Thursday, March 06, 2008

Information Overload

Curious about exactly what an info dump is? Well, here's one from page 18 of the hardback edition of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown:

“The new entrance to the Paris Louvre had become almost as famous as the museum itself. The controversial neomodern glass pyramid designed by Chinese-born American architect I. M. Pei still evoked scorn from traditionalists who felt it destroyed the dignity of the Renaissance courtyard. Goethe had described architecture as frozen music, and Pei’s critics described this pyramid as fingernails on a chalkboard. Progressive admirers, though, hailed Pei’s seventy-one-foot-tall transparent pyramid as a dazzling synergy of ancient structure and modern method--a symbolic link between the old and new…”

Many writers, including myself, dislike info dumps. They smack of laziness, and most of the time the information works better when it's integrated into the storyline and doesn’t call attention to itself. However, many readers don’t seem to mind info dumps. In fact, some readers seem to enjoy the chance to learn tidbits they didn’t know before, even if it interrupts the flow of a story or is irrelevant to a story.

As a reader myself, if the information is interesting I hardly notice an info dump, but when they are boring I quickly start to squirm. I like learning stuff, but I'm not reading a novel primarily to be educated. (I read nonfiction for that.) I want to be entertained first and foremost. I didn’t feel that the passage from Brown was a good one. There’s a lot of information but I frankly didn’t find much of it interesting, and it really slowed the story's pace. Plus, it had nothing to do with the plot and never showed up again. Other than the fact that the main character will go through the entrance to the Louvre to get into the museum where things will happen, none of this information has anything to do with the story.

So how do you feel about "info dumps?" As a writer? As a reader?


High Power Rocketry said...

: )

Travis Cody said...

I think as a writer I've fallen into the info dump trap as a means to describe a setting. And sometimes it's a time to indulge myself myself with language for its own sake.

As a reader, like you, I barely notice them when they tell me something about the story that helps me understand the who, what, where, why, when, or how of the plot.

I don't know if it's a good or bad technique. Perhaps it depends on how well an info dump is written. Or maybe when I write I should remember how I feel about them as a reader.

Duke Scoob said...

I'm of the same opinion you are, Charles. Except the squirming part turns into skipping. If the overall storyline/book is good though, I'll go back and plough through it, since the author must have felt it was important enough to write. But, that's only on the first read..not subsequent.

Heather said...

there is a reason it's called an info 'dump' Peee ewwww.

Christopher Mills said...

I used to love reading (and, every once in a while, still do) Robert Heinlein's "juvenile" science fiction novels. But every time he'd start in on the mathematics of plotting an orbit or somesuch, I'd just skip right over it.

But then, science was never my strong suit. ;)

Angie said...

I'm with you -- it's definitely a fault. Mr. Brown's example is half a step up from the classic "As you know, Bob, ..." approach, but that's not saying much.

It's bad enough when the writer can't figure out how to incorporate the info into the flow of the story, but when it's completely irrelevant info to boot, that's just adding carelessness to bad technique. :/


Bernita said...

Am more aware of info dumps now as a writer reading. Before, they merely represented an irritation without a name.

Rob Windstrel Watson said...

An interesting post :-)

I regret to say that I am a very challenging reader and an info dump makes me put on my running shoes very fast - perhaps even out of the book or story completely.

Basically, I read something somebody has written to discover their ideas, views or a unique story, not to plough through what is, in effect, a copy and paste from elsewhere.

Chris Eldin said...

You know, I personally enjoy the info dumps where I actually learn something. But if it's an info dump about the description of a fictional building, character, etc. I quickly get bored and might not read to the end.

Erik Donald France said...

Works better for nonfiction than fiction, truly.

What I wonder is how the *outlandish details* of so many "nonfiction memoirs"
make it to press -- "raised by wolves during the Holocaust," "raised in a gang," etc.

Miladysa said...

Charles your posts always make me think - usually about things I have never considered before and so I find them very enjoyable to read.

