Infodumps

One of my favorite parts of writing sci-fi/fantasy is worldbuilding. I love drawing maps, brainstorming magic systems, writing legends, determining technologies... It's like playing Civ, except I can't lose.

The hard part is figuring out how to relay this information to the reader. The most common (and wrong) method I see, both in my writing and others, is the infodump. Where the story just stops, and we have to read a page or two of the history of the Elven nation, or a treatise on the Foobarian language, or a detailed explanation of teleportation technology.

It's not our fault. Our favorite authors do it all the time. Like every chapter in Asimov's Foundation and Empire starts with an infodump, and don't even get me started on Tolkien.

Even so, we're told not to do it, or not to do it very much, or to do it in such a way that the reader doesn't realize we're doing it. How do we do that?

One way, I think, is to work with the reader strictly on a need-to-know basis. Don't tell them anything about the world except what they need to know to understand this part of the story. If the entire story takes place on a single planet, don't talk about the history of the Galactic Empire's colonization efforts. Don't describe the detailed rules of magic if the protagonist never has to think of them. Don't discuss the fishing habits of Tartarians just because the protagonist gets on a boat.

It's hard, I know. We spent all this time building this world, and we can't share it with the reader. Sorry, but it's true. The reader doesn't care about the details of our world. They care about the characters and the story. If they love them, then maybe they'll be interested in the world, but usually not the other way around.

It means some things will never be shared. Or maybe they'll only ever be shared in an appendix or on your blog. But it means the story will be shared, and isn't that the main thing?

7 comments:

fairyhedgehog said...

I do think it's harder in sci fi and possibly fantasy than in mainstream writing. It seems to work best when the writer implies some of the background through the narration or the dialogue but how to achieve that is another matter.

It is frustrating to look at some of the greats and see what they got away with.

Natalie said...

Ah yes, I think you said this perfectly. Give the reader the info that's relevant—*when* it's relevant.

I'm not perfect by any means, but I work really hard to weave the information in with dialogue and small details. Much better than big chunks.

I hope someday people will care about all the extra details that don't get into my books.

Adam Heine said...

When my fans create a wiki site for my world, then my life will be complete.

Timothy Fish said...

Not that it particularly matters what it is called, but the term for what you describe is incluing. There's a lot of information the reader doesn't need. Even maps--and yes, I've drawn several myself--aren't really needed. Nothing wrong with having one, but I've ready many books with maps that I never looked at after I began reading. It simply didn't matter to me that Broken Tree was west of Fallen Oak or whatever.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Timothy. I saw that term on the Wikipedia entry I linked to, though I hadn't heard it before.

I never thought about maps as infodumps, but you're right about them. Though I love maps, even if they are unnecessary, I flip back to them every time a place name is mentioned :-)

Anonymous said...

It goes right along with "reveal information as necessary," but I tend to think a lot about what the point of view character would be thinking at a given time. That's the main reason infodumps bother me, even beyond slowing down the story - they're out of character. Sure, you might occasionally have to throw in a description of something with which your character is already familiar, just so that readers don't get lost, but the history jags present in some work are just ridiculous.

I also have this issue with words or phrases that the POV character wouldn't use. If a story is in third person close, giving us one character's thoughts and feelings, or CERTAINLY if it's in first person, then everything should be described as that character sees/thinks of it. Sometimes, you get the impression that the author hauled out a thesaurus or that s/he just couldn't leave out this clever turn of phrase that the POV character would never use.

/rant :)

Adam Heine said...

I agree with that, Anica. One trick (that I rely on way too often) is to use a POV character that needs things explained to them. Like Bilbo Baggins and Harry Potter.