Thinking about the information dump (#2)

One type of information dump, most commonly associated with sci-fi, and certainly present in fantasy is the situation where the writer feels the need to provide an explanation of how something works. Depending on your circumstances this can be really hard to deal with. I think the expectation in sci-fi is to provide at least some explanation about how certain technologies work. After all, that’s basically the premise of the genre. That said, billions of people across the planet use cell-phones every day and only a tiny fraction of them know how they work, outside of routine cell-phone maintenance, the only other detail most folks are familiar with is the need for a cell-tower. It seems to me that this could be a pretty good rule of thumb to follow when thinking about how much detail a reader needs. Of course, if your protagonist is a cell phone tower engineer, all bets are off. To give another example, think about Star Trek vs. Battle Star Galactica (the new one). In Star Trek we learn all about tachyon beams and anti-matter mixtures in the warp core, but I don’t recall ever meeting a single FTL drive engineer in BSG. These examples, I think, really illustrate well done instances of including a lot of information or not and the types of stories that work with each situation.

For fantasy, we run into similar sorts of things. For example, how much does one explain about the mechanics of magic? I really don’t have a good rule of thumb for dealing with this, except to say that you can write a really good story without many details (Harry Potter is kind of like the cell-tower example, all we really know is that witches and wizards can do spells and need a wand). I spent a lot of time agonizing over how much detail to give in the description of how magic works in my story. I made up a lot of rules too. In the end, I decided to try and provide few details, instead focusing on the effects of magic, including both the outcome of the magic as well as the physical effects on the one performing the magic. As I’ve gone along, many details of how it works have been described, but only out of necessity. For my story, I think that works pretty well, but like anything, I suppose it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

If I were to try and give advice on this I’d say put in the detail as you write. Then, as you begin the process of revision and polishing, you can focus on removing stuff that doesn’t really help the story in some way. Sometimes, all your getting from a description is setting, and that can be good too.


4 thoughts on “Thinking about the information dump (#2)

  1. efrussel says:

    Saw your other post about this and meant to comment, but got hellishly distracted. Guess I’ll make up by saying everything I’m thinking here. In one giant Emthought infodump. 😛

    The infodump gets maligned often, right along with prologues and flashbacks, but I think it’s for the wrong reasons.

    An infodump isn’t wrong because it’s all in one place, or because it’s inappropriate to pass on the information. For me, an infodump is a bad thing because what it means, somewhere in the sticky heart of your story, is that you have technology/magic that is too complicated to work well as a plot device. After all, pretty much no story is actually ABOUT futuretech/magical systems (I think here about Dune: the story isn’t actually about the spice, or how control of it controls travel. That’s like the nervous system of the story. Paul Atreides and his journey to Kwizatz Haderachdom is the mind). Things like the spice, while they control story movement, don’t make the story move voluntarily. They guide the story to its ultimate expression and climax–like Orson Scott Card’s use of the ansible. Yeah, he wasn’t the first to come up with that idea, but it wasn’t such common parliance that it didn’t need to be explained. He used his explanation to make the horrific end of Enders’ Game work–most sci-fi stories of vast galactic scope have to come up with some tech that explains human travel across vast distances anyway (Alastair Reynolds does a great job of this in his Revelation Space books).

    Futuretech/magical systems might make a plotline function, or even be an integral part of a story, but they’re still just that, a part. For this reason, I think your rule is a good one: what do your characters actually know, and how much of it makes the story function?

    Sorry if that was involved, but you bring up a very interesting subject.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dave S. Koster says:

      I don’t mind involved feedback. I enjoy the extra perspective. I won’t ever improve if I don’t hear it. That said, your analysis actually helps me better understand what it is I was trying to say. Thanks!


    • Ms. efrussel – You bring up some well-known examples, but it has been a few decades since I picked up at least two of the books and I don’t recall if there were infodumps in Dune or Ender’s Game.

      Consider the Hobbit: the beginning of the book is a chapter of information giving us the genre, the milieu, and any other French terms you’d like to apply. I find it very readable, and charming. I really need to go back and look at how he did that successfully.

      In the larger formulas-that-work-to-sell-fiction sort of ideal—it’s formulaic but it’s what most of the readers want–the info dump does not fit into the ideal of a well-written scene/sequel format.

      A good editor should pare those down. They’d say, “No, Pontius, you don’t need to describe the ship the first time we see it. ‘Mega container ship’ is fine, they’ll come up with an idea of what it looks like if it’s necessary for the story.”

      Doesn’t it also fall under the mantra of show/don’t tell? Yes, I’m aware that S/DT has its own personal problems.


  2. […] the cell phone standard which Dave Koster kindly tossed out at On Writing Dragons, the essence is that your reader needs to know only as much about the tech as an average ordinary […]


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