I have never really recognised an 'info dump' as such until now when you brought it to my attention! LOL

I am probably an 'info dumper' - definitely in conversations if nothing else. My mind tends to ping ping ping. Not sure how much of it I do in my writing that is something I will have to visit and see.

As for their presence in books, they are OK as long as they are interesting.

I have read two of Dan Brown's books, The Da Vinci Code was one of them. I think he is a dreadful writer and found both books boring as there was nothing 'new' in them.

Charles Gramlich said...

R2K, cool rockets. Thanks for visiting.

Travis, Well done ones that flow and which really provide me important information I don't mind so much, although I typically try to avoid them in writing. But bad ones really bother me.

Duke Scoob, if I have to squirm too many times it definitely evolves into skipping.

H.E. Good one. I like that.

Christopher MIlls, I don't think I even noticed those blips when I was reading him when I was young, I probably just skipped 'em too. Now I notice though.

Angie, some of Brown's info dumps needed to be footnoted even.

Bernita, I'm the same. I didn't know what they were called, I just didn't like them. Or many of them.

Rob Hopcott, a copy and paste is a good way of putting it. That's exactly what it seems like.

Christine Eldin, I tend to read nonfiction specifically for information but this of much lesser importance to me in fiction. So unless the info is really fun, and accurate, I'd rather skip it.

Erik, nonfiction sometimes seems to be disappearing into a kind of fictionalized, "based on a true story." It's very irritating.

Sarai said...

I have to say as a reader I hate it. It slows down the story and 9 out of 10 times I skip over it or skim until the action happens. Sometimes I will even miss things because I trying so hard to get past it.
As a writer I love it simply b/c I'm lazy. Recently I have been training myself to stop with the info dumping. Usually it comes out in the revisions but dang it is so easy to do.

WH said...

They annoy me. And Brown does it more than most. Maybe that's why he's spending about six years (!!!) researching this alleged new novel he says he's working on.

Farrah Rochon said...

It was while reading The Divinci Code that I first understood the true meaning of the phrase info dump.

cs harris said...

I used to be more intolerant of a certain kind of info dumping than I am now. If it's factual information readers need in order to understand the story and probably don't know, then it's sometimes faster and less painful to simply lay it out: here it is.

What drives me crazy is the info-dump-to-show-you-I-did-research, which is the category your example falls into. Various peoples' opinions on the construction of the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre have NOTHING to do with the story.

Although even more hilarious is the way Brown constantly has his hero running for his life, only to stop and think about a lecture he gave to one of his classes! I guess he thought that was "gracefully" working the information into the story rather than dumping it. All it did was show what a clumsy writer he is. (Not that it hurt his sales!)

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I like info dumps in general if they are just done unobtrusively and isnt overwhelming. I hate it when it is done in an "As you know Bob" sort of way. Where characters are talking to each other and they go "As you know Bob, the Louvre was blah blah blah." That just grates my soul and I will fling the book across the room.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sara, it's like many other techniques, over use becomes laziness, becomes the first thing you reach for.

Billy, you'd think Brown would be able to write faster if he's doing those info dumps again. maybe he's trying to avoid them this time.

Farrah, yes, he was a very good lesson in that.

Candace, as long as "informational" dumps are kept short and too the point, and they are, hopefully, well written, then I can tolerate them. But yes, when it has nothing to do with the plot I just can't wrap my head around them.

Ello, that is probably the worst way to do the info dump. I'd rather it just be blatant than have it destroy the characterization.

Travis Erwin said...

My take is right in line with yours. If you can sneak it in without making it seem obvious and it bears even a bit of relevance or sets a mood or clarifies the setting, okay. Otherwise, I cringe and too many cringes and I'm done reading.

david mcmahon said...

As a reader, selected info dumps work for me, but as a novelist, I'm wary of putting them into my plots - unless they're vital.

And even then, I integrate them into what I'm describing.

