Infodumping: It’s A Multi-Genre Issue

6 Jul

Believe it or not, I’m going to keep this one brief today.

I told myself a few weeks ago that I wasn’t going to read while trying to edit the rest of my novel (ha!) because sometimes it becomes distracting or discouraging.  But sometimes…I want to compare apples to oranges, you know?  See what’s happening in other genres.

Infodumping in Historical Fiction

Despite what I told myself, I’ve been reading a couple of novels on an off (because apparently I don’t just sit down and read novels straight through anymore; I either think too much about them or they bore me before they can get on a roll…100+ pages into the story).  Both are works of historical fiction with espionage elements in them because that’s what I’ve been craving of late, and I find myself getting frustrated because both do something that is highly frowned upon and typically attributed to the science fiction and fantasy genres: giving too much exposition at once.

And it’s not just any kind of exposition; it’s that tediously dry kind that seems to just carry on and on and on…because hey, it’s history-cal fiction and I have to tell you about the history of this setting, doggonit–even if it is done in the most boring/irrelevant manner ever.

Now, when a fantasy writer tries this it’s called “infodumping;” when a writer of historical fiction does it it’s called “lush period detail.”

Okay, maybe I’m just being cynical now.  Or maybe I’ve just become an impatient reader.  Or both.  (Lord, help me.)

Objective Subjectivity

Personally, if I have to sit through more than half a page of information that seemingly has nothing to do with furthering the immediate situation at hand, then I’ll get bored.  “Immediate relevancy” is kind of my litmus test as to whether certain information belongs in a particular scene–something I’m trying to live by in my own writing.

Key word “trying.”  (Sometimes you just want to hold on to bits of info because you’ve somehow managed to make it all nice and shiny.  Sometimes it’s just hard to let go of such golden nuggets.)

However, I’ve also come across longer stretches of information in novels that don’t bore me at all because they are told in a voice or manner that I personally think is interesting.

Anyhow, I get the feeling that labeling anything as an infodump is a partly subjective process because there aren’t a whole lot of quantitative guidelines out there (if any) and people always have different ideas about what’s interesting and what’s not.  I’m curious about what others think of infodumping, so here’s my question(s) to you all:

In your opinion, what qualifies as “infodumping?”

What doesn’t?  Is there a certain length or amount you just won’t put up with?  That you will put up with?

Also, how do you gauge what stays and goes in your own writing when you come across something that just screams, or maybe even just whispers, infoduuuuuuump…?

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19 Responses to “Infodumping: It’s A Multi-Genre Issue”

  1. T. S. Bazelli July 6, 2011 at 9:47 AM #

    Hmm it’s actually hard to make a distinction! Some writers do it so well I don’t know if I’d consider it infodumping, even though they pack a lot of it in. Maybe (just thinking) it’s infodumping if it doesn’t flow, and doesn’t fit well. I like your idea of ‘relevancy’ to the current scene. I’d rather know something when I need to know it.

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    • Tiyana July 6, 2011 at 11:07 AM #

      I think those are some other good things to strive for: flow and fit. Of course, both depend on what we as authors think of “flow” and “fit”–whether or not other people agree, heh. (Though, I guess if the majority of your readers aren’t commenting on how your information sticks out grossly or doesn’t fit, then you must be doing pretty well!)

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  2. Stephen A. Watkins July 6, 2011 at 10:27 AM #

    I don’t think there can be any hard-and-fast rules… One man’s infodump is another man’s, as you put it, “lush historical detail”. Or, as I like to say, “different strokes for different folks”. You know, somepeople will buy the encyclopedia of everything about your favorite novel/series/movie/etc. For some people… that’s just a lot of extraneous and unneccessary detail.

    The same can be true within the context of a book. The same level of detail is going to bore some readers and engage others. How do you stay subjective and put in just the right amount of exposition, but not too much? I’m not sure I can answer that. Even the “immediate relevancy” standard, though a good rule-of-thumb, is imperfect. As an author, you might have an idea that the reader needs to know something before the reader realizes they need to know it, and that it’ll be more satisfying to have known it at this earlier stage when it didn’t seem relevant after the pieces fall in place and the reader is able at last to connect the dots.

    So yeah… we should try to keep down the volume of exposition. But there’s not going to be a rule or a line in the sand. Just do what feels right, and question everything and try to understand why you’ve included any bit of exposition.

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    • Tiyana July 6, 2011 at 11:44 AM #

      Sure, I don’t think any single approach is going to be perfect, but I also think we all have our own personal criteria for judging the presence of infodumps and also allowing exceptions. As you mentioned, planting seemingly irrelevant details as a method of foreshadowing or revealing something later would be a good example of an exception to my rule-of-thumb, so thanks for pointing that out.

