Accidental Info-Dumping

Here’s an interesting post at Writer Unboxed: Are You an Accidental Info-Dumper?

I’m not quite sure what that could mean. That is, I definitely do not accidentally info-dump. If I put in two or three paragraphs of backstory or exposition, I’m excruciatingly aware aware of that. I may spend a truly inordinate amount of time trying to trim those paragraphs or take some of that information and trickled it into the story somewhere else. Sometimes I can’t find a better solution than just providing two or three paragraphs like that — I can think of specific examples — but when I leave several consecutive paragraphs of backstory in the novel, you can bet I knew I was doing it. Not in the least accidental, and I’m having trouble conceptualizing how a writer might info-dump without noticing.

Let’s take a look at the post:

When authors infodump, they interrupt the flow of their story to drop a chunk of exposition onto readers’ laps. You’re happily reading along, following, say, the protagonist as she goes to board an abandoned spaceship, when—bam!—you smack your head against two full pages of how exactly this class of spaceship creates artificial gravity. (Probably because some nerd complained about how their immersion was ruined if the author didn’t explain how artificial gravity worked.)

I’m laughing because (a) everyone has read a novel like this, with starship specs provided in great and exhaustive detail; and (b) yes indeed, some readers DO want detailed explanations about starship specs (or whatever), as becomes clear if you read a lot of reviews.

The post continues:

The opposite of infodumping is “incluing,” a word attributed to author Jo Walton. Incluing is the process of scattering information seamlessly throughout the text. The author who is adept at incluing provides just enough information to situate the reader in the story without interrupting the flow of the narrative. But like everything writing-related, this is easier said than done. … it’s not always obvious where or how to include background information in a story. As a result, in attempting to avoid infodumps, writers seem to have created a few new troublesome habits. Like Hydra’s heads, as soon as we think we have solved one problem, more crop up in its place.

I’ve never encountered the term “incluing” before. I read it as “including” several times before realizing it’s a different word. “Including” seems like it would work, actually. “Including details about background and worldbuilding in the story, without pausing the flow of the action.” But “incluing” isn’t a bad coinage. “Cluing the reader in” — I assume that’s the idea, and that’s a good way to think of it. Let me see … all right, here is the post in which Jo Walton introduces this term. Walton says:

There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues.

Okay, so I agree with that! Worldbuilding IS something the reader does. It’s one of the things I’m not in the mood for right now — that’s what I meant when I said that one of the qualities I want in the books I’m reading right now is “familiar-ish settings.” I often enjoy fantastic worldbuilding, but right now that IS too much hard work.

Jo Walton’s post is about how worldbuilding can be an obstacle for readers new to SF and a little about how certain books may get a reader over that obstacle, but let’s go back to the post at Writer Unboxed. What are these new troublesome habits? — I’m expecting that “habits” isn’t the right term here. I think this is more likely to be “pitfalls when trying to avoid infodumps.” Let’s see … yes. Three pitfalls:

1) Uber-minimalists provide zero information or context clues to help situate the reader. 

2) The mirror glance, [as in] “She stood in front of her bedroom mirror and ran a hairbrush through her shoulder-length brown hair, noticing the slope of her too-pointed nose and sharp cheekbones in the morning light.”

3) The side quest is less of a sentence-level problem and more of a structural issue … Writers are so worried about infodumping that rather than take a moment to just explain something in exposition, they create new plot threads, scenes, or other narrative tools to “show” some important aspect of their worldbuilding.

Okay, these are good things to point out.

I would say that uber-minimalism is related to the white-room opening: Both constitute a type of opening that fails to provide context and fails to place the character in an understandable setting. This is a common failing in workshop entries. However, I’m remembering something Nicole Kornher-Stace said on Twitter, that she writes as though the reader is about as familiar with her world as with, say, the Shire and doesn’t need more explanation than would be necessary for a book in that setting. That’s not exactly what she said, but it’s in the ballpark. She’s right. That’s just about exactly the level of explanation and backstory that I generally like in a SFF novel. I hereby recommend her books for a look at sliding information into the story without infodumping — incluing, if we want to use that term.

All of these are explicitly problems that I suspect are more likely to turn up in, or perhaps be created by, workshops and critique groups. The mirror thing is easy to avoid: just don’t do that. But the thing with side quests, I can see how that might be a problem. I can certainly imagine how a writer could be told, “Hey, this is an infodump, and you need to show, not tell,” and go way, way too far in the opposite direction.

The post moves into a discussion of how to recognize an infodump if you’ve put one into your novel, and I have to say, all this is good advice, but honestly, any time you have more than two consecutive paragraphs (short paragraphs) of backstory or exposition, probably you should pause and think really hard about whether all the information in those paragraphs is necessary and whether, if it has to be there, some of that information might be tucked into a different paragraph on the next page. Sometimes the answer is Yes, It’s Necessary, and No, It Can’t Go Anywhere Else, and then fine. That may be the moment when you just sigh and put in three paragraphs or (wincing) even four paragraphs of exposition. That’s happened to me. It’s not ideal, and I know that and try to avoid it, but I’ve done it.

