What's an info-dump?

Discussion in 'General Writing Discussion' started by Hex, Mar 23, 2012.

  1.  
    Hex

    Hex Mod in tooth and claw Staff Member

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    And when is an info-dump not an info-dump?

    Are there ways of weaving information into the rest of the text so that it doesn't come across as dumpy? or is it a matter of fitting it into the POV of the character?

    Any thoughts?
  2.  
    Bowler1

    Bowler1 Senile Member

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    I sometimes do an intro into a new section and use the first two/three opening lines as info dump and scene setting, then move onto the characters.

    I usually do it as I go along to be fair, little bits here and there so the reader won't want to kill me!

    I have once had two characters discussing a space ship, giving their thoughts etc - so info dumping on the ship I needed for my storyline, but indirectly.
  3.  
    springs

    springs Juggling life

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    Eye strain, today.... :D gargggh.
  4.  
    mosaix

    mosaix Active Member

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    I think it is the very nature of the genre that science fiction readers should have to put in some work to understand the backdrop to a story. Sometimes this means being patient and piecing it together bit-by-bit as the story unfolds.

    On the other hand I think that a lot of writers worry too much about backdrop and, consequently, fall into the much-dreaded info-dump pit.

    My advice is to trust your readers and not worry about it too much.
  5.  
    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    An infodump, I contend, is any insertion of background exposition long enough to pull the reader out of the story. Of course, what pulls one reader out of a story might not have the same effect on another.

    In dialogue or close-third narration, what tends to happen is the reader thinks "that character would not say/think about all that stuff at that time". In omniscient or first-person narration, you have more leeway, because the narrative isn't tied to a particular character at a particular time. In both of these, the author can divert into long passages of background if she wants to, and if the information is relevant and entertaining, most readers won't mind.

    The operative syllable is "dump". It's an infodump if it feels like the information has been clumsily dumped there.
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    AnyaKimlin

    AnyaKimlin Active Member

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    An info-dump is any description a reader/critic finds dull whereas Victor Hugo and Herman Melville exposed themselves in their stories instead ;)
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    Peter Graham

    Peter Graham New Member

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    Graham Analogy Corner:-

    You are sat at home with Dave Ten Pints, enjoying a few litres of white cider and listening to your turgidly remastered twenty five disc boxed set of Pink Floyd's Most Noodly Moments Ever (Volume 7). Halfway through Comfortably Numb, you suddenly you leap to your feet, pause the CD, turn the lights on, turn to the largely comatose Dave and say...

    "This next bit's brilliant! It's Gilmour's best ever guitar solo. It lasts for about a minute and is an object lesson in using contrast and emotion rather than playing widdly scales very fast up at the dusty end like Eddie Van Halen. It blew my mind when he did it standing on the Berlin Wall with David Hasselhoff and some of The Scorpions."

    Then you hit the play button again and sit down. You might think you have helped Dave to appreciate the solo, but in fact you have jolted him out of his drink-soaked reverie and left him thinking "Oi! I was enjoying that!"

    That's pretty much what an info dump is.

    Regards,

    Peter
  8.  
    Hex

    Hex Mod in tooth and claw Staff Member

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    Hmm. I must clearly rethink my approach to music (and reveries). And just to add -- I really enjoyed your Toolbox info dumping example, Peter, but it's obvious there. I'm not sure where the line is (or of there is a line).

    Okay -- so: an info dump is (too much) information introduced in the wrong place in a way that jars the reader?

    I'm guessing a single sentence can be an info dump if it's in the wrong place?

    This is difficult :s
  9.  
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Active Member

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    "Well, original poster," said Toby, relaxing in his chair, "as you know, we are both writers in the field of speculative fiction, or, as some call it, SFF. You're asking me what an info-dump is because you've been writing for some months and are now worried that you might have inadvertantly committed this error, am I right?"

    Toby began to type. Good thing I've spend so many years working in a range of office environments, where I picked up these typing skills, he thought, as he set to work.

