The info-dump is clearly a pure cognitive approach to preparing the reader to enter the story further. What are the things the reader needs to *know* in order to *understand* what is going on? What often gets short shrift in speculative fiction is affective learning: how the reader is supposed to feel about the characters or the situation they're in?
Sometimes an author switches off between the two. He tries to get us motivated by giving us action or melodrama, then he feeds us a slug of background information. This can work within moderation, but it can also kill the momentum he's built up. Sometimes with really action-packed openings the contrast when the author shifts to exposition is jarring.
Which brings me back to theories of education. One of the most common refrains I heard when I was in school and we were learning something like solving quadratic equations or proving the Isosceles Triangle Theorem is "Why do I need to know this? When will I ever use this?" These kids were certainly capable of learning such simple things, as demonstrated by their performance on things that were meaningful to them like sports or fashion.
This leads me to believe that *affective* training is a prerequisite to cognitive training. You have to expect that learning about quadratic equations will be rewarding before you put much effort into it. In the context of a science fiction or fantasy book, that means motivating the reader to learn the rules is world building job #1. One obvious way to do this is to set the character a problem, during the course of which he will take out the various tools in his toolbox (his aura reading skills, or the atomic energy pack from his pocket blaster). This works, but it can get a bit contrived given the sheer volume of what you've got to explain.
So how do you get the reader to swallow a huge slug of exposition? I think the thing that works is creating an immersive emotional experience for the reader. I will give the best well-known example I can think of: J.K. Rowling's foisting of Quidditch on the unsuspecting reading world. She's so certain she's got us she gets a bit saucy, deliberately making the rules and terminology absurdly complex and nonsensical. Yet the gazillions of us who read all seven books will go to our graves knowing the difference between a quaffle and a snitch, as if it were something important to us to know. At the time we learned it, it *was*.
It's worth examining how she sets us up for the kill. She takes great pains to establish that Harry is an outcast, but it's rather commonplace stuff that doesn't require much explanation. He's an orphan living with a family of bullies. So what Harry wants is to belong, but then we see that there are limits to what Harry will do to belong. He draws the line at making others outcasts as a way to get respect and belonging. When Harry discovers he has inherited his father's flying ability, Quidditch becomes a path to respect and acceptance that is consistent with what Harry (and we -- the distinction is almost meaningless at this point) considers honorable. In fact it's the only clear path forward, and it leads beyond the simple acceptance he'd have been satisfied with. Once we buy into that, J.K. can have her world building way with us and we'll eagerly lap up any kind of malarkey she tosses our way, then beg for more.
One final note on the cognitive/affective dichotomy: sometimes I feel like I am being over-informed. If I have a sufficient understanding of what's going on to be satisfied with the scene's progress, leaving a few questions to be answered later doesn't hurt. In fact can motivate me to read further, and be satisfying when I get the answer. There's a balancing act between killing momentum with exposition and leaving the reader confused about what is happening.
So to sum up: Job #1 in world building is to motivate the reader to want this information. Modest amounts of briefing can be done in the course of narrative where it is relevant, but a major information dump requires the reader to identify strongly with the protagonist and his aspirations. That identification has to be built first with commonplace, readily understandable materials; you can't bootstrap a complex alternative world with things that only make sense in that world. The reader doesn't need to know everything up front, so long as a scene makes sense on an immediate level. Most speculative manuscripts I've read could use more work in mood, atmosphere, and emotional shading.
Plug for a short 99 cent Kindle eBook I've just read: Paula Berinstein's "The Writer's Voice in Fiction". In it she examines the openings of a dozen or so popular novels, and analyzes how the author creates a voice which connects with the reader.
J.K. Rowling makes a good example of some things not to do. I'd like to point out an obvious example of great exposition that flows seamlessly with the action: Battle Room.
Orson Scott Card gave us all the information we needed to truly appreciate the depth and scope of the Battle Room and the fights that could be done there. For someone who likes laser tag it's like laser tag in 3D, on crack.
For an inexperienced reader it's an easy concept, but one that can present challenges to full comprehension such as the effects of null g and how it might influence the game. And then Card went on to show equal elegance in his portrayal of all the other games in the story. For example his final simulation games sound like the most intense real time strategy games ever.
When it comes to merging exposition and pacing, matching Battle Room is an excellent goal to shoot for.
One might find the Battle Room interesting in its own right as a working out of an interesting concept; but Quidditch is just nuts, and succeeds purely on Rowlings emotional intuition.
In my current WIP, I try to reveal the information in tiny doses. The more crucial the detail, the more matter-of-factly I try to deliver it. Only in chapter 5, which is about a third of the story, do I go into an info-dump of sorts, disguised as a dialogue. I'm hoping that by chapter 5 a reader will be hooked strongly enough so that he/she will be grateful for more info.
This article (if I may call it that and I think it's fair) has given me new ideas on how to capture the reader's attention.