The post then goes into deep third person and how that can make exposition difficult — this is true; it’s hard to have the protagonists think about things they know perfectly well and would never think about. Ah, here’s something I like: a pointer to a good example:

Rebecca Roanhorse does this well in her novel Trail of Lightning, which is set in a future North America where all but Navajo land has been destroyed by a worldwide flood known as the Big Water. The novel is told in first-person, with similar principles to deep POV. Several chapters in—once the readers have a solid sense of the narrator and her world already—Roanhorse spends about a page simply explaining what happened during the Big Water. While it might be exposition recounted for the benefit of the reader, not the narrator, this passage does not feel like an infodump. Sure, Roanhorse could have worked in some history lesson about the Big Water somewhere, or figured out some convoluted way of hinting at the flood and allowing the reader to put together the pieces. … But that’s not Roanhorse’s book: the book is about a monster hunter who is on a mission, a fast-paced and gritty story in a violent post-apocalyptic future. Working in a meandering reference here and there to the flood would have slowed down the action by making the reader stop to try to make sense of the details.

A good observation about the sort of situation where several paragraphs of explanation may be the way to go. (Also, really? The whole world except for Navajo land? Like … how about the Andes, for example? How could that work? Even in North America, almost all the highest mountains are in Alaska, which I don’t think was ever Navajo land. I’m baffled and therefore interested in this page of explanation.)

Good, thought-provoking post; click through and read the whole thing if you have a minute. Meanwhile, quick comments about infodumps:

1) NEVER IN A PROLOGUE. I realize that I snarl all the time about proscriptive writing advice, so sure, if you really think it works for your book, fine. But if you start your SFF novel with a history lesson, a whoooole lot of readers, including me, will almost certainly delete the sample and move on.

2) Probably not on the first page. In general, it may be best to avoid more than, oh, two to four sentences of backstory or exposition in the first couple of pages. You need to place the character in the world; that’s crucial. You have to provide context for the opening scene; that’s also crucial. But it’s generally better to move mostly forward in the first pages, adding context through judicious description while putting in backstory and exposition with a light hand.

3) If at some point in your novel, you actually need two or four paragraphs of exposition, put it in. You can always pull it out again. Personally, I find that I may figure out something useful about the world by writing those paragraphs, even if I then pull them out later and drop them in my Notes file for that book. I may add back in specific sentences from those cut paragraphs later.

I’m curious about how Roanhorse handled this, so I’m getting a sample now. Have any of you read her Trail of Lightning? I’ve heard a good many positive comments about it.

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5 thoughts on “Accidental Info-Dumping”

  1. It would probably be worthwhile to take a look at Jo Walton’s own first works: The King’s Name and The King’s Peace , because I remember back in the days when I hung out on Usenet’s sf writing area and she was there too, she grumbled about how incredibly hard it was to get across all the interpersonal stuff for the characters when the 1st person narrator was .. i forget the term used, but essentially, blind to people’s emotions. She did get it across without breaking narrative or stopping the story for info dumping. An excellent example of a sort of incluing.

    The duology is a sort of alternate Arthur in an alternate Britain. I remember the author was suprised when people remarked on that, but it was obvious to me. The narrator fills the Gawain or Lancelot role: incredibly competent, loyal strongest knight. And is a woman.

  2. I liked Trail of Lightning – less so Roanhorse’s second book, mainly because it had a lot of navel-gazing for an action-adventure fantasy. A LOT. But the first book was good, and her setting is, if a little hard to swallow, quite innovative. It uses Navajo mythology excellently.
    Her protagonist is . . . difficult to like, but she acknowledges that right up front, and there are reasons. She’s still interesting enough that I finished the whole thing and read the second.

  3. I’ve heard good and bad things about her first two books. I think her writing may have taken a quantum leap forward in Black Sun, but do not pick that up now in the mood you’re in. It’s compelling; and starts with the torture of a child. I felt physically sick after reading the sample. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it… but probably not, no matter how many raves I’ve heard about it, how good the writing or how interesting the setting.

  4. Poul Anderson did a good job with info-dumps.

    A combination of a smooth style so he could go in and out like a swan drifting through a shadow on a river, and the way he would have characters thinking on the topic before he provided a concise, lucid summary.

  5. Good tip, Elaine, especially since I think I have The King’s Name on my TBR shelves.

    EC, thanks for the comment. I think maybe I’ll try it, though depending on why the protagonist is difficult to like, I may not get very far right now.

    R Morgan, wow, no, Black Sun is absolutely off the table for me this year, and maybe ever.

    I haven’t read anything by Poul Anderson for years. Now I’m interested in taking a look just for this. I’ve got some of his somewhere around here.

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