Info-dumping

LukeLee

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I know there are a lot of posts on this and I’ve read a lot of them, but I guess in sci-fi it’s a very difficult line to walk.

I’m writing sci-fi for the first time, my other books were contemporary and historical, and I’m following an old school route of taking a horse-opera (of my own - albeit not a western) and turning it into a space-opera. In a way.

I’m still working through the first draft but I have two issues wrt info-dumping that I would appreciate your thoughts on. I will contribute to this thread myself of course as I rewrite and rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and....), so I’m not just being lazy or taking shortcuts. I have realised in my lurking of this forum that there are some incredible contributors who are very talented.

So, to the issues.
1. Species - My MC is not human but seems so. I don’t describe other humans except to point out a specific feature that my MC notices or comments on (I am writing in FP for this one). But for other species, I need to give the reader enough to understand what they are and how they behave. A feel for them, but in the shortest amount of words possible. They need to picture them. Other authors I’ve read describe the thing they are most like that the reader will identify with - hamsters, lizards etc. Of the occasions I’ve encountered this it works well for me, but it feels lazy for me to do personally. Am I making things too difficult for myself? How do you guys handle this? I think in some cases, I can handle with a show but not all. Maybe I just handle them all differently depending on the story at that point.

2. Backstory - In my original book, and in this one, the first few chapters are about an interaction between the protagonist and an antagonist. The interaction sets up the story to an extent (I’m not looking for critique at this stage but will later), but the trigger point is when the antagonist prompts the MC to self-analysis (in the original story this prompted a flashback but that wouldn’t work in the WiP). Again, I’m in FP so in WiP it is an internal dialogue where the MC justifies himself against the antagonist’s assumptions of who and what he is. The only thing is, it feels like an info-dump. On the other hand, it is the trigger point of the story - MC thinks about who he is and who everyone else thinks he is and then over the rest of the story realises he was wrong on all counts. In a nutshell. I’m not sure I can do this effectively without the info-dump. Looking back at my original story, I may rewrite that one day with whatever I decide to do with this one.

Anyhoo, I’m going to continue as is and when I finish the first draft come back to it and see how it handles. I usually read my first draft in its entireity without editing to see how it hangs together and that might be the point that I find it fits, or it is needed elsewhere or if the backstory is unnecessary for the reader after all.

I think this is a challenge for any sci-fi writer, hence the post, and I’d appreciate the wisdom of the hive.
 

Brian G Turner

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I’m going to continue as is and when I finish the first draft come back to it and see how it handles
I would definitely advise this first - the most important point about writing a first draft is to just get it finished. Otherwise, if you get into editing mode too early you can find yourself trapped in there, with not enough story to justify that.

The bottom line is that there will be issues with your first draft, sections that need rewriting or cutting, but you won't be able to see those clearly - or understand the changes you need to make - until you have that first draft completed to provide a general overview. :)
 

thaddeus6th

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Not the same, and I'm only working on it now and then, but I have a WIP with an MC who's essentially a bat-person (I'd call him a batman but that sounds like a billionaire). One of the ways I've changed descriptions a little is to focus on what he can smell as much/more than what he can see, and emphasise hearing things more too (because he has a sharp nose and good ears).

Height differences and things like that can work too.

As for physical descriptions, the first scene has him roosting which explains quite a lot (and is from the POV of a girl sneaking up on him). Mild woe can be a good way of introducing important physical features. So, soaking wet and that either not bothering them or being a huge problem, or going without food for ages (alternatively, have them eat several stone of food and just explain they'll go without for a few weeks afterwards).
 

LukeLee

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I would definitely advise this first - the most important point about writing a first draft is to just get it finished. Otherwise, if you get into editing mode too early you can find yourself trapped in there, with not enough story to justify that.

The bottom line is that there will be issues with your first draft, sections that need rewriting or cutting, but you won't be able to see those clearly - or understand the changes you need to make - until you have that first draft completed to provide a general overview. :)
Yes I’m definitely going to do that. I did the same with my previous novels. I sometimes even had it proof read before I’d edited it. As you say, story first.
I just thought I’d get the discussion going so I can get a full picture for when I do get around to it (probably mid-September/October if my previous work is anything to go by)
 

LukeLee

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Not the same, and I'm only working on it now and then, but I have a WIP with an MC who's essentially a bat-person (I'd call him a batman but that sounds like a billionaire). One of the ways I've changed descriptions a little is to focus on what he can smell as much/more than what he can see, and emphasise hearing things more too (because he has a sharp nose and good ears).

Height differences and things like that can work too.

As for physical descriptions, the first scene has him roosting which explains quite a lot (and is from the POV of a girl sneaking up on him). Mild woe can be a good way of introducing important physical features. So, soaking wet and that either not bothering them or being a huge problem, or going without food for ages (alternatively, have them eat several stone of food and just explain they'll go without for a few weeks afterwards).
Thanks, yes it’s a good point. The backstory on my MC is one element, but his interaction with other humans and how they respond to him on a subconscious level tells more about him than the backstory. Without the info-dump though this probably wouldn’t make sense and it shouldn’t be a mystery otherwise people wouldn’t understand the reactions. There’s no reveal or anything as it is part of the story without being germane, if that makes sense.
 