It *can* work; and sometimes a character particularly contrived for the purpose of not knowing things can work. I recently reviewed a manuscript in which had a mystery subplot, and recommended that the author introduce a "Watson" type character to propose the "obvious" but wrong solutions. Likewise in Tony Hillerman's early Navaho mysteries, the protagonist Joe Leaphorn is not very authentic, and is supplanted in later books by the more authentic Jim Chee. In the TV adaptation they made Joe a city Indian raised off-res in LA; he would therLikewise in the TV adaptation of Tony Hillerman's Navaho mystey novels, the writers made Joe Leaphorefore (like most viewers) not understand a lot of things about life on the reservation, and need explanations. I thought that was brilliant.
But the primary need is motivation. If its there, then just about any device will work. If dialog makes sense, great; otherwise go with narration. But if motivation isn't there, infodump by dialog is pretty grating.
Dialog, in my opinion, is the purest manifestation of a character's intent. It's action; how they pursue their agendas. If dialog doesn't advance the character's agenda it sounds nonsensical.
J.K. Rowling's foisting of Quidditch on the unsuspecting reading world. She's so certain she's got us she gets a bit saucy, deliberately making the rules and terminology absurdly complex and nonsensical. Yet the gazillions of us who read all seven books will go to our graves knowing the difference between a quaffle and a snitch, as if it were something important to us to know. At the time we learned it, it *was*.
Could it be that she's also making it absurdly complicated and nonsensical as a send-up of cricket and other sports with complicated and opaque rules to the uninitiated? That's how I read it, but I have to admit the details of any sport are wasted on me.
I'll definitely check out Paula Berinstein's book. Thanks for the heads-up.
[This message has been edited by posulliv (edited July 14, 2011).]
I think half of that is motivation, I have to FEEL that this serves the story. If a fight scene is interrupted to tell me how the hero feels about the bad guy's shoes, I'll soon start skipping passages that look expositive.
And a big part of that, is leaving out stuff that simply does not need explaining. No one needs to know how the a lightsaber works, or how the Ring of Power can corrupt little hobbit minds. Now, Tolkien arguably told us a lot of stuff that didn't need to be told like Tom Bombadill, but that was a part of the world that was like a respite before the real hell yet to come.
I think a big difference is whether the writer comes off as giving us a tutorial on how exactly the world works or if he's just showing us by and by what along side the road we're driving.
So, yes -- I do remember it, but it stuck out for the wrong reason for me.
At the same time, it's hard to be critical of JK Rowling -- I read all 7 books for a reason.
That raises a kind of Catch-22 situation. If a piece of worldbuiding is necessary to understand the plot, then there's a chance we're lost before we get the explanation. If it's *not* obviously necessary to understand the plot, then we wonder why we're inflicted with this pointless factoid.
I see this problem all the time in fantasy manuscripts. You pretty much have to launch the story with stuff the reader is primed to understand. Fantasy authors who don't realize this quickly run into trouble because until the reader has grasped a certain historical or technical features of the story world, he can't understand what is motivating the characters.
Sometimes authors who understand that they've got to motivate readers to slog through some dry facts open up with a completely generic action scene to give the story initial momentum. This can work, if you're careful about parsing the briefing out. One example I can think of is E.R.Bourrough's *A Princess of Mars*, which starts out as a pulp western before John Carter is mysteriously transported to Mars. It's a daring and masterfully executed stratagem. In less competent hands, that slug of background information has a way of killing story momentum stone cold dead.
Rowling's approach to introducing her wainscoting wizarding world is to start with the standard evil step-parent scenario and gradually shade in details of her specific world. Whatever you think of her prose as a whole, this is a very effective method for drawing the reader into the story world, and so subtle the reader doesn't notice.
Looking at successful books, there is yet another way to fill the reader in on the story world which defines distillation into a formula. You can write in such beautiful or beguiling voice that it's a pleasure to read what would be chore in the hands of a lest gifted writer.
One example I've cited here recently is Madeleine L'engle's *A Wrinkle in Time*, which opens in a way that would be hopeless in the hands of a less gifted writer. Another example is Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wasn't quite sure what he was up to in the first 20% or so of the story. The opening chapter is something of satire on manners, not the cosmic struggle of Good and Evil we eventually find ourselves in. But he's a gifted writer, and delivers the critical slug of worldbuilding (The Shadow of the Past) with such skill and atmosphere that it's not objectionable.
@posulliv -- Of course I'm aware she's parodying cricket, but the point still stands. It even worked over here in America where very few of us know anything about cricket. If you're interested in where Rowling got her inspiration for Hogwarts, I suspect she may have read P.G. Wodehouse's school novel *Mike*; which features cricket heavily and has many of the essential aspects of the Hogwarts setting. Of course there's always the classic *Tom Brown's School Days*, whose hero is much more Harry Potter-like than Mike (who's something of a dumb jock, but a decent chap).
The substitute article has a nice little example too. How Robert A Heinlein wrote about making dinner (tor.com)