Columns > Published on January 30th, 2013

Info Dumps Aren't Evil

Soon after a new writer dares to reveal their intentions to write a novel, they start to get advice.

"Don't do it! You can't make any money as a writer," says the serious minded business person. (As if a writer had the qualities necessary to make money elseways.)

To newly minted writers, self-appointed literary stylists will often quote such axioms as, "You must strictly avoid –ly words," and "The passive voice is never used by a professional writer."

For the speculative fiction writer, buried among all the "never do its" and "shoulds" will be this little gem: "Avoid info dumps at all costs."

All of us as authors can become so enamored with our world building that we give overly detailed descriptions of time and place without moving the story forward in any way.

Like almost all writing advice, this pithy little aphorism costs the giver almost nothing to hand out but requires the receiver to decide what to do with it. After all, that advice might be the key to unlocking the whole secret of becoming a writer, and thus it must be considered carefully. I can lose whole weeks worrying about a piece of advice I get from fellow writers.

True story: I was once told that my time frames should never be too specific in a book. In other words, I should never say, "Six hours later…" Rather, I should say something like, "Later in the day…" I spent eight or nine hours worrying about time references in my manuscript, trying to make sure they weren't too specific. In some cases, it was good advice, but in many instances, it didn't help the narrative at all and potentially got in the way. By the end, I found myself tempted to rebel and do just the opposite. "Six hours, three minutes and twenty seconds later…"

I have found that a healthy response to almost all writing advice is to answer it internally with one's own staff attorney. I keep an attorney on retainer in my pre-frontal cortex, just to handle the reams of good advice I am given each day. When given a piece of unwanted but potentially sagacious pith, I simply hand it over to my attorney, and she responds with a two-word, double-spaced, typed memo and a bill for an hour's worth of work.  The memo reads exactly the same each time. "It depends."

Like all aphorisms, the command to avoid information dumps holds within it a grain of truth which can improve a speculative fiction writer's prose. However, a couple of recent experiences have caused me to question whether speculative fiction writers have become so afraid of providing their readers with plot, setting, and character information that they are falling off the other side of the cart. After all, there are two sides of the cart when it comes to information and scene setting. Without proper setting of scene, character, and world in a work of speculative fiction, it can become quite hard for a reader to follow a narrative.

Not too long ago, I read an otherwise wonderful work of fantasy. The author had created a world in which there was some form of magic and in which three different races of creatures inhabited the same city simultaneously, each with their own physical characteristics. As a top-notch narrator, he or she held closely to his or her character's point of view, and as such, provided little physical description of one of the main characters in the story. The other characters in the story took her appearance for granted, so they never discussed it clearly. Without this description, it became difficult to picture the character and caused me to struggle to "see" the story in my head.

This author is not alone. There have been other instances recently in which I have read such sparse prose that it felt like the writer was checking boxes while running from one plot point to another without giving any description or information at all to fill in the story. There are some writers who have taken the axiom about information dumps to heart to the detriment of their work.

Almost all fans of speculative fiction are familiar with the other side of the cart. We have all read dreadfully dull passages of prose which go on and on about esoterica that is neither germane to the plot nor particularly interesting. All of us as authors can become so enamored with our world building that we give overly detailed descriptions of time and place without moving the story forward in any way. In science fiction, this can also include long explanations of physics or other astronomical scientific facts.

After all, we have put huge amounts of thought and effort into both our research and our world construction before we ever put down the first word of our story. It is only natural that we want to try and display that work. However, in many cases, our readers aren't nearly as interested in our world as we are. Often, they only want enough detail to keep the sleeping dragon of their disbelief at bay. Anything more and they tend to get bored.

The more your information dumps relate directly to a story element currently at play in your narrative, the easier it is to hold an audience's attention.

Information dumps can be particularly deadly when done poorly right at the beginning of a book. Here the author wants to both set the stage for the action to come and to introduce their readers to the world they have constructed. The tendency can be to give overly long descriptions and explanations without intertwining enough plot to keep the story moving forward. One of the worst offenders is JRR Tolkien—who also happens to be my favorite author. Tolkien had (literally) several millennia worth of back story upon which to draw when creating his masterwork The Lord of the Rings. Large chunks of it come rolling out in the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly in the first two chapters. Tolkien's choice leaves fans like myself saying to new readers, "Stick with it until you get to Rivendell. It will get better. I promise."

The funny thing is now that I love Tolkien and the world he created, I adore the first two chapters of his book. They are rich and wonderful introductions to the characters I love and the amazing world of Middle Earth, but they were a terrible chore the first time I read them. I kept wondering when something was going to happen. I know many readers who have given up on The Lord of the Rings never to return.

So is Tolkien a bad writer because he has lots of info dumps throughout The Lord of the Rings? Uh, no. Last time I checked, it remained one of the top ten most read books in the world.

Let's get rid of this idea that information dumps in speculative fiction are evil. Like a well used adverb, they can improve your prose. In some ways, how much background information an author gives a reader is up to them. It will always be a matter of taste and personal style. Tolkien's style does not appeal to all readers, and for others a sparse "just the facts, Ma'am" approach won't work either. If adverbs and info dumps have fallen out of favor, it is because they are so often abused. The problem isn't that authors give too much or too little information to their readers. Rather, the problem is that too many authors do their information dumps poorly.

So how do you keep a paragraph on setting or culture from becoming boring? To be honest, I am not sure that I have anything definitive to say on that topic. I would love to hear some of your feedback in the comments, because I am sure that many of our readers have great ideas. For now, here are three working hypotheses of my own:

1. Integrate them into your narrative as much as possible. Not all information needs to be given to the reader at one time. One mistake authors make is trying to do too much right at the beginning of the story. It's like trying to explain what "offensive holding" is in American football to someone who doesn't even understand the concept of a "touchdown." Start with the basics and then introduce new information along the way.

2. The more your information dumps relate directly to a story element currently at play in your narrative, the easier it is to hold an audience's attention. In other words, if you want to wander off on tangents, more power to you, but make sure your tangents are interesting to other people, not just yourself.

3. Make your information tell a story. Tolkien had huge amounts of historical background which flesh out his information dumps. His world building often comes in the form of stories and histories from earlier eras in Middle Earth. This lends a rich depth and solidity to his world he couldn't achieve otherwise.

In my own novel, Aetna Rising, I spent some of the first pages talking about the setting: a small, icebound moon, barely habitable for human beings. I made the existence of life on Aetna into a story in itself, explaining the chance forces which interacted to put life where it didn't belong. That helped keep my info dump interesting. The setting has been one of the most loved parts of my book by commenters on Amazon.

What ideas have you used in your own work to convey information without losing your audiences attention? I am interested to hear what you have to say.

Image courtesy of Melissa Rogers

About the author

I am a full time writer and blogger living in Vancouver, Washington. I am an author of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as a contributor to the GeekDad blog on Wired.com. I write on a wide range of topics. I am the author of two published pieces of Science Fiction and a best selling book on everyday personal finance. Currently I am working on my third story set in the Pax Imperium universe and a book on how to survive serving on an HOA or Condo Association board. When not waxing poetic on various aspects of fiscal responsibility, I tend toward the geeky.

When not poised over the keyboard, I love to spend time with my family. I am married to an angel, Jaylene, who has taught me more than anyone else about true mercy and compassion. We are the parents of three wonderful girls. As a group we like swimming at the local pool, gardening, reading aloud, playing piano, and beating each other soundly at whatever table top game is handy.

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