LukeLee

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M. John Harrison just blogged about this: infodump
Good article. Make my slightly less nervous of it but bouncing around that blog makes me feel inadequate and I can barely understand what’s being discussed there. I get a form of imposter syndrome (not a terrible one, just something I deal with) and that made it pop out like a whack-a-mole.
 

LukeLee

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M. John Harrison just blogged about this: infodump
The other interesting thing about that article is the advice on where to learn description. That IS something I do, but boy, when I’m researching warp drives, spacetime and fourth dimensions in proper physics papers my mind feels like it is getting more stupid not more knowledge. As we called it in coaching, I move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. :)
 

-K2-

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Reading your post and since you mention a FP-pov (which I write poorly in), it struck me, 'why' would an alien/human describe themselves? Most of us wouldn't, since we just 'know.' However, one place we all critically examine ourselves (or maybe I'm just vain), is in the bathroom mirror when we're alone. Am I getting wrinkles, how many strands of gray do I need color, is my rump sagging, is my waist still taut and so on. Moreover, how does my hair, skin, torso, weight, etc., compare to X or Y person...

So, in first person, as an alien, I might at first blush, note nothing about my appearance (or my race), until I perform a comparison... casually in passing, between myself and a human I saw noting the differences. Naturally, what you're really doing is describing this alien race that has no reason to be described by the protagonist otherwise.

Just a thought,

K2
 

LukeLee

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Reading your post and since you mention a FP-pov (which I write poorly in), it struck me, 'why' would an alien/human describe themselves? Most of us wouldn't, since we just 'know.' However, one place we all critically examine ourselves (or maybe I'm just vain), is in the bathroom mirror when we're alone. Am I getting wrinkles, how many strands of gray do I need color, is my rump sagging, is my waist still taut and so on. Moreover, how does my hair, skin, torso, weight, etc., compare to X or Y person...

So, in first person, as an alien, I might at first blush, note nothing about my appearance (or my race), until I perform a comparison... casually in passing, between myself and a human I saw noting the differences. Naturally, what you're really doing is describing this alien race that has no reason to be described by the protagonist otherwise.

Just a thought,

K2
Thanks for the reply. I do switch between FP and 3P when the MC isn’t in the story and it seems to work for me (or it did in the original book). I hadn’t tried it before but it just seemed to fit that/this story.
On your point, the MC doesn’t describe himself. His internal dialogue is about questioning who he is and why he is who he is. His physical description comes across from human reactions to him rather than from his own image of his physicality but that is done slower over the first ten chapters or so. He sometimes uses his differences to impose himself and then it ‘shows’ them. He is almost human, an experiment in DNA by other humans.
So on my issue 2, it is about how he came about, the circumstances in the galaxy that led to his creation and what it made him become. He is challenged on who he is by character 2, so he reflects on that before feeling he is justified in his course. That’s the bit, the chapter, that is the larger info-dump, or not. That’s my personal conflict (the second one) :)
 

Cathbad

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As a devout reader I don't mind a little bit of info dumping, but not when there's like two chapters explaining the hyper drive, or endless descriptions of alien landscapes that don't add to the story
Thanks for saying this!

I think writers worry about this far more than readers dislike it! I don't mind a bit of explanation, and I believe the best place for an 'info dump' is in a prologue! Action without context can be disconcerting.
 

tinkerdan

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One thing about finishing a first draft is that once you have it all out there it becomes easier to see where you need specific information and you can shuffle that stuff around. It's especially important for people who don't outline; however even people who outline might not know where the info-dump portions need to go until everything else is in line.

Incidentally: if you go to project Gutenberg and search for EE Doc Smith. They have both the serialized version of Triplanetary and the novel. The novel has a lot of added info-dump and it is a great demonstration of how info-dump can slow a novel down quickly.
 
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Steve Harrison

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Like Cathbad, I like prologues. However, if I have a lot of info to dump, I start a story with a great big dollop of it, then, as I write, I look for better opportunities to impart the info in smaller doses. This eventually whittles down the dollop and either leaves a shorter prologue or eliminates the need for one.
 

sknox

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My guideline: if the reader doesn't like the passage, it gets called infodump; if the reader does like the passage, it gets called description.

To put it another way, there's no such thing as infodump. That's just shorthand for "a description that went on too long for me and was boring to me and slowed the story down in my opinion." As shorthand, it's perfectly serviceable. But it's not like it's an objective thing a writer can avoid if only he learns the characteristics of the entity called infodump.
 

Overread

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My guideline: if the reader doesn't like the passage, it gets called infodump; if the reader does like the passage, it gets called description.

