Saturday, May 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Handling Infodump and Names in an Epic Fantasy

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 14. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay. 

Note: Revised snippet at the end

This week’s questions:

1. Is my naming convention a killer? (Most Tillian names are consonant heavy and near unpronounceable except by me, and I stumble on them sometimes...)

2. Is this too much of an infodump?

3. Does this make you to want to read more (is the voice bland, uninteresting)?


Market/Genre: Epic Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The Zarachtil Tzolanzen teach an infiltrator to be a nightmare unleashed on their foes. They are trained to terrorize their enemies, wreaking havoc in the field, behind enemy lines, and in enemy fortresses. They are unstoppable agents of death, honorable to their allies but terrible to their foes. The training of the mercenary band certainly created weapons up to this task, Feznar and Dal-shiz turned into saboteurs and assassins without equal in Tillia, with only the Tordal of Axius possessing an equal reputation.

My uncle told me the day I left to join them, “Tzal, no matter what they teach you, remember there is always something bigger, stronger, faster, more ruthless, and better at killing than you are. Keep that in mind when you start believing yourself invincible.” My uncle always was wiser than I am. Now, I was a fugitive from the mercenary band, and everything else I’d ever known.

Not that there was much to miss. Only the uncle who’d raised my brother and I, but I’d left my uncle to join the mercenaries like my brother had left me years before. There was no blame that could be laid on Tralzanth for not sheltering me upon my return. Harboring a fugitive from the Rakzah of Zeldun is punishable by death after all, so I continued my journey through the wilderness of Sarlion near the Dreznoz mountains, heading to the sea where I could take a ship beyond the reach of my pursuers.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The Zarachtil Tzolanzen teach an infiltrator to be a nightmare unleashed on their foes. They are trained to terrorize their enemies, wreaking havoc in the field, behind enemy lines, and in enemy fortresses. They are unstoppable agents of death, honorable to their allies but terrible to their foes. The training of the mercenary band certainly created weapons up to this task, Feznar and Dal-shiz turned into saboteurs and assassins without equal in Tillia, with only the Tordal of Axius possessing an equal reputation. This paragraph feels like infodump and the names are indeed difficult to process.

[My uncle told me the day I left to join them, “Tzal, no matter what they teach you, remember there is always something bigger, stronger, faster, more ruthless, and better at killing than you are.] I love this as an opening line. Keep that in mind when you start believing yourself invincible.” My uncle always was wiser than I am. [Now, I was a fugitive from the mercenary band, and everything else I’d ever known.] Why? A hint would help draw me in more.

[Not that there was much to miss.] I stumbled a little here because he never said he missed it, and this feels like a response to that feeling [Only the uncle who’d raised my brother and I, but I’d left my uncle to join the mercenaries like my brother had left me years before.] Having a little trouble parsing this one. If he left his uncle, then why would leaving the mercenaries make him miss him? There was no blame that could be laid on [Tralzanth] who is this? The uncle? for not sheltering me upon my return. Harboring a fugitive from the [Rakzah of Zeldun] if the mercenary group is called the Zarachtil Tzolanzen, then what is this? is punishable by death after all, so I continued my journey through the wilderness of Sarlion near the Dreznoz mountains, heading to the sea where I could take a ship beyond the reach of my pursuers.

The questions:

1. Is my naming convention a killer? (Most Tillian names are consonant heavy and near unpronounceable except by me, and I stumble on them sometimes...)

Yes (readers chime in here). I've read a lot of epic fantasy so I can roll with funky names until I get them straightened out in my head, but this is throwing too many at me to retain. It's a context issue, really. I have no clear idea what a Tordal of Axius is, or a Rakzah of Zeldun. I can assume they're titles based on "the", but it tells me nothing about what they are. They could be heads of state or leaders of groups, or names of groups. It's hard to tell which is a person, a place, or a title, so they wash over me like white noise instead of sticking with me.

It's also a red flag that something's wrong when the author can't even pronounce the names (grin). The harder it is for the reader to read, the quicker they'll put the book down.

I'd suggest a few things to help make it easier for readers to absorb the information.

1. Add context to the names so readers can place what/who they are when they encounter them. It does that with wilderness of Sarlion near the Dreznoz mountains. I know Sarlion is a forest of some type, and Dreznoz are mountains. A few more hints about what the various terms are and what they mean would help readers understand them.