What an interesting question, Charles ....

Rachel V. Olivier said...

If the info dump furthers the story, then I think it's okay. But if it's just to show off what you know, it needs to be deleted or rewritten or something. Brown isn't the best writer anyway. He's good at putting together a page turner, but he does a lot of things that drive me buggy, like describing a character by having them look in a mirror at themselves.

Steve Malley said...

A contrary opinion, and a Full Throttle Secret Technique:

The opinion: I was willing to give Brown the benefit of the doubt, that he was trying to slide the pyramid into the story unobtrusively, on account of the inverse pyramid figuring in at the end of the book. At least, I was willing until the doofus spoke up at his lawsuit...

The Full Throttle Secret Technique: No matter how necessary, keep info dumps to under 110 words. Readers will hurdle through 35 words of expostion no problem, but 110 is about the limit where eyes glaze over.

It's a technique culled from comics, where chunks of narrative stand out like a different sort of dump in a punchbowl...

Josephine Damian said...

Charles: I read "Da Vinci" and never even noticed the clunky, badly written sentences, or the info dump. But didn't the glass pyramid invert underneath it, and that's where the secret was buried? I seem to remember their was signifance involoving the glass pyramid.

There's "I-did-a-ton-of-research" info dump, and then there's character back-story info dump, which usually takes the form of over-long, boring-ass flashbacks!

I also see a lots of my forensic textbooks being regurgitated in novels - writers read these books for the "realistic details" and work them into the story in a ham-handed way.

Info dump is bad, bad, bad....

Danette Haworth said...

Info dumps cause me to skim large portions of work, looking for the next piece of story action. Just say no to info dumps!

Lisa said...

Every now and then I read a story where the writer has skillfully included information in a way that integrates it seamlessly into the story and the information bolsters the underlying themes. Not many people do it well, but when they do, it's a pleasure to read.

Lana Gramlich said...

Info dumps totally suck & really annoy me.

virtual nexus said...

Hmmmm - No disrespect, but I guess in that specific case I'd trash the novel and keep the info about the glass pyramid; but then I've seen it and been under it - and I squirm when I have to trawl through dialogue.

Didn't realize just how nf biased I had become until I started blogging!
Takes all sorts...?

steve on the slow train said...

I may have been guilty of info dumping, though certainly not on the scale of Dan Brown. As others have mentioned, the trick is for the information tho have some relevance to the story. Incidental information (like asides plays) can be fun, and don't detract from the story.

"The Rule of Four" by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, handles information far more skillfully than Brown.

Synchronicity said...

i think it has to be well done and not disrupt the flow of the story or else be placed as some sort of footnote. i am new to your blog...came from donetta's place. you have a wonderful blog and i will definitely be back to visit.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, yep, when efficiancy becomes laziness then the dump truly stinks.

David McMahon, I wonder too if there are certain genres where info dumps are more acceptable, books with a lot of technical background for example.

Rachel, I agree there were a fair number of clunky things in the "Da Vinci Code."

Steve Malley, definitely when dumps are used they need to be very tight. I hadn't thought of the analogy with comics writing, but it makes sense.

Josephine Damian, a "description" of the pyramid or calling attention to the pyramid would not have been the problem, but all the information about who built it and the criticisms over it, that was the info dump part to me.

Danette, we should start a "just say no to info dump" campaign. ;)

Lisa, yes, I admire that skill, and it is hard.

Lana, you deserve a kiss for that.

Julie, I enjoy reading Nonfiction but there are things it doesn't give me. To me, nonfiction isn't as emotionally fulfilling as a good fiction book.

Steve, I'll have to check out Rule of Four, also of course, one person's info dump may be another person's interesting material.

Merelyme, thanks for visiting. I think, too, maybe some fictional books should come with a "for further reading" list.

writtenwyrdd said...

