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 dialog 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 dialog. 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. Dialog 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 dialog or internalization. (or the not so subtle if it's really bad "As you know, Bob" dialog).
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.
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.