heen. I woke up on that hunt we took down Far Side to seeing one of the pink little bastards gnawing on my boots. Another
was caught in a wine bottle. I didn't know they could squeeze that small. A third was about to chomp my foot.

We blinked at each other. My not being awake enough to think I smashed it with my foot heal, breaking the monkey faced rodent's little back. I should have let it bite me. At its shriek, the rest of the pack flooded the tent, eager for blood. I hate heen."

Charles Gramlich said...

BernardL, thanks. I’m glad they worked out. If it’s revealed in dialogue and it doesn’t sound forced it seems to work especially well.

Sarai, that does get old pretty quickly when it’s page after page. The thing is, there are always info dumps in fiction. But we don’t even notice when they’re very short. Like: “Jessie stalked into the bar, gun in hand. He was a big man with blue eyes and red hair.” The description is really an info dump.

Jon, I’m leaning toward leaving “heen” open. I think it does seem likely that folks will figure it out. I’ve already copied it into my series Bible so I’ll have the info handy in case of need.

Lana Gramlich, I certainly have enough info to include a glossary in this book.

SzélsőFa, It might look different if you saw in the context of the whole chapter, but it looks like most folks are saying it’s too much.

Patti, I think backstory really is a kind info dump, but necessary ones. It’s definitely not an easy situation. To err on the side of too little or too much. That is the question

Venusian, Hum, I hadn’t really thought of that solution. I’ve used something similar before for introducing info though. May be something worth a try.

Best Fantasy and Science Fiction said...

I agree that info dumps are necessary but do need to be kept in check. Too many and the reader may think you find them stupid though and that isnt the aim either. When used appropriately in a fantasy or science fiction setting, since a lot of the flora/fauna/characters/settings/basically everything in some cases are created by the author, it adds to the book and you dont find your self saying WTF as you had mentioned.

Mary Witzl said...

I find info dumps irritating and distracting, but I agree: sometimes they are completely necessary. But there are times I don't feel that I, as a reader, need to know everything. If you've ever read any Patrick O'Brian books, they are full of arcane nautical terms that no reader who isn't a professional sailor can understand, but after you've gotten used to them, they add to the flavor of the books and not understanding them does not get in the way of following the plot.

I try to weave the information right into the story, stretching it out in dialog wherever possible.

Georgie B said...

With something like you explained briefly, that wouldn't bother me. It would help me quite a bit, especially since I don't read much fantasy, and to clear up a point so that I could understand the story better is great.

Little asides like that doesn't slow the story down in my opinion. I can blitz along with the best of them and story the info for later reference as I'm chugging along.

Charles Gramlich said...

Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, yes, you get my point exactly. If used properly they actually can add to the story. Thanks for visiting.

Mary Witzl, It's also important as to the "rate" at which new info is presented. If you have a lot of info to impart, stringing it into dialogue might itself slow down the process. Lots of things to think about for sure.

Georgie B, I tend to think like you do as well. As long as the aside happens at what is already a slower paced scene in the book I don't usually mind them. If they are short.

Lisa said...

hmmm... depends on my mood and what I'm reading... how far into the story and how interesting.

I'm on the fence. Can't answer one way or the other.

Shauna Roberts said...

I enjoy reading info dumps. In my writing, I try to avoid them and add in explanations only when my critique group partners say they got lost and needed to know more. I've noticed in fiction I read that an explanation that's only two or three words long slips by almost without notice.

J. L. Krueger said...

I think hard fast rules about what not to do are the bane of new writers. It's the handling of the info dump that really matters. It must be done in a way to advance the characters'story.

I prefer to provide info dumps through dialog whenever possible, but sometimes setting the scene through narrative works right.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, good point. I can handle an info dump better once I'm into the story and involved than if it occurred early in the work.

Shauna Roberts,I try to make most of mine just a few words long because I think we take that as a matter of course. I usually edit them pretty ruthlessly before the final draft. Some info dumps can be interesting for sure.

J. L., I agree. It's really a tool, like any other writerly tool, but it has to be used for the proper job at the proper time.

Merisi said...

I would love to find a glossary at the beginning or end of the book for the kind of information you are talking about. I would want to know who the Heens are - according to the creator of these fictitious people -, yet I would not appreciate the flow of the story to be interrupted by info dump (even less for info about the Louvre which I do not need).

Merisi said...

I should remember to read the comments who came before me - on your blog they are always so informative, most of the time I could do away with writing anything of my own thoughts.

I am still for a glossary or appendix. I also like family trees or the like, they do help the reader to concentrate on the story.

SzélsőFa said...

Yes, Charles, it surely looks and feels different once you have the complete story at hand. This was an exceptionally short piece of a larger item.

Travis said...

I like that type of short info dump, especially in first person fiction. When I read first person, I usually feel like the narrator is talking to me, so that little aside doesn't pull me out of the story or the moment at all. Rather, it enhances the feeling of sitting by a campfire actually listening to the narrator tell the story.

The info dumps that bother me are the longer ones, if they pull focus or shatter the illusion.

Barbara Martin said...

I have been working on rewriting my info dumps into smoother prose, so this is a timely post for me. In fantasy writing some things need explaining and I try to do this as I go along with as few words as possible.

Charles Gramlich said...

Merisi, some types of fiction just seem to attract info dumps. Strangely, I see a lot of it in thrillers, which need to be fast paced, but which often have techno stuff that has to be explained. Yes, I'm lucky to get some great comments here.

SzélsőFa, It's often hard to illustrate something like an info dump without making it stand out too much from the small amount of quoted material. At least I find it so.

Travis, that's definitely something I consider, myself. I mind them much less with first person because of exactly what you say. It doesn't feel like the "Narrator" stopping to tell you something, but like a friend sharing something.

Barbara Martin, fantasy and SF definitely need some things explained or the plot can't go forward. The question is always how much, I guess.

Merisi said...

I would like to add that I love appendices, indices, glossaries, you name it. I love looking them up while reading the book and even before or afterwards. They are like jewels in a treasure chest to me (
Heinrich Mann's novels about Henry, the King of France, come to mind in that regard).

Charles Gramlich said...

Merisi, I like those things too, for the weight they give to a work. You can see the effort the writer put into them.