When I went to the Louvre a couple of years ago, I remembered that passage from Dan Brown's book disparaging the pyramid. It really doesn't look right in the courtyard to a former palace. And that info dumping was atrociously noticeable, wasn't it?


ivan said...

My favourite is George Orwell's opener in Coming Up for Air.
"Marriage to the joyless Hilda had become a nightmare for George Bowling."
That's the kind of "info dump" that really hooks you in.

Jo said...

Omigosh, I had no idea those had a name. Information dumps are the quickest way to turn me off a book. I suppose an info dump could be interesting if it is relevant to the story, but you're right, Dan Brown's is just... boring. If I were reading a book specifically about the Louvre, the same information would be very intersting.

But it's kind of like the writer is showing off, isn't it? "I'm writing a novel, and I'm going to educate you about something I know and you don't..."

Rachel V. Olivier said...

Steve Malley - I'm writing down that formula for the info dumps being between 35 and 110 words. Good to know.

LoveRundle said...

I think I get lucky and don't notice it all the time for what it is in the books I've been reading lately.

Anonymous said...

I am not a fancier of the info dump. I didn't know that there was a term for it. Now, I have something to call it when I am skipping through it.

the walking man said...

Have to up the word count some how. Now in the movie the glass pyramid gets four sentences of dialog in the beginning and is an integral part the of the ending.

Most people who have to write endlessly about a factual thing in fiction I believe lack imagination and use the word dump to cover the lack.

Just my opinon.



Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, it really leaped out at me, for sure.

Ivan, that follows the rules of being short and interesting.

Josie, describing what the character saw as he approached Louvre would have been fine, but to stop and give us a little unrelated lecture about it is the kind of dump I wouldn't want to see, but I might find interesting reading a nonfiction book about the place.

Rachel, it's a good rule to keep in mind.

Christina, I think I've always noticed them but didn't really have a name for them until a few years back.

Jack, I didn't know it until a couple of years back myself.

Mark, I didn't see the movie so I don't know how they handled it there. In the book, the way the information was given really made me think the pyramid was of "no" importance to the story. Because of the dull, lecture format.

Sphinx Ink said...

The info-dumping is one of several reasons I could never get past page 19 or so of THE DA VINCI CODE, despite trying three times to read the book. I waited until the movie came out, saw the movie, and then was really happy I hadn't tried to finish the book. Wouldn't have been worth it. I'm one of those people who's mystified by the book's extraordinary success.

Cath said...

I remember this passage in that book now you mention it. And yes it DID slow the pace. I remember wanting to get past it and on with the story.

I think, like you, I don't mind if it doesn't interrupt and is relevant, but sometimes it feels like a bunch of metaphors and similes thrown together in an attempt to describe detail where it is not needed. I enjoyed the book, but there were a number of info dumps!

On a lighter note, "information overload" is what I scream when older people and men insist on giving you the gory details of the products of coughs or bowels! :0/

Came over from David's blog. Interesting post.

Daryl said...

I particularly disliked it and how it was done in DaVinci Code which was a pretty lame book anyway..

David sent me

Charles Gramlich said...

Sphinx Ink, I got through the book and didn't find it a horrible struggle to read, but it didn't make me want to rush out and pick up any more of Brown's stuff.

Crazycath, thanks for dropping by. I appreciate it. Yes, the TMI issue, (Too much information). Often health issues fall under that category for me.

Daryl e, thanks for stopping by. I definitely have had no urge to check out further Dan Brown books.

Duke Scoob said...

Ello, You hit the nail on the head. I found that problem in The Bourne Ultimatum (the only one of that trilogy I've read) repeatedly and wanted to throw the book. I also encountered an irritating reoccurrence of that in David Edding's books. I love them and have read the covers off several times in spite of it, however. In those, he'll have one character make a common sense statement or opinion, then follow up with a character asking "why?"....and you KNOW that character isn't that stupid nor would they ask that.

And Steve, that is a very interesting, insightful formula and I LIKE it. ;)