Okay, I've been informed by enough crits that sometimes my writing contains infodumps that run too long. It has been said that they (the infodumps) are placed well, only they tend to ramble on. Thus they distract the reader -- whether that infodump is a description of a character or a historical interlude.
As the author I believe much of the information in the infodump is important to the story, however, I get it. No infodumps! Therefore I am seeking advice on how best to "spoon feed" an infodump to the reader?
Do I dump the infodump altogether?
If I disperse the information, how does one figure out what info comes sooner rather than later? I don't want my readers pulled out of the story or distracted from its flow, unless its past bedtime, of course. :-)
My rule of thumb when writing is to never include something unless it is an intergral part of the story. Take a look at what you have, is it essential? if it is important, I find it has a way of coming up in the writing as I go.
For me, the only time I really describe a character is to use their to description to relate to their characteristics.
Morning had come quicker than John had thought, getting into the house without his father noticing would not be an easy task.
As John approached his house he saw the figure of his father, asleep in a rocking chair on the front porch. Tobacco juice trailed from the old man's mouth, down an already stained tshirt and over an exceptionally large belly, finally pooling in his lap. A can of beer rested next to the rocker, with many of its fallen comrades littering the porch. John cautiously stepped around them as he made his was to the front door, keeping one eye on his father at all times.
this example might give little justice to your question, and I realize its poorly written, but for a short story, this could very well be all I give for a descriptive of John's father. Who cares how tall he is or what color his hair is or where he played college football? what I have provided I think gives enough to discern a good picture of the kind of person he is, the reader manages to fill in the rest I think. - MHO
Kind of the same for historical interlude. What relevance does it play in your story?
There's one failure I admit to---I usually wind up with about a page's worth of infodump about three pages in, trying to set up this impossible situation I'm writing about. I sometimes try to deal with it in other ways, but usually they take longer than the infodump.
So I try to make it interesting, or, if failing that, well-written. (If it fails in the latter, that's pretty much it for me.)
Devnal's description of John's father does imply a little more. It uses the phrase "its fallen comrades," which implies (for me at least) that John (at least) has some experience with the military and maybe combat.
quote:Kind of the same for historical interlude. What relevance does it play in your story?
Hmmm, I guess I want my readers to come away from the story knowing some of the "human history" of the world they visited, rather than that they experienced character(s) doing This and That, while going from A to B. That's the kind of relevance I mean. Only, i'm not sure how best to disperse it outside of using an infodump. Definitely a weakness I must overcome.
Interesting point Robert, I too find longer infodumps early on in my writing. Maybe that's my problem, not the infodump so much as the length of them and where they occur. Food for thought.
Often you can include small chunks of info in dialog, but overdoing it can appear stilted and contrived, as if, would this person really be saying this to the other person. At the very least, infodumps should not be long, drawn out paragraphs with little action. Interspersing it with action scenes, as long as it doesn't take away from the scene itself, can be one way.
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It's my opinion that an info-dump is only a problem where it's not integral to the story. Take Devnal's example above. As he says, if John's father is not integral to the story, if John's relationship with his father is irrelevant, then the description is pointless.
The same can be said for description of things, or procedures, or backstory. Will the reader see that description as a diversion to the story, a tangential side-track that pauses the action, or as a reinforcement, an essential piece of information that helps make sense of what is happening now. And perhaps in that context, many 'infodumps' are simply misplaced; appearing too early in the story for their relevance to be understood by the reader.
Lastly is the matter of point of view. If I have a character working an asteroid mining operation, and I've been in close-third pov throughout, and this character is a veteran to their job, I can't explain the intricacies of the mining operation to the reader. It's out of character (since the character knows it already and doesn't think about it). On the other hand, if I think explaining it is important to the story, maybe it's a sign that the story needs to have an omniscient narrator, someone who can make sense of not just the character's actions but also things about which he isn't conscious: the limitations of his equipment and the dangers of life in space; disparate elements which, when drawn together, paint a larger picture than that seen through his own eyes.
