How to keep from infodumping?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Dragonie, Sep 20, 2011.

  1. Dragonie

    Dragonie Journeyman

    One of the issues I have with writing stories set in a fantasy world is that I always feel the need to explain stuff that people who are from that world might not get. This results in a lot of infodumps and much frustration in my part. How can I explain things to readers without just having everything come out in dialogue?
  2. Johnny Cosmo

    Johnny Cosmo Grandmaster

    It's hard to say without some examples of your story, but you don't have to explain everything. The best way to not info-dump is to not info-dump. Leave an air of mystery, reveal things at a moderate pace, and be ruthless; if it doesn't need to be said for the story to progress, don't say it.

    If you feel the need to establish your history and mythos, then you could write a prologue. However, I know a lot of people are turned off by lengthy and self-indulgent introductions that do nothing to set the story in motion, and would much prefer no 'background setting' at all. Another option is to set other stories in your fantasy-world. I like the idea of setting standalone stories in an established fantasy world (perhaps short-stories, that each explore a small aspect of your world).

    As long you know your world and are consistent, it's fine to leave out the details. When you absolutely need to tell the reader something, don't introduce a page of solid explanation. When you do need to say it - break it up, Spread it out, mix it in, make sure something else is going on.
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2011
  3. Lord Darkstorm

    Lord Darkstorm Mystagogue

    There are so many ways you can show differences between this world (the one the reader lives in) and yours. There are times you have to tell the reader something they can't get in any other way, but if you try, you shouldn't have to tell the reader often. The second thing to keep in mind, the reader doesn't need to know everything, and usually doesn't care about things not directly related to the story. A sword the character carries that has been around for two thousand years does not need to have it's history told unless part of the story is going to get it, and part of it comes out along the way, and that story provide useful information about the sword that is important to the reader. Otherwise, knowing the sword is old is probably the most we need to know, and might not care.

    Authors need to know all about their world and the things happening in it. The reader only gets the story being told, and things directly related to it. In my world I need to know about 80% more of the world than the reader ever will. By knowing all the details, the writing gains more depth, even though the reader doesn't know all those additional details.

    The easiest way to fix the info dumps is to stop doing them. When you have a reader reading it, let them point out the areas they don't understand...not want to know more (which might be considered if all readers ask for it), but where does it lack enough information to make sense. Then deal with those spots.
  4. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Dark Lord

    I write my first draft as though I am writing a story that takes place on Earth. Before I ever stop to explain something, I ask myself "what is this roughly analogous to, and would I explain it there?" For instance, "Matri rode, by forlonsback, to Algon to deliver the message." If the sentence were, "John road, by horseback, to New York to deliver the message" I wouldn't stop to explain what a horse was. If I stop to say anything about New York, it would be why the message had to go there (Mary lives there, let's say). So, similarly, I wouldn't say anything further but Torth lives in Algon. After the first draft, I look back, clear my mind, and read it, asking myself "alright, is there anything here that is genuinely confusing, that genuinely can't be understood without further explanation?" I address that first, and I save a draft like that before I go on to the indulgent step, where I say "what can I describe to add atmosphere?" That's where the dripping fangs and all that tend to come in, usually.

    You could, I suppose, also do it in reverse. Right the first draft with every bit of worldbuilding you can cram into a sentence, then spend the next few months with a pair of scissors cutting out everything but the essentials, but that's probably a fair bit more tedious.
  5. Johnny Cosmo

    Johnny Cosmo Grandmaster

    I like this, but I'm sure I wouldn't disciplined enough to try your method.
  6. Meg the Healer

    Meg the Healer Mystagogue

    And sometimes you don't need dialogue to give the info-dump either. Your MC could be wandering the streets or something and sees a book or a parchment. Maybe there's talk of attending the village play and the MC could have an "internal dialogue" and then decide if the show is even worth watching. Or if they're looking around a palace that had been destroyed by war - you could have someone looking at it as though it was in its original state and how they feel to see the palace in the state it is now and why it was important that the palace had glass windows or a Golden statue or whatever.

