Thinking about the information dump (#1)

As I started writing this blog, and going in one particular direction, I realized the ‘problem’ of the information dump is actually kind of big and has a lot of facets. Depending on how you’re looking at it, an info dump could be a matter of explaining how a bit of magic or technology works. Another type of information dump involves an explanation of events in the story. A cliché example is the villain monologue, but there are a lot of other examples executed in a similar manner that serve the same purpose. The real problem though is that the information dump must happen. (Insert little text frowny face here -I refuse do to it, so just pretend). Damn. How does one info-dump in a way that doesn’t make the reader sigh and close the book, because ‘a moron wrote it’? I haven’t the foggiest. As a reader though I know what I don’t like. This is the perspective that I try to keep in mind as I write. To keep things simple, I thought I’d break up my thoughts on the topic into more than one post. The first (this one), is going to cover the villain monologue type information dump.

My fourth chapter started out it’s life as almost entirely a nighttime stroll/information dump. Still is. It’s the part in the story where the main character finds himself under attack, and being thrust into a world of magic and a very old war that he is totally unfamiliar with. This is solved by adding a character who is intimately familiar with all of this stuff (fantasy cliché, I know). It’s the perfect set-up for an information dump. Something along the lines of

“Well, the reason that … is because … Oh, yes, and also … happened because ….” Which would get the response of, “What about …?”, followed up with “Well, the explanation for that is simple, it’s …”

Unfortunately, that’s an easy thing to write, but not very fun to read. Not that you can’t get away with that, because you totally can. A great example is the king’s cross scene of Book 7 of the Harry Potter series. Setting aside any bias you might have against the series, that scene is a great example of a totally unabashed info-dump that totally works. I frikin’ love that scene. She sets it up so well, by the end you want more.

In my case, it wasn’t working. So, I concluded I needed to look at all of the information I was presenting, and start peeling bits away. The first thing I tackled was the motivation of the bad-guy. In the early drafts, he did not explain himself, nor was there any explanation of what he was up to (I despise the idea of a villain monologue, and I didn’t want to fall into that trap). Turns out, you can villain monologue. I mean, after all, when you get into an argument, the first thing you want to do is establish how right you are. For this to work though, I think you need to write it so that both characters are talking in context, using flash-backs or something to conjure up enough context for the reader to follow. With all that in mind, a few well-placed sentences in earlier chapters, and the bad-guy’s motivation was not only not force-fed, it seemed a lot more natural.

The revision was good, except, it was still an unruly bit of writing with too much information, so I the next thing I did was look for any information that I could share more effectively elsewhere. There were three main approaches here. The first was to explain some of it earlier in the story. In my case I wasn’t far enough in to make that one work for me. Another approach was to simply avoid the information altogether and bring it up later. I did, in fact, have one piece in there that seemed totally relevant, but after consideration I decided that the main character wouldn’t have even thought about it, and the know-it-all character wouldn’t necessarily know about it either. So, I dropped the explanation with the decision to give it far better treatment in a later chapter (turned into a whole sub-plot in this case, but it really is that important). The third approach is a situation where the main character must to ask the question, it would be weird not to. As it turns out, the know-it-all doesn’t have to know it all, and so some of the explanation could be pushed off a later point, making the information available for discussion very limited.

Once I had addressed these two things, I was better able to deal with the information dump that I had no choice but to deal with. The real benefit of this series of revisions was it left me more space, which I’m using for the development of setting, characters, and elements of foreshadowing. Anyhow, those are my thoughts on the topic. This is a far longer post than I usually like to do, but there it is. If you have anything to offer on the topic, I’d be glad to hear it.

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3 thoughts on “Thinking about the information dump (#1)

  1. I am enjoying reading your thoughts on infodump.

    Lemme throw in the fourth alternative. It’s sort of like Fog of War, which isn’t just a setting on many different war games that allows you to look at the enemy troop dispositions. Fog of War, or rather, Fog of Life, is that there are no pat explanations for most things that happen to you. If I’m driving on a freeway and then there’s a traffic jam, and I finally get to the end of the jam and there’s NOTHING THERE, it annoys me greatly. I want to know why we were slowing when there’s no apparent reason. It could be that there was a phantom accident there from 2 hours ago, and the traffic is still clearing, or a dog ran across the freeway 3 minutes ago and now is gone or squished, but regardless, as a normal enough human my curiosity has not been sated.

    In the infodump world, I’d turn on the radio and they’d announce there had been an accident there and there was still slowing even though the accident cleared, or the know-it-all character in the passenger seat would announce, “I saw that accident there two hours ago, I should have warned you.” In real life, that very rarely happens. I go on with driving to my destination and I don’t know why I was in that traffic, but I can guess.

    Likewise, in your fantasy story, to drive your narrative on, skip the infodumps and the know-it-all character. The KIAC is a pain in the keester, because the reader will say, “if KIAC knows it all, why doesn’t HE do the quest?” And the author mumbles something about KIAC not being suitable, not wanting to take it on, and so on.

    Further, human nature leads most of us to avoid embarrassment by asking obvious questions. If I hear a conversation where some writers are talking about Kee-ack, if I have no skin in the game I may ask “what’s a Kee-ack?” And they’d say “Know-it-all character.” If I was worried about losing face or respect, I’d keep my mouth shut because I’m afraid the authors will mock me later or even right now for not knowing.

    My seven year old frequently doesn’t know words I use. I have to prompt him to find out – “do you know what _________ means?” “No.” Explanation then follows. I know that his level of understanding isn’t high, he’s seven. Your character who is thrust into this old war with rules he does not understand is going to either have to be an extraordinary person who will ask the questions, or he will go through being ignorant and suffering for it. Which kind of character is he? People don’t usually volunteer helpful information to new people. You gotta be proactive.

    There’s more conflict in the ignorance, if you think about it. Your characters only know what they each know, and it’s compartmentalized, and they don’t share important information with each other, they don’t always realize that something important is important, and you end up with confusion and ignorance and conflict.

    An example is Pearl Harbor. There was a radar station set up on Oahu and it was manned when the Japanese air attack first came in. We know that it was a massive air attack. The radar operators thought it was a glitch of the new machinery. The higher ups either disregarded it or didn’t get the message. What if they’d scrambled the air assets to get armed and up in the air, and gotten the ships ready with ammo and men to man the AA guns and fought? Was there even time enough for that? It’s the hindsight we have to see the clumsy ignorance of people having pieces of the puzzle but not knowing there was a puzzle or that their piece was key.

    Finally, your KIAC is flesh and blood and has opinions and thoughts and fuzzy, incomplete or just wrong information. He’s biased. And that bias is going to come out in the information he gives your protagonist. He may be well-meaning, or he may be envious of your protagonist and set him up with dangerous or bad information. That gives you more conflict and if you can’t trust the KIAC, it introduces a level of paranoia to things. Nothing is black or white.

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    • Thank you for this. The suggestion you pose at the end here is similar to how I’m dealing with the KIAC in my current project. There are a lot of things he does know, but quite as many that he is just wrong about. The stuff he’s wrong about comes out in the action of the story, it also sets up a bit of tension with the main character. Once it’s all nice and polished up, I think it’ll work pretty well.

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  2. […] post was actually a comment on a different thinking about the information dump, but I like it and it deserves it’s own post. So, to give proper credit, this post comes from […]

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