2. Spoon feed the names to readers. Right now, I don't need to know all these names. It's enough to know the protagonist is a fugitive from a mercenary group and he's in trouble and on the run. If it's important to the story to name the forest and the mountains, you can keep those, but the others seem unnecessary at this stage. Perhaps save those for when they become relevant to what's going on in the scene.

3. Consider why everything has a created name. There's a great SFF concept that basically says, "if you have rabbits, call them rabbits. Don't call them a smeerp." Readers know what rabbits are, and when you say "rabbit" they get it and move on. When you say "smeerp" you have to stop and describe it, slowing down the story and taking sentences to tell someone what one word would do. If the world has "mountains," it can have "rabbits," so created names often feel arbitrary.

If you're changing a name, why are you changing it? If it's just so it sounds "fantasy" that's probably a bad idea.

Why is a Tordal called a Tordal? Why won't General or King or some known word that hints at leadership, such as Superious, work? If there are solid cultural reasons and that's clear in how the world is built, then readers will absorb the information and it won't be confusing. But if the names are just made up to be made up, then they carry no meaning and are likely to confuse.

Michelle West did a wonderful job with titles in her Sun Sword series. It might be worth taking a peek to see how she handled it.

(Here's more on naming characters)

2. Is this too much of an infodump?

The first paragraph did feel like infodump. It's explaining the background of what an infiltrator is and referring to people and places I don't know, so none of it means anything to me. It also has no hook to draw me into the story, and I don't know who the narrator is or where I am.

I'd suggest cutting it, as I don't think you need it. Show that information through the POV character's eyes when it's relevant to the scene. The second paragraph would make a great opening.

(Here's more on infodumping)

3. Does this make you to want to read more (is the voice bland, uninteresting)?

Once I got past the infodump paragraph, yes (with a caveat). I love the "My uncle told me" line, and the voice is great there. There's conflict with the narrator being a fugitive, and he has a solid goal of trying to get to the coast to board and ship and escape. All good stuff.

What isn't working for me are the names. Despite the elements here I really like, the names would make me put the book down. It's unfair, but I don't want to work that hard to understand what I'm reading, I just want a great story.

Let's take a peek without those names and streamline this a little:

My uncle told me the day I left to join the Zarachtil, “Tzal, no matter what they teach you, remember there is always something bigger, stronger, faster, more ruthless, and better at killing than you are. Keep that in mind when you start believing yourself invincible.” My uncle always was wiser than I am. Shame I hadn't heeded his advice. Now, I was a fugitive from the mercenary band, and everything else I’d ever known.

Not that there was much in my life to miss. Only the uncle who’d raised my brother and I, but I’d left my uncle to join the mercenaries, just as my brother had left me years before. There was no blame that could be laid on my uncle for not sheltering me upon my return. Harboring a Rakzah fugitive is punishable by death after all, so I continued my journey through the wilderness of Sarlion near the Dreznoz mountains, heading to the sea where I could take a ship beyond the reach of my pursuers.

I don't think you lose anything here by not having those names, and this reads smoother to me, even though I'd suggest a little more context on what Zarachtil and Rakzah are (readers chime in here).

The names are getting in the way and making this feel like it's trying too hard to sound "fantasy," and you don't need them. It's good without them.

(Here's more on making readers work too hard)

Overall, there's a lot of good here, and I think a ruthless pruning of names and a hard look at the naming convention will clean this right up.

Revised Snippet:


My uncle told me the day I left, “Tzal, no matter what they teach you, remember there is always something bigger, stronger, faster, more ruthless, and better at killing than you are. Keep that in mind when you start believing yourself invincible.” My uncle always was wiser than I am.

Dreaming of glory and adventure as only an adolescent can, unprepared for reality, I left him to [join] Could say "to become an infiltrator for" here and cut that later  the Zarachtil Tzolanzen, mercenaries who act as the army of Zeldun. [They teach an infiltrator to be a nightmare unleashed on their foes. Trained in sabotage and assassination, terror and havoc, they conditioned me into a remorseless weapon. I hunted warlocks and witches, poisoned armies, and murdered tribal chieftains before they could threaten Zeldun’s borders.] Could cut all this to trim out the backstory.  Not once did I question my orders, even when they supplied me with magic that burned a city, along with everyone in it. Now, I was a fugitive, hoping to flee to the sea and find a ship that could take me beyond their reach, haunted by the screams of mothers and their cubs as hellfire melted flesh, bone, and stone. I understand the context much better now, though this still feels like infodump explaining how the narrator got to this point. It talks about what he used to do, not what he's doing now. Being a fugitive looks like the critical part, so perhaps slip that into the first paragraph with something like..."Had I only listened I might not be a fugitive." Then move onto what he's actually doing right now and what the conflict is. Try mixing in this backstory in bites as it becomes important in the story. Wanting to know why he's running will work to draw readers in. If they know his history right away, there's less to pique their interest. I get the sense that something made him leave, so maybe a hint of what that is would work to created curiosity, and you could trim out even more of this and save it for later.

