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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To the Dump, To the Dump, to the Dump, Dump, Dump...The Danger of Infodumps

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

As you might guess from the silly punchline to a bad pun joke*, today it's all about infodumps!

This post was inspired by my trip to see The Last Airbender last week. Although I was terribly disappointed by the film itself, it was a perfect example of how infodumps can ruin a wonderful story. (Apologies to those who enjoyed the film. Everyone has different tastes, which is why we have such a wonderful variety of entertainment options)

I felt the story suffered greatly from a heavy narration that explained the character's pasts, what they had to do, and why that was important. Infodumping through exposition. 98% of all dialogue spoken in the film (if not all) was information that explained to the viewer why this mattered and what it was all about. Infodumping through dialogue. Many key plot points were repeated over and over. Infodumping through repetition.

The movie basically followed this structure: Exposition about the what, why and how. Dialogue scene covering the what, why and how. Stylistic fight scene that showed the world (though the set designers nailed it perfectly. The only positive thing I can say about the movie)

Does this structure sound familiar? It's also what happens when you put too much info about the what, why and how into your novels and fail to dramatize it. But what you do dramatize, are the action scenes.

Infodumps can take on many forms. There's the obvious ones where the story suddenly launches into a history lesson or lecture, and then there's the more subtle ones that slip in as dialogue or internalization. (or the not so subtle if it's really bad "As you know, Bob" dialogue).

But infodumping does get a bad rap. It has its uses, and when done well, a little infodumping actually makes the story clearer. Shocked? Don't be. Like all writing tools, it's not the tool itself that causes trouble, but how you use it. Like adverbs, a little goes a long way.

The trick is to have the person doing the dumping have an opinion about what they're saying, and for it to be short so it doesn't slow the story down.

So, key things to think about when considering infodpumps. (or just inserting information)

1. Keep it in the POV's voice and let them have an opinion about they're talking about.

2. Let it be triggered naturally by what's going on in that scene.

3. Keep it short so readers aren't overwhelmed with information.

4. Let it do more than just dump info.

Let's look at a paragraph from The Shifter. This is basically a paragraph of story information that's important for the reader to know to understand the story, but it's not something that could easily come out in casual conversation. It is, essentially, an infodump. But it works because it's not me dumping info on the reader. It's the protag handing over that information in context of the story. So it works.
Both paled when I mentioned the Luminary. We got a new one every year, like some rite of passage the Duke’s Healers had to go through to prove their worth. The new Luminary was Baseeri of course, and like all Baseeri who held positions that should have been held by Gevegians, no one liked him. He’d only been here a few months, but already everyone feared him. He ran the League without compassion, and if you crossed him, you didn’t stand a chance at getting healed if you needed it. You or your family.
Now, this does several things besides just dump information. It's in Nya's voice, with her opinions on the matter, and does some world building as well. Here are my reasons for doing it this way and what I wanted to accomplish.

Both paled when I mentioned the Luminary. This is the first time the Luminary is mentioned, and it's important to know he's a bad guy. Giving the reaction "both paled" shows that the Luminary is a scary dude, and I wanted readers to get that right away. It also helps to hook them a little as to who this guy is, so they're willing to listen to a little infodumping the rest of the paragraph. Why is he scary? We got a new one every year, like some rite of passage the Duke’s Healers had to go through to prove their worth. The Luminary is new, and Nya doesn't think too highly of that constant turn over. "Like some rite of passage..." hopefully comes across as Nya disapproving of both the Duke and the Luminary. The new Luminary was Baseeri of course, and like all Baseeri who held positions that should have been held by Gevegians, no one liked him. Nya again has strong options on what jobs are held by who, showing that other people are in control of her city and she's not happy about it. Nor is anyone else. It also helps show that the people of this city are not the ones in control of it. He’d only been here a few months, but already everyone feared him. Another reinforcement that he's a bad guy, which should pique curiosity a little because people who heal aren't usually feared. This guy is supposed to help. He ran the League without compassion, and if you crossed him, you didn’t stand a chance at getting healed if you needed it. You or your family. A risk these people have to deal with, and a hint that the Luminary is a selfish mean person best to be avoided. It also reinforces the idea that healers are not what you might expect.

There's a lot of info here, but hopefully it doesn't feel like a huge infodump. It's supposed to feel like Nya getting a bit on her soapbox to rant about something she feels is unfair in her world and doesn't like. It's also triggered by her running into boys from the Healers' League, which is what the Luminary runs. So the info is a natural extension of the narrative.

Had I just had her think this out of the blue, it would have felt out of place. There'd be no reason for her to go on about the Luminary. But if she sees something that logically makes her think about it, it flows more naturally.

Sometimes we do need to dump a little info on our readers. If we do it well, they don't even notice. Like all good writing, if you make it flow seamlessly, it'll work, no matter what it is.

*Where does the Lone Ranger take his trash? To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump. I told you it was bad.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you  can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Posting for someone whose work network wouldn't let him comment (he emailed me)

    This reminds me of a scene of Asimov's in "Forward the Foundation". Dors and Hari are talking about the nessecity for minimalism, and she is making sure that she can articulate the reasons for minimalism in psychohistory. It could have been a straight infodump, but it works so well because it's interspersed with the natural interruptions and impatience with the lack of precision in Dors' explanation to Hari - of things that he understands the specifics as it relates to psychohistory better than she does.

  2. Really good post! Love the example and the way you've shown your thought process in making the voice come through the information.

    Thanks for sharing this, and I hope you don't mind if we include it in our Friday round-up of best articles for writers.


  3. On a filmic tangent, I've never minded narrator voice-overs in film, though I've read that they're horribly unfashionable. But last weekend I saw the most tedious and hamfisted bit of movie infodump I've ever seen: the first minutes of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The parts with the kid aren't bad, though they're really infodump too, because at least there's a character to care about. But all the bits about the middle ages and the intervening years are straight exposition with no story to move forward.

    It's possible I've become more sensitive to this sort of thing due to all the time I spend working on my writing, but I just think it's a surprisingly clumsy bit of exposition in a major feature.

  4. Great post. And like increadibly timely for me. I'm working on the first chapters in my second book and getting conflicting opinions on if I'm doing too much or too little info dumping. Your example is super helpful. Thank you so much.

  5. Info-dumping isn't something I've had a HUGE problem with, but it has reared its head more than a few times.
    Thanks for the tips on making it work!

  6. ...I feel better about the "infodumps" in my own work, now. I'd noticed they tended to be specific paragraphs when the narrator's reminded of something, and I often felt like they actually fit.

    That would also explain why, after I removed several of them, a beta said the story and world didn't always make sense.


  7. That's funny, Joe, I saw Apprentice last night and thought the very same thing about the opening.

    The TV show Burn Notice does voice overs really well. But then, they're done in the main character's voice and he's telling you stuff that only he would know, so it totally fits.

  8. thanks for the post! just reading this made me realize why my opening scene isn't working. it's a total infodump. I'm going to try and rework it into something that fits the story rather than just dumping background info on the reader.

  9. I used to be horrendous with info-dumps. One of my stories is still prone to it in spots, but I've gotten better at working stuff in or simply creating scenes to show something to the reader so it doesn't need explained at all.

    Your recommendations for how to work in the info-dumps reinforce what I've figured out through the help from my crit group.