To put it another way, there's no such thing as infodump. That's just shorthand for "a description that went on too long for me and was boring to me and slowed the story down in my opinion." As shorthand, it's perfectly serviceable. But it's not like it's an objective thing a writer can avoid if only he learns the characteristics of the entity called infodump.
I like this and I think its very appropriate for fantasy and scifi. Both are settings which are going to require you to dump some info on your readers. Heck look at Tolkien and how much information and description he gives to the reader through his stories. In fact well placed the information isn't just informative, nor just desirable but its essential in such works.

If you've got Zargleblusters a readers needs to know, within the context and presentation of the story, what a Zarglebluster is in order to visualise it. If they can't then the story gets harder to follow until you can risk losing the reader because you've raised so many questions that they can't find the story for what they don't know about the setting.


As for ideas and tricks I've seen a few interesting methods used by authors to info dump;
1) Character list. This can be as simple as reminding readers which characters belong in which factions; but in a larger setting you might also use it to give a short 1 sentence reminder about who a character is. It's purely info, but it can help give a reader a quick easy to reference point to get a reminder who is who. Ideal if you've characters that jump in and out of the story and a big roster. Note be careful to introduce characters as they appear in the book when they first appear. Don't reveal that the "Dark Lord" is "Dave the Woodcutter" who we meet in the first chapter

2) Footnotes. Mostly used in Terry Pratchett's work to help flesh out background jokes and injokes established much earlier in the series. But he also uses them to (often comically) dump some info on the reader where it otherwise wouldn't fit into the narrative in a smooth fashion.

3) Short details at the start of chapters. For a sci-fi you could have short passages describing specific aliens or places "as taken from 'insert name of galactic famous guide'". This is technically pure info-dumping, but at the same time its not part of the narrative flow and it slips itself in and out of the story in the chapter starts. Once you've got a pattern going the reader expects it, however be careful. The trick as I see it is not to reference stuff that always directly appears in the chapter itself. In fact you might flesh out something from an earlier chapter (answering a question) or raise information that isn't important until a latter chapter. By that way you avoid spoiling content of the current chapter, but you can also set the ground work for future chapters.

4) Glossary. Yep many a sci-fi and fantasy novel has used one to list down in-world words and phrases so that the reader can understand them without breaking narrative or having to introduce a "Harry Potter"type character who requires the world be explained to them.

For a first person based book you might find it easier to have a Harry Potter type character. One who has a good reason to be unaware of many of the elements of the world and thus a justifiable reason for them to also be confused at new things they might see or experience. It also gives a nice natural reason for the first person author of the story to describe things in greater detail - esp those things alien to them (thus the reader also).
 

Robert Zwilling

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As a devout reader I don't mind a little bit of info dumping, but not when there's like two chapters explaining the hyper drive, or endless descriptions of alien landscapes that don't add to the story
For me, I would throw in long passages into matrimonial history, family history, military career background, when it has nothing to do with the action at hand and is supposed to be showing why the character is doing what they are doing. It may help build the character's point of view but seems to slow the story down more than desired.
 

Overread

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Something like a family tree I'd be wild enough to say just draw it out as a family tree and show it in the book. Blorin son of Blord, son of Blargle son of ..... yeah it might be informative but there are better ways to show it where the info actually sinks in rather than just washes over the reader in a haze.
 

zmunkz

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I think into-dumps in sci-fi are fine, as long as they’ve been earned. Early on, when we are meeting the characters, and first getting a feel for your writing, you haven’t earned them yet. We don’t need to understand the differences between you species and humans yet, either. If we do, in some particular way for some particular scene, well perfect: there is your opportunity to call attention to that specific difference. It raises intrigue and doesn’t break the flow. The rest really can wait until you have everyone hooked.

Backstory is a tricky thing. Myself, I tend to write the prologues during the first draft just to have the whole story laid out. I also tend to cut them later. Readers need less than you think, and they like figuring this stuff out or having reveals later, once they are fascinated by characters and conflicts. Getting it up front sometimes works. Think about books you’ve enjoyed and how they revealed things. Much less is up front that you’ll expect. Take Game of Thrones. All most all of the key historical insights and inciting events were teased out over time, leading to speculation and fascination and big-payoff reveals. How dull would it have been if the prologue revealed R+L=J, and all about why Jamie killed the mad king, and whatever else. Those events are why the rest of the story happens, but they were not needed up front.
 

Alex-Jay

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I seem to have approached this in the method of Point of View. My main MC (I have 3) is part of my alien race, but she is a spy on a Human ship. This way I'm able to do some level of an info dump in her spy-journal about both societies (differences, similarities, etc.).

I also have a Human MC, with a very young brother who tends to describe other alien races (learned about in some form of education) in that way kids do - randomly spouting facts and descriptions, lots of drawings that can be used to describe physical appearances without being in the middle of a battle (since these races don't get on due to a war).

Maybe not the most artistic ways of doing this, but sometimes you need an info dump. Depending on your plot, you might be able to get some natural dumps worked in (I created the idea of massive history lessons as part of army training to include certain pieces of necessary backstory).
 
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