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Thread: How to keep from infodumping?

  1. #1

    How to keep from infodumping?

    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. #2
    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 by Johnny Cosmo; 9-20-11 at 2:25 PM.

  3. #3
    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. #4
    Senior Member Ophiucha's Avatar
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    Feb 2011
    Vancouver, BC
    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.
    currently writing strawberries & pearls.

  5. #5
    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.
    I like this, but I'm sure I wouldn't disciplined enough to try your method.

  6. #6
    Senior Member Meg the Healer's Avatar
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    Feb 2011
    Along the Old Road
    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 by Meg the Healer; 9-24-11 at 9:40 PM. Reason: A's and G's make all the difference.
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  7. #7
    Senior Member SeverinR's Avatar
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    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. #8
    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. #9
    Senior Member pskelding's Avatar
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    Aug 2011
    Tianjin, China
    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.
    Paul Skelding - Blog about living in China, reading and writing.

  10. #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!

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