"Hmmm, I guess I want my readers to come away from the story knowing some of the "human history" of the world they visited, rather than that they experienced character(s) doing This and That, while going from A to B."
But whats the reason for wanting that? I can understand for an epic story like The Wheel of Time series, or even IT. Both these have large amounts of historical information about the places they take place in, but in both these cases the information is essential to the story as a whole. Its not infodumps its part of the stories.
If im following what you want to do - for example: your characters are travelling through a war torn country and you want to give some background on why the country is in the state its in.
My question to wanting to do this (and don't get me wrong I have a tendency to want to do the same) is what is the point? does it enrich the actual story?
In his novel writing class, OSC said, "Trickle in the information." That means you don't dump it and you don't withhold it. There is a balance, and it takes practice (and, in my experience, about five drafts of any scene) to get it right.
A physical description doesn't need to come all at once. Hair and eye colors can slip in anywhere, if you want them.
Historical information -- make it sound interesting and important. It took me several tries to get through a scene where someone relates several hundred years of history -- all of which is quite relevant -- and I finally got a positive comment when the history came across as a story, instead of a thinly disguised info-dump. Also, I didn't include a lot of the unimportant historical details, or details which will become important later on in the story.
Attitude also helps. The characters should have some emotional response to whatever it it. Perhaps they feel repulsion towards a dirty beggar, physical attraction to someone who's good looking, annoyed at how gaudy that outfit looks, or how large and intimidating that man is. Lots of possibilities.
quote:My question to wanting to do this (and don't get me wrong I have a tendency to want to do the same) is what is the point? does it enrich the actual story?
I am writing an epic, I also tend to write more in omniscient POV, however, from what I keep hearing about infodumps, its not the story length or novel type that matters, it is whether there is another way to construct the tale without dumping a bunch of information on the reader at one sitting. I think moderation will be the key to my getting this one right.
Here are some non-textual examples from my work:
1) Narrator describes in detail the terrain, to include flora and fauna, as the characters travel through the unfamiliar countryside.
2) Characters stumble upon a ruin and some information about the place is passed on to the reader via a character's infodump or the narrator's infodump.
Dialogue as a way to infodump can also be too long from what I've gathered. I remember Allanon in "The Sword of Shannara" going on for pages about the history that Shea and Flick were entering into. Was that inappropriate of Terry Brooks? I did finish the book despite that. Maybe it's just me. Maybe infodumps don't bother me as a reader as they seem to do others. Who knows?
I'm no expert by any means Edward, but I think you have the right idea buddy.
If its an Epic, you got lots of time to trickle in the information as Emily put it.
you first point I think could work well. It is part of the story. Your character is a new land, the surroundings are unfamiliar, he would take notice and be surprised, or shocked, or in awe, or whatever. I don't think that would really be an info dump.
even point two isnt really bad either I dont think.
When I think info dump i think.-
John got home to find his father on the front porch. The old man's hair was thinning and his 5 oclock shadow said he hadn't shaved in the morning. He was dressed in a wifebeater tshirt, stained yellow, and wearing old battered pajama pant bottoms. The knuckles of his hands were scrapped raw in areas from his work as a mechanic....yadda yadda yadda.
quote:John got home to find his father on the front porch. The old man's hair was thinning and his 5 oclock shadow said he hadn't shaved in the morning. He was dressed in a wifebeater tshirt, stained yellow, and wearing old battered pajama pant bottoms. The knuckles of his hands were scrapped raw in areas from his work as a mechanic....yadda yadda yadda.
Thanx for this input Dev,
I think I'm beginning to get the feel for this infodump conundrum, and your example mirrors some of the parts of my story that crits have called out as infodumps. They have been absolutely right and I must make a better effort to limit the amounts of insignificant information I put into my story. Heck, it might even bring my word count down to a respectable amount, too.