    Or if people are really interested - you can always write Hogwarts, A History (or what ever the name of your story is :)) and I'm sure people will read it.
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2011
  7. SeverinR

    SeverinR Valar Lord

    The most common time I come close to info dump is when my MC really looks at something or thinks about history or the like.
    Simple enough I just have someone or something interupt them.

    Prologues are an info dump, usually I glance over it, then skip to the real story. They have more history or background then I need to know, but I guess for some it will help them get into the world.
  8. ShortHair

    ShortHair Mystagogue

    Over the years I've noticed a common problem among writers. They can't approach their own work from someone else's viewpoint. In other words, they don't have enough detachment to read a story as if seeing it for the first time, when they've been sweating blood over it for months or years. One part of being a good writer is the ability to become the audience, to gauge the immersive experience of a work that you yourself produced. It's not easy.

    To get specific, an infodump is a passage that interrupts the plot. Ideally, the reader will learn or absorb the necessary information about your story on the fly, so that there are no interruptions. You have two main questions to answer--what information is necessary to understand the story, and how do you present it?

    If a piece of information is not necessary, can you leave it out? If a story element is sufficiently close to a real-world analog, can you skip the lily gilding? For instance, if the characters ride animals that are almost but not quite horses, most readers won't mind if you call them horses and leave it at that. On the other hand, fantasy readers expect that to some extent, and you shouldn't disappoint them. It's not easy.

    As someone mentioned already, you might try leaving out the info in your first draft. Tell the story as if by someone in that world. As I mentioned already, you now have to read it from the perspective of someone from another world, i.e. ours. You'll see the places where a reader needs to know something, because it won't be there. That's half the battle, and the other half is placing the information where it's least intrusive.

    Writing well is not easy. Sorry.
  9. pskelding

    pskelding Lore Master

    IMHO the best method that seems to work is threefold -

    1 - Don't be afraid to toss the reader in and let them try to figure somethings out as they go... this works and writers like Erikson, GRRM, and others prove it. I'm reading the first Malazan book right now... OMG talk about throwing in the deep end and letting the reader figure it out! But I made it through to chapter 4 so far and I'm still engaged enough to keep reading.

    2 - Reveal small infodumps through dialogue when a character doesn't know something, this is a bit harder to pull off convincingly but you may have situations where a character doesn't know something and another does, perfect time to give short explanation in real people words not academic infodump. If you mix this with unreliable narrator you can come up with some great twists.

    3 - Reveal small infodumps during character reaction, dilemma or interior thought processes. Sort of obvious but it works far better than dropping a whack of text in the middle of a scene to explain something that the characters all know but the reader doesn't.

    As ShortHair pointed out you don't want to interrupt the plot with a infodump that just explains stuff.
  10. There are also the Jack Vance/Frank Herbert solutions: Footnotes, appendices for longer ideas, disparate prologue pieces at the begining of chapters. If you combine these with other options like dialogue exposition the reader shouldn't be too overwhelmed with any one strategy for description of pertinent parts of your setting. It also offers the option to not read about your wonderful ideas right away, they can read the appendix concerning it at the end of the chapter if they want, or whenever. It also has the benefit of changing your writing style up if you do go for appendices/prologue pieces, as they can usually be written in a much drier tone. Variety is sometimes helpful. The nice thing about sticking something at the begining of a chapter is that you can have it dealing with the subject matter in whatever way you wish, be it obliquely or directly. See Vance's "Demon Princes" series for masterful examples. There are drawbacks, it can be less immersive and no doubt jarring for some readers to be flipping around the book or looking at the bottom of the page for the explanation of whatever they just read about, perhaps making it harder to get back into the flow of your prose. On the other hand some readers appreciate the the thought you put into an idea, and recognize you couldn't fit it into the main body of text.

