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.