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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Delivering Information For Hard Science Fiction

   
Author Topic: Delivering Information For Hard Science Fiction
luapc
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I recently started writing a short story that has a lot of hard science in it. The story is dependent upon this hard science and hinges on it for the plot. The thing is, that the main character is not a scientist or someone who would understand the concepts or science behind these things.

So my question is, how would you suggest presenting this information so it doesn't sound like information dump?

It can't be presented from the MC's POV because that would take away from the credibility of the MC. I've considered introducing another character to explain it, but that would likely just lengthen the story and add a bland cardboard character to the story that has nothing to do with the plot and would likely be just as bad as info dumping.

Do you think that just telling it would be ok? Is this more acceptable in hard science fiction than other forms?

It seems to me this would be a common problem with hard science fiction since a lot of technical description and explaination is beyond the POV character's knowledge.


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wbriggs
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What a coincidence! I was just about to come here and post my thoughts on info dumps -- and someone else already started a thread!

So I'll use it.

About info dumps.

According to OSC, the first paragraph is free. You can set things up there.

I think it's OK to do an info dump later provided you are telling us what we need to know to understand the story at that point -- and nothing more.

I would tweak OSC's advice on the first paragraph by saying that you can do an info dump in the first paragraph if it's needed to understand the story.

I found this very freeing. In one story, instead of trying to slip in, as events were happening, that
* We are in a parallel time track
* it was created by luckless time travelers
* We are in New Orleans
* New Orleans is ruled by a Native American empire
* a hurricane just struck
...how could I just slip that in? It's needed before the first sentence of action!

Contrast that with something else I read on F&F recently. There's a paragraph of history about how NASA decided to go back to an abandoned moonbase. But all we really needed was, "In 2040, NASA returned to the abandoned base in the Sea of Tranquility."

So you shouldn't have info dumps, except when you need them; and you should have only as much as you need. Like so many rules of writing, it's precise but not easy!

OSC's comment on explaining: the reader's reaction "duh!" is a lot better than "huh?"

I'm going to add something else about info dumps. Niven did them, sometimes entire sections, in his 1960's hard SF stories. And I enjoyed them. Oh, well. So much for that rule.


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luapc
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Some of Niven's stories is what I have been using for reference in this respect. He did a lot of hard science fiction, and had a lot of factual information in them, and he seemed to pull it off well enough. That's why I think that for hard science fiction especially, information dumping might be easier to get away with and more acceptable to the reader.
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lehollis
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I think 'dump' is the main part of information dump that makes it something to be avoided. Wbriggs touched on the one point I was contemplating, that you should only put forth what is needed at that time.

I feel you can get away with a sentance or two of exposition, if it is needed, but if it's a page of information and background, it gets boring and bothersome.

Concerning your dilemma, is it possible the MC can do some research into the subject? Also, I think you could have another character around to explain it, but look for ways to make him or her part of the story and interesting as a character-- which would probably re-write the story in part.

A lot probably depends on how much space is required to explain what you need to explain. The longer it is, the harder it will be to just slip in.

Thank you for the insight, wbriggs. It helped.


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EricJamesStone
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The thing to remember here is the rule that you can break any rule as long as you're willing to pay the price. That includes the rule about not doing infodumps.

Most readers of hard science fiction (like me) won't care that you're infodumping if the info you're dumping is interesting.

That said, you still might be better off avoiding the direct infodump. For example...

quote:
I've considered introducing another character to explain it, but that would likely just lengthen the story and add a bland cardboard character to the story that has nothing to do with the plot and would likely be just as bad as info dumping.

While adding a bland cardboard character who has nothing to do with the plot would probably be a bad move, how about adding an interesting character who moves the plot along? Look for ways you could use such a character to enhance the story.


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franc li
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If you want to talk about infodumps, I was just reading the Hitchiker trilogy. But since that series had the guide as a character of sorts, and it's whole role is to dump info, it really took it to a new level. I guess Adams' method was to make the infodumps some of the best writing in the story. Another example that comes to mind is Malcolm in Jurassic Park. I did read the book but I had seen the movie first and liked the movie Malcolm so much better.

