Again With the Infodumps

I've been doing some critiquing lately. I think I've critiqued about 8 short stories/novel chapters since I joined, and at least half of them have the same problem: infodumping. (I know I've talked about this before, but bear with me. There's an Air Pirates excerpt a'coming.)

An infodump is when the story stops, to exposit information about the world or the character. This happens a lot in SF/F stories because they involve worlds with which we're unfamiliar. We need them to be explained, but usually not as much as many writers (myself included) believe we do.

For example, in one chapter Sam is in danger of losing his most trusted friends. His pirating used to be an attempt to do good, but Sam has become just as bad as the people he attacks. While his crew celebrates the Winter's Night festival in Savajinn, Sam stays on board his ship to think. The following outline is how the scene went in the first draft:

  1. A paragraph about how Sam's ship was refitted from a merchant ship and the changes he made.
  2. Two paragraphs about Savajinn and Sam's relationship with the town they'd moored at.
  3. One sentence of Sam thinking.
  4. Four paragraphs about Winter's Night, it's origins, traditions, and the differences between the festivals of Savajinn and the Imperium.
At the time, I thought it was all important. No, that's not true. I knew some of it wasn't, but I wanted to share all the cool stuff I'd come up with - like Savajinn and Winter's Night. The problem? Most of it had no bearing on the story. To the reader, Savajinn is just another country and Winter's Night another festival. Unless the details define the plot, readers don't need to know more than that.

In my first edit, I cut the infodumps by half and rewrote the remainder to be (mostly) more connected to Sam. Below is part of the scene - the paragraphs about Winter's Night, both before and after. It's still kinda infodumpy (I bet I could cut the whole thing actually), but it's better than it was. I submit it here with the hopes of helping some of you who may be doing the same thing, but don't realize it:

The sun set alone beyond the sea. It marked the beginning of Amber Winter, when the amber sun eclipsed the warmth of its sister. At the same time, fireworks went off in town, for the first setting of the eclipse also marked Souls’ Day – though in Savajinn, where the monks had little influence, the holiday was still known by the old traditions as Winter’s Night.

Souls’ Day was a day to remember the dead, to celebrate their life and their afterlife. People would feast and pray to their dead relatives, then launch fireworks and hot-air lanterns in celebration. Winter’s Night, on the other hand, was not a night to remember the dead, but to fear them. On Winter’s Night, it was said, the spirits of the restless dead came back to haunt the living. The fireworks and lanterns were meant not to celebrate, but to drive the spirits back to their world.

Same traditions, different meanings. Although the monks did have this much influence on Savajinn: there were no Winter’s Night feasts before the monks came.

Sam watched the celebrations from the prow for a long while. There was singing and dancing, even a parade winding through the streets. Children went here and there dressed as ghosts in what was once a prank to scare older folks, but had since become part of the fun. Some children even dressed as Azrael, for the pirate had become something of an icon to this feast of death.
Fireworks were set off in the town of Chuffton below. Everywhere, people released hot-air lanterns into the air. It was Winter’s Night, when – according to Savajinn tradition anyway – the spirits of the restless dead came back to haunt the living. The fireworks were meant to scare them away, and the lanterns to guide them home, though few took those things seriously. Mostly Winter’s Night was another excuse to get drunk.


Tana said...

The before wasn't too much for me to handle perhaps since I was reading it for the first time. The after was great but you could def. add to it or trickle more info in later. I too hate the info dump but trickled in the first chapter can handle it well. Great effort!

Adam Heine said...

Yeah, I agree that the Before might not seem so bad out of context. But believe me, when you're in the middle of a story and want to know what happens next, four paragraphs about Winter's Night is kind of a killjoy.

BJW said...

Awesome. I tip my hat to you sir.

For your quality of writing and your brave (and excellent) editing. The After is really clean and snappy. Perfect.

R. Garrett Wilson said...

I like what you did with the four paragraphs. I can see where that would kill a story, if you are in the middle of a story. However, I have a similar problem but it is not in the middle of my storyline. I am currently working on a futuristic novel, 650+ years in the future. I tried to set up the history or evolution (depending on your viewpoint) of earth in the preface. It describes wars, plagues, advancements, a new intelligent being, etc. This is a huge info dump that lasts for around 4500 words. Any suggestions?

Adam Heine said...

I wrote about this a little here. Some broad suggestions:

* Start with the story: a character and conflict/tension.
* Introduce bits of the world only as necessary to understand the character and his conflict.
* Show, don't tell.
* Avoid prologues.

I think once the reader is into the story, you can get away with relatively short infodumps (though not 7 paragraphs, like I mentioned in the post). And if you use telling details to show aspects of your world, you can get away with a lot - even things that aren't necessary to understand the story.

R. Garrett Wilson said...

I like the advice, but I find your highlighted rule of 'avoid prologues' hard to get past. Many successful books have prefaces, forwards, prologues, preludes, or intros: Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, David Gemmell's Legend, Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember, JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, William Young's The Shack, Steven Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - just to name a few. Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra had both an intro and a prologue. Some of these introduce the story, some give a different viewpoint than the rest of the story, and some are info dumps. That is what I mostly have, an info dump - history, new terminology, and belief systems. There are a few pages that introduce the story without being part of the story - there is no other place to put that information. I can't ditch my intro completely just like these great authors couldn't remove their opening thoughts either.

Thanks for the input. I will try removing the 'info dump' from my intro and see how the book flows from there.