    Basically, anything that fills in story gaps artificially and, as HareBrain says, in such a way as to break credibility, is an infodump. Areas to look out for include character backstory (especially as to explain things that crop up later), setting politics and technology.

    It can be got around mainly by keeping the downright explanation to a minimum. "Jim woke at 5 am to find his wife gone" tells us that Jim has a wife. Similarly, if Bob says to Jim "Hey, are you coming to the Space Commando dinner and dance tomorrow?" we have a fair indication that they are both linked to the Space Commandos. That's fine. However, if Bob says "Since we're both Space Commandos and served on the Zeta Reticuli campaign, where we won medals, we should go to the annual dinner and dance tomorrow", we're in infodump territory, as the information is introduced in a forced manner.

    Rarely, it can be done blatantly with success. However, this is rare and I wouldn't advise it. I have recently read a book called The Peshwari Lancers by SM Stirling, which contains a whopping great infodump in a dream, which to my mind doesn't work.
  10.  
    Hex

    Hex Mod in tooth and claw Staff Member

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    Alas.

    I wrote a whole manuscript with minimal info dumping, and sent it to an editor. He came back saying I needed more information on character backstory (to explain things that cropped up later), politics and, er, technology. So... I'm trying to introduce these things without info dumping, which turns out to be surprisingly difficult and extremely frustrating.

    However, suffering is good for the soul (probably).
  11.  
    SJAB

    SJAB The storyteller

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    The trick is to have your characters speak and act as if they actually live in the world you are writing about, but also add enough information that your reader gleans the same. Easier to say than do.

    Then there is the fading from limited 3rd POV to a more 3rd omniscient so that you can info dump a small amount of detail you need too.
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    MemoryTale

    MemoryTale Future ruler of the world

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    Or you're simply employing the Bateman tactic, and are about to murder Dave with a fireaxe.

    To me, an infodump is a descriptive section that goes on way too long, contains unnecesary details and could have been filtered in through other means.

    For example, you may have described a hotel room as having a double bed, a TV, a battered wardrobe containing five coat hangers, three white towels and a kettle with tea and coffee. Apart from the battered wardrobe giving us a clue about the quality of the room, none of this is needed as it's all standard hotel fare.

    However, if a hotel room is described as having a manequin glued to the ceiling, a black cauldrun in the centre of the room, a hammock, rubber gloves instead of lampshades and a beehive in one corner... Well that's something the reader needs to know as I personally have never encountered a hammock in a hotel room. Describing it all is still pretty info-dumpy though, because you could always have this exchange:

    The bellboy hung around with an expactant air. James glanced around the room twice - the second time to make sure he was seeing things correctly.
    "Why is there a mannequin on the ceiling?" he asked.
    "The establishment's little joke sir." The bellboy coughed and fiddled with his breast pocket a little, perhaps to indicate it was currently empty.
    "...And why is there a beehive in the corner?"
    "So that sir may enjoy a limitless supply of honey."

    ...And so on.
  13.  
    Coragem

    Coragem Believer in flawed heroes

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    For me it comes down to my use of POV and being true to my characters, even (at times) if this means explaining less for the benefit of the reader. So, I write very much from my POV character's perspective ("extreme" 3rd person limited, quite close to 1st person).

    ** I don't want my characters reflecting on or talking about things that wouldn't be remarkable for them.

    ** The way I write (my use of POV) pretty much everything has to reflect the character's personality. E.g, one of my characters always sees things in a sardonic and often bitter/envious way. This will come over whether she's offering up info, or describing a setting, or whatever.

    If I stay true to my characters I tend to find I avoid supplying too much info, and when I do offer up info it comes over in an engaging (character rich) way.

    I'd add that I generally find it easier and more natural to supply info in dialogue, rather than in huge blocks of prose.

    Coragem.
  14.  
    Warren_Paul

    Warren_Paul Banishment this world!

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    I don't really have anything to add, other than I agree with the rest. :D

    An info-dump is a bit of background detail that's out of place and unnecessary for the scene.

