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.


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.