    Good luck!
  11. Dreamer

    Dreamer Apprentice

    Whenever I write a new story I try to avoid explaining every small detail. I wait until I reread it to see if there is a particular area that needs to be explained more in depth. I try to keep in mind that my audience should be able to
    fill in or follow along in a particular area. I will give descriptions of things my characters come into contact with
    such as other creatures, characters or settings. This I think will usually help the reader to imagine in their own
    head what you are trying to convey. If there is a history to a particular scene maybe do a brief flashback or a
    prologue, but keep in mind you don't want it to over take the actual story you are writing. If there is a great deal of information that could be key to the piece you are writing maybe there should be two stories.
  12. Ghost

    Ghost Grandmaster

    I think this is the best way to avoid infodumps. A lot of things don't actually need explaining. People can figure out what's going on by the context. You could also spread the infodump around, writing a line or two in different chapters or scenes to explain something a little better. Info-littering, I suppose. If I have a story where people have to sacrifice squirrels to perform healing magic, I can allude to the MC not having enough squirrels to get rid of a cold, have him get a squirrel out of a trap, and then show him healing himself later.

    Yeah, I didn't sleep much last night, so sorry the example is silly and too simple.

    If it's historical information, perhaps you can hint at it by showing the effect it has on your character without the topic taking up an entire conversation. Perhaps we're talking about a war. Wars do a lot of damage, so showing the people around the MC missing limbs, his town in an economic slump, and anger at the group they were at war with would be better than a few paragraphs detailing why Strangelandia broke the alliance with Someplace and caused the war to start. I'd rather see a debate with friends or neighbors than a long-winded explanation of something the characters should already know.

    If infodumping is a really big problem, maybe you can get some beta readers and write under the assumption that readers will figure things out. You could ask the beta readers to note which parts need more clarification.
    Devor likes this.
  13. Laughing_Seraphim

    Laughing_Seraphim Journeyman

    I don't think exposition is bad in small doses, it adds depth to your world. Doing it with dialogue is a practice I shy away from whenever possible. Why would two characters from another planet be spewing common, assumed knowledge to each other? So long as you keep it interesting, and it doesn't mutilate your rhythm then I see no problem with it.
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2011
  14. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    You certainly have a point, but I think there's an advantage to having a character explain something in lay terms, especially when it comes to pieces of the world's possibly complex story. If you can have the reader learn the story along with one of the characters, it will help the reader to feel like a part of the world instead of as an outsider confused by a textbook. I also think it helps the author to visualize and understand how the reader is reacting to the story.

    In fact, if there's a strange history going on, I might recommend writing a scene where one character explains it to another character, even if it doesn't appear in the final work. I think it'll help just as an exercise to see it through someone else's head.
  15. Benjamin Clayborne

    Benjamin Clayborne Dark Lord

    Exposition can be done without characters explaining things to each other. We learn most of the backstory in A Song of Ice and Fire from characters just reminiscing or thinking about it. GRRM writes so well that you find it fascinating, and he also avoids doing it in huge blocks. A short paragraph here about something that happened to character X once. Then some action (or some other thoughts about what's going on in the present). A tidbit here or there, later on. I don't think it's really that difficult.
  16. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick Staff Moderator

    My own personal guidelines:

    1) Give the reader information through characters.
    2) Give the reader information on a need-to-know basis.
    3) There may be things that the reader never needs to know. For these, give subtle hints or don't tell.

    Example of #3: My story takes place on two planets that orbit very closely to each other. These two planets used to be one planet. In 155,000 words (which I'm rewriting as two books), I NEVER told the reader this. My characters don't know about this, so why would the reader need to know?
  17. Lord Darkstorm

    Lord Darkstorm Mystagogue

    One aspect to one character telling another character something, is that not everyone knows everything. How many here are programmers? (rhetorical question) For those who aren't, it would be perfectly reasonable, and probably quite boring, for me to tell you whatever you wanted to know...probably more than you wanted. The point is, if one character knows things the other does not, and some event in the story triggers a reason for relaying that information, then that is something that would easily go into dialog and it work quite fine.
  18. Amanita

    Amanita Scribal Lord

    Weird as I am, "infodumps" often are among my favourite parts of a novel. If I like a story, I can hardly get enough information about the characters' backstory, the world's history and the workings of the magic system. ;)
    I also love the "quest for information"-storylines where the characters spend plenty of time trying to solve some kind of mystery, unveil some secret or anything of the sort. That's one of the things I liked about the first Potter books. I also liked the "Dumbledore explains it all"-scenes in books one to four, in the later books it got annoying.
    One piece of advice I can give to everyone: Do not spent several pages where your characters retell events the reader already knows about.

