This 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 Pontius Cominius. Visit Pontius’ site (if you don’t, I’ll know!):
This is an angle I hadn’t considered, but should have. It is an elementary kind of problem that gets at the root of other problems. This comment is also one of the reasons I blog on writing. Thank you, Pontius’, for sharing this thought.
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.
Great post! I think it’s tough not to info dump in fantasy stories. In some way you need to- at least in the first draft. That way, you’ll understand the world better. I often do this, knowing I will edit and adjust in future drafts.
No one likes a know-it-all, especially when the reader can tell their sole reason for existence is to inform.
Again, editing and redrafting helps fine tune these issues (at least for me. I never get it right on my first pass!).
Thanks for sharing!
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I have to say, that last paragraph is particularly inspired. I like the idea of, if you must have a KIAC in your story, playing it up and making him a human being. I mean, there ARE people like this in real life, after all. Those people who always know eeeeverything–and, of course, whether or not they actually DO is very much a question only your experience in taking their advice can answer. I’ve got a friend who just can’t help but insert his two cents in every subject discussed–including, most recently, him trying to tell me how to market my book (he has no experience marketing, and doesn’t even like to read). Love him, but oh boy. He WILL be a character someday. And will then probably tell me, if he reads the story, how I portrayed him incorrectly.
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