Yeah, right! Somehow, I think my word count will grow more. Arghhhh...
I agree with everything that has been said, but I just wanted to add my personal experiences.
In writing about world building and character development, I feel an urgency to get the information to the reader, and this can result in an info dump that doesn't flow naturally with the story. I frequently have to remind myself to slow down, the details will come in naturally as I tell the story, and every time I do this, I am able to convey the information naturally.
Also I wonder if a writer's tendency to info dump occurs because he doesn't trust the reader to pick up on the subtle details. Look at the wealth of information about the boy's father in Denval's example. We can infer what type of man he is and how the boy perceives him. We don't need a paragraph description or back story on how the man gets drunk every night. Trust yourself to convey the info through subtext and trust your reader to pick up on it.
As far as describing the interesting flora and fauna. I think you have to be careful not to overdo it. Give a few unusual examples and let the reader's imagination fill in the rest. As a reader, my mind goes numb if the descriptive passages go on for too long, but I need enough details to make the story believable. It is a real balancing act.
Best advice I've heard on the subject is to slide it in where its needed or related to what's going on. If the viewpoint character see something that reminds him of something that will be useful sometime in the near future by all means put it in.
Example from my own WIP:
I held off a good physical description of the remote colony world where the action starts for a few pages until one of my MCs, who has been unconcious or in hospital since the story starts, is forced by the plot into getting out of bed and stepping outdoors. I just dropped in a 2 paragraph description of the place. But it's logical. He's new to that world and his first time stepping outside is the time when he would be noticing his new surroundings in detail. That and he has a few minutes until the transport they are waiting for lands and they can approach.
The way I try to go about it is to weave it in seamlessly. Much may have been done already or could be with ease. Especially with world building. Think cause and effect. Simply by describing the world as it is currently, in your story, shows us its past. You don't have to give a sumarry and date an atomic bomb fell to know why a post-apocolyptic world is desolate. That is a very broad example but this can be applied using cause and effect equations throughout your story. I feel that most often times exposition should come it the form of character internalizations and dialogue. In Dialogue though one should avoid "As you Know, Bob" type situations.
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When I wrote "The Outlands" I kept getting feedback/rejections that said it felt like the start of something larger. The blasted thing has a distinct beginning, middle, and end, but I refused to infodump. I wrote only what I thought the characters would notice or do. If people want to know more about the world...awesome! Sometimes I think short stories are like dates. You have to give just enough to make the reader/date come back for more.
I eventually sold "The Outlands." I think many of the readers recognized that there was a lot more to the Outlands and confused that with it being the start of something larger.
I think it is also common for writers to include large infodumps because the info was necessary for them in developing the story and the fictional world. Most of the time readers can get by with far less.
Fauna and flora was mentioned above. Perhaps you could restrict it to what they ate, what they used for shelter, that kind of stuff--just what they interact with in a meaningful way and while they are interacting with it.
History is the one thing I almost always skim past as a reader unless it connects to something that's already occurred and hopefully something that will occur again in the future of the story. I've never heard someone complain that Shakespeare didn't provide a detailed history of the fued between Romeo and Juliet's families. That the fued existed was important to the story because it was a direct obstacle to their blossoming relationship and later forced the secret marraige, but a 500 word synopsis of it wasn't.
Speculative fiction readers will usually be a bit more forgiving, and there might be some of us who are more interested in the world building than the story itself, but the advice to avoid infodumps is given for those who intend to entertain primarily with their dramatic stories.
Description should be about the character and about how they relate to their environment, ImHo. I have a character that notices what everyone is wearing, but is really vague about details like the kind of stone on the walls, or what breed of horse is pulling her carriage. I have another character in the same novel who notices food, and could care less about anything else.
My suggestion is if you really want to include history in your story, write in the POV of someone who cares about history, like Brandon Sanderson does in Mistborn with that one dude who wears all the bracelets.