    The "Pensieve" in Harry Potter is an interesting device to get information across because it enables the protagonist to witness certain events for himself. Other forms of magic might offer something similar but this shouldn't be overused. (As the Pensieve is in the last two HP books.)
    If the protagonist is already familiar with the relevant information, trying to show them through the narrative would be the best option. If this isn't possible, there might be a chance for him to tell someone else about it.
    If there's information neither the protagonist nor the reader knows about, he needs to find out about it in some way. This can get boring and repetive of course, but it doesn't have to. In my opinion it's very important to tell it in a lively dialogue where all characters are emotionally involved. The information given should mean something to the protagonist and to the person who's telling him about it as well.
    Is the protagonist happy to find out about this? Is he shocked because the things he's hearing are so terrible? Is he surprised because he used to believe that it was completely different? Or any other response.
    And what about the person who's giving the information? How does he feel about it? Is he happy to disclose it or would he rather keep silent about it? Does he think the protagonist is too young or shouldn't know for some other reason...
    This way, exposition and character-buildung can easily be combined and the plot can be advanced at the same time.
  19. Laughing_Seraphim

    Laughing_Seraphim Journeyman

    I think David Brin does a great job in the uplift trilogy with Brightness Reef, Infinities Shore and Heavens Reach. He uses plain old narrative exposition, characters thoughts and even conversations albeit sparsely. The third book, I believe, he seems to make use of the narrative form much more and the book reads smoothly.

    The Black Trillium, at least one of the authors work therein, had some very subtle and implicit exposition that proved to be very artfully done.

    I would still stand by the notion that tribesman1 one is not going to be explaining to his lifelong peer how the water Buffaloe migrated south due to global climate change and thus left their people with little to eat.

    So this one would have started with somehow explaining that twins chieftans were born as a massive meteor flew by their planet, putting on a light show as it passed and shed fragments into the atmosphere.

    X year later, they are men now...

    Example one.
    "Dogmar, life has been hard since the climate cooled and the water buffalo migrated south, never to return. This has left our people without food. " Said Hogmar as he looked wearily out onto the plain.

    "This makes me really sad inside, Hogmar." said Dogmar.

    Dialogue, dialogue.


    Example two.
    "I worry that our tribes children will never again grow fat Dogmar."
    As Hogmar uttered the words he thought back to how the weather had grown colder, and as it did fewer of the water buffalo came back north. Eventually none of them returned to the plains. Without the herds his people had relied on for many generations it had become difficult to feed everyone through the summer, nevermind the winter.
    "You are right to worry." A great sense of sadness and dread welled up inside of Hogmar as he spoke the words, knowing they had no plan to save their people.
    Neither one of the twin chieftains knew how bad the situation actually was. Their tiny isolated home had been pulled from it's orbit by a passing meteor which had heralded their birth decades ago and now settled into a much more distant orbit from their sun. The planet they knew and loved would soon become a frozen wasteland.
    Dialogue, memory, dialogue, thought, narrative.

    I am writing from work, in a hurry, but you can see the difference. This is what I see as being a fair method. Use dialogue to introduce the problem from the characters perspective. Once it is out there, an author is free to expound through a variety of methods.
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2011
  20. Lord Darkstorm

    Lord Darkstorm Mystagogue

    I know this is a quick example, but this part I would say breaks the narration (unless they are about to be invaded by aliens that will teach them all about the stars and orbits, ect). Prior to that, the example is good.

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