The wilds near the Dreznoz mountains are an area untouched by Tillians. Slipping away from all pursuit came naturally in the rolling plains and forests I’d grown up in, and the last place the Zarachtil Tzolanzen would look for me is the wilderness. If you cut down paragraph two, you could add "mercenaries" here to show he's being pursued by them and not need it there. That would offer context but still maintain a little mystery. Why is he a fugitive from mercenaries? Readers would keep reading to find out. [They were too entrenched in believing in the power of civilization to think of escaping to the mountains and hills, where tribes of savage Feznar still controlled their ancestral lands, living in harmony with the other predators and herds.] Feels like infodump still, but you could shift it a little to Tzal's voice and make it more of his opinion. "They'd never lower themselves or their lofty beliefs to search for me in the land of savages." or the like. You can focus more on the Feznar if/when he actually encounters one. 

Overall, it's better and reads much cleaner, though the focus still feels more on his past and not what he's doing right now. I suspect him on the run with dangerous people chasing him is pretty compelling, so you might look for ways to show that. Hook readers first with his problem, then you can draw back and give them a little history as to how he got there. Until they care about Tzal and his problem, his past won't matter to them.

The next paragraph would determine if I kept reading or not. It still feels heavy on backstory, so if it were more history and no current action, I'd stop. If it got to the present and showed him dealing with an interesting problem, I'd read on a little more. 

Good job. 

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

7 comments:

  1. I totally agree about what Janice says about the names being overwhelming, and I also thought the sentence with the uncle's advice would make a perfect opening!
    -Dana

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  2. The moment I reached the second paragraph is when I perked up. I agree with Janice that it would make a very good opening line.

    With epic fantasy, interesting naming conventions are par for the course, but having too many listed when the book opens can cause an early "glazed-over-eyes" effect. Sprinkling the names and info as you go along helps readers digest the various fantasy nuances a bit easier.

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  3. I agree to start with the second paragraph as well. The rest can be woven in throughout the story.

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  4. I disagree with everyone, lol! I think the whole piece was telling, and cutting out the information in the first paragraph only takes away the substance of the character and his situation. You might be better off taking a completely different tack. You have an awesome scenario here which could make a really great, engaging beginning.

    My suggestion is to put the reader up close to the hero as he runs through the wilderness escaping his fellow deadly mercenaries. Show us the dark forest. Show us him using his wit and skill to avoid capture. Make us feel the danger on his heels. Is his brothers one of the pursuers? Are Feznar or Dal-shiz? How does that make him feel? And what about his grief at being abandoned by his uncle, even though he understands it intellectually? Make us aware of how cool he is as a deadly mercenary - and how vulnerable, as his uncle warned him he would be.

    While the names were somewhat confusing, I didn't really mind them except "the wilderness of Sarlion near the Dreznon Mountains." That sounded like basic fantasy infodump to me. As a reader, I'm less interested in map locations than the experience of a place.

    Also, it should be "the uncle who raised me and my brother." ;-)

    Sorry for the long comment. I liked the idea you present in this beginning and already am wondering what is in store for your hero.



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  5. Thank you for the comments.
    i'll take them to heart and see if the revision works better.

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  6. I agreed that the names were difficult to pronounce and there was too much information in the first paragraph. I LOVED Janice's suggestion on where to start. Hope it goes well for you!

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  7. I didn't mind the names too terribly, but all of them at once was overwhelming. Tossing one or two names at me gives me time to figure them out and process them. Tossing half a dozen hard-to-say names shuts me down.

    First paragraph is definitely a killer. Second works; "Tzal" is unusual and gives me a head's up about what kind of names to expect, but it's short and simple so it doesn't stop me.

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