    To do it right we need to think about what the character would actually know, and if they really would think that in their situation. Are they experts on politics and technology, would they know the history of the world?

    When inserting background detail you need to make sure the pace of the scene suits it. If it is an action-like, fast-paced scene then you can't stop to think, so it wouldn't be right to mention something about the background in such scenes. And also that the thoughts are appropriate for the scene, like I got pulled up on awhile back. If the character has witnessed something horrific, they aren't going to be thinking about how pretty that building is, or noticing the clouds in the sky, for the birds chirping in a nearby tree. They are going to be thinking about what they just witnessed.

    The last example I read of yours was the proper way to info-dump imo, Hex. It's all about if the character actually has time to stop and think, and if they know the details of what they are thinking about.
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    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    As someone on this forum once said, "It's not the info, it's how it's dumped." I would add "and where." Of course how much information is too much or just enough will depend on the individual reader. How much do they want to know about the background? How much worldbuilding do they want? From all the related discussions we've had, I think it's clear that we can never please everybody; the important thing is to do it as gracefully as possible, so that readers who want the information won't (as HareBrain says) be thrown out of the story.

    Sorry, Hex, but it is complicated, and there are no hard and fast rules. You have to develop your instincts for what will work for the kind of book you are writing and the kind of readers you are trying to reach -- which ought to be readers just like you. However, I've met people who say they don't like description at all, but when asked to name their favorite authors they'll come up with a list of writers who use a lot of description. I think those writers slip it past them, so that they think they are imagining everything for themselves. So look carefully at your favorite writers, and see what they do and how they do it. They may use more background information than you think; or their writing may be just as sparse as you think it is.

    You are right that an info-dump can be as short as a sentence or two. It depends on whether it is intrusive or not. But for readers who are hungry for the background information (and if it is well-written) several pages may not be too much.

    I've met a lot of aspiring writers who labor under the delusion that if they put it into dialogue it isn't info-dump. Peter, I love your example of a dialogue info-dump. And MemoryTale, I love your example of how it can be made to work.

    And then there is the notorious, "As you know, Dr. Watson ..." where characters tell each other things that they already know, which is almost always clunky and obvious.

    But this, too, can work if the characters are arguing.

    Well, perhaps not a brilliant example, but you get the idea. They're each trying to make their point by bringing up information that the other one knows perfectly well.
  16.  
    RJM Corbet

    RJM Corbet Never Sure

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    Heavy info dumps can be separated and added at the end as appendices?

    There's stuff the reader needs to know. I think the main thing is the reader is extremely intelligent and understands that you need to include the information and is judging you by how skillfully and painlessly you handle the info dumps? Nothing can be concealed from the reader? It's a contradiction in terms?
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2012
  17.  
    Galacticdefender

    Galacticdefender SUN STEALER

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    Alastair Reynolds seems to have a few infodumps, but I think they are generally necessary to explain how stuff works.
  18.  
    Warren_Paul

    Warren_Paul Banishment this world!

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    I've seen this done before, can't remember where right this moment though, but I'd wonder if the majority of people didn't even take any notice of the 'appendices'.
  19.  
    David Evil Overlord

    David Evil Overlord Censored Member

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    An example of infodumping done well is a scene early in Up The Line by Robert Silverberg.

    The POV character stops at the display window of a bar. It is an enormous fish tank full of whiskey, and it has two naked women swimming in it. He does not think there is anything unusual about this form of advertising. This tells us something about his world and the sexual norms.

    Later, he goes home with the two women and one of the guys who works at the bar. He sleeps with the first woman. Later, he swaps partners, and sleeps with the second woman.

    He does not think "Oh, my God, two women, I thought this only happened in the letters pages of certain gentlemen's magazines." His only thoughts were about which woman was the most fun in bed. Again, telling us something about the way his world works (or perhaps just his mind, if he was an unreliable narrator).
  20.  
    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    Erm, just in case anyone gets confused, you mean an example of infodumping not done at all.

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