One of the real problems with the sequel The Lost World, even though I thought the book was better than the first, they didn't have any of the infodumping in the movie. Instead we explored Malcolm as the relationship man, which anyone should have known would not be very rich soil.


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Crotalus@work
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I think the fact that your MC isn't familiar with the science is an asset. Most of the stories I've read where info dumping is sucessful involve a layman being educated by an expert. The trick is to make it relevant and believable. And hopefully keep the plot moving at the same time or develop a character in the process of discussion. Make your words do double duty.

Old sci-fi pulps were terrible at this, btw. They often included two scientist speaking to one another in sentences that started with things like: "As you know, Professor Who, the half-life of Plutonium is..."

The problem with experts discussing it is this: They aren't likely to discuss what they already know. They probably won't even think about such things. They'll be too busy trying to figure out what they don't know. Which is no help to us if we don't have their knowledge of the basics to extrapolate from.

So again, I think you already have things set up to work for you. You just have to come up with a good execution.

[This message has been edited by Crotalus@work (edited December 02, 2005).]


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nimnix
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Yet the things running through a person's mind when working out the unknown look like an infodump. Some people talk out their ideas to themselves as they're working. "hmm, the half-life of plutonium is... and blah blah... so... blah blah! of course!" *scribble scribble*.
or
"let's start with what we know..."
bringing up the relevant, known information helps organize thoughts between the two, like two mathematicians working on a new proof. It always starts with the known.

Of course, you do have to know who to write it so it looks natural.

Of course, in the case of an MC who knows nothing, having him do research or ask experts would work just fine, especially if he's the type of person who'd like to understand what's going on around him.

And once you get an expert going about their favorite subject, they don't shut up. Ever.

[This message has been edited by nimnix (edited December 02, 2005).]


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MG
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I read a refference to Jurassic Park and I couldn't resist. Excellent example of a character created to do (conspicuous) info dumps. Sometimes I'd look at Malcom-dialogue and wonder how the man managed to
breathe. I still love that book, though. Dinosaurs rule, even though current theories now state raptors had feathers. Somehow, it makes them less threatening.

What was the question again...? Oh, right.

I don't think creating a character just to say things would be agood idea.

You say your story's plot hinges on the scientific info. Ok. Not all presentation of information is an 'info dump'. Info dumps are large chunks of narrative (narrative chockful of three-syllabic words, if we're talking sci-fi).
As long as you break the information into parts and reveal things little by little, you won't be info-dumping, imho.

MG


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Robert Nowall
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Though I've certainly read a lot of hard SF, I've never been drawn to the writing of it. I like things to be right, beyond a few outrageous assumptions and familiar background material, and am willing to wade through quite a bit of stuff to see that things are right. But I don't want to write a story that reads like a physics or astronomy or biology textbook.

I remember a commentary Robert A. Heinlein made about some calculations he and his wife made for his book "Space Cadet." They had to determine the orbital period of a space station. Done in the days before computers, the calculations filled up a substantial amount of paper (two grocery bags, I believe). Then the detail disappeared into one paragraph. (Page fifty-seven of the new hardcover release of "Space Cadet" by Tor Books. I have a real soft spot for this book---the course of my life literally hinges on my picking up a copy of it by chance in the school library when I was ten.)


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Survivor
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Go ahead and present it through your character's POV. If he doesn't understand something and your original version doesn't have anyone explaining it to him, then just leave it at that.
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Spaceman
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Hey, welcome back Survivor.
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Survivor
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NaNoWriMo...yet another reason to dislike the holidays
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Spaceman
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Did you finish? I had too many other projects to worry about. I haven't worked on either of my novels in about 8 weeks.
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Survivor
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I pretty much blew it off after the first week. Really my own fault.
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AndrewR
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My rule of thumb about info dumps (although I don't always follow it myself) is asking how necessary is it for the character to know it right then.

If the character needs that information at that point in the plot, and knows that he needs it, then it will be much more interesting to the character and the reader.

So try setting up your info dump with the reasons why your character needs to know that information at that time. Once it becomes vital to the story, it should become interesting to the reader.


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luapc
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Thanks everyone for responding to this post. You've all been a great help in my resolution of this issue.
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Doc Brown
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Infodumps go with hard sci-fi like pain goes with life. It may be most horrile part, but you cannot have one without the other.
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