      At the same time, I would point out that the reason I consider “immediate relevancy” to be my general rule (for my current project, anyway) is specifically because I encounter problems of excessive and/or irrelevant information more often than I find myself wanting to plant information for later revelation(s). Though, that rule is not a steadfast law, just something I tend to go by. (I’m thinking of Barbossa’s stance on pirate codes and guidelines now, haha.)

      I like to think there must be some kind of method to a writer’s decision as to what’s too much or too little, however, beyond just doing what feels right, though I’m sure that also plays a fairly big role in all of our processes. And maybe, for some folks, it is a much more subjective process than I thought.

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  3. Mark Andrew Edwards July 6, 2011 at 12:07 PM #

    Infodumps come in every genre. For me, a bad info dump is any time we go off on a tangent unrelated to the immediate scene. Outside of humor writing (Tristam Shandy, Hitchhiker’s Guide, etc), those kind of infodumps are deadly.

    My rule of thumb is to keep info dumps to three paragraphs at most. Longer than that and I might skip ahead to the good stuff.

    But I think you’re right, done well, a big block of expository text can be very entertaining. I think part of it comes down to voice, as you mentioned. A ‘good’ infodump needs to:
    1. Be entertaining
    2. Be relevant
    3. Be unavoidable (sometimes there seems to be no graceful way to provide critical information. I say ‘seems to be’ because usually I can find a better way)
    4. Be informative. (It should ideally teach us something, these kind of infodumps show up a lot in didactic sci-fi but good infodumps leave us knowing more than we did.)
    5. Be brief.

    In Angel Odyssey, I actively tried to avoid infodumps. Any information about the world or the the characters I tried to express only as it would come up naturally in conversation. I did work in a little worldbuilding though, via epigrams at the beginning of each chapter but each was brief enough not to overstay their welcome.

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    • Tiyana July 6, 2011 at 8:25 PM #

      Heh, humor. Hitchhiker’s Guide is a good example of humorous infodumping and probably the most risky kind!

      Looking back, I think I’ve tried this briefly at least once in my story…a one-liner. It’s risky because I don’t know if anyone else will find it funny yet (it’s pretty random), but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

      I find it easiest to work in info through dialogue because I really enjoy writing it; though, looking back, if I have to do more than a short paragraph of narrative exposition, then I usually try to do it in a quirky and entertaining way. (Kind of like the narrators in some French films, namely Amelie. It’s very matter-of-fact but amusing in it’s own strange way. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec does it, as well.) Again, I guess humor plays a role there, too.

      I never really considered what humor can do for a story like that before, heh. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mark.

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  4. Anthony Lee Collins July 7, 2011 at 4:20 AM #

    I’m surprised I’m the first person to mention Steig Larsson. 🙂

    I have a friend who tossed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after the first hundred pages, saying, “It’s all just infodump after infodump.” And he was right, though I stuck it out (more or less) until the end. Obviously a lot of people (millions) were also willing to forgive the infodumps. But that’s what they are, and the book would be better if it had been edited.

    I’ll give a specific example. The book is a mystery, centered around the Vanger family. Say there are 20 members of the Vanger family (there seem to be about three times that many). If one of them is the criminal, it will be one of the top five (meaning the five who appear or are mentioned the most often in the book). Anything else is bad mystery writing (you can’t have the criminal turn out to be Cousin Eustace who was only ever mentioned twice, back in Chapter Two). So, all information about the bottom 15 Vanger family members (the ones not in the top 5) is probably infodumps. Some of it is background and general family information (some of which is important, in this case), but most of it is infodumps.

    Also, the specific specs on Salander’s computers? Infodump.

    As one review put it, Larsson was a reporter, and reporters have a phrase for this. He dumped his notebook.

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    • Tiyana July 7, 2011 at 5:20 PM #

      Heh, I haven’t read anything by Larsson before.

      I like how you point out revealing information about the most important characters. I think sometimes it can be easy to venture off into secondary/tertiary character exploration without finding a way to tie it all back to the main storyline. And for me, what makes “diversions” like that more interesting is when the author does find a way to bring it all together nicely—especially when I couldn’t see the connection beforehand.

      Being allowed to make connections between all elements within a novel is one of the most exciting aspects of storytelling for me—not only as a reader but as a writer.

      Even so, it’s nice to get hints along the way as reassurance and to keep the reader from wondering, “Wth does this have to do with the main story?” If I don’t smell pay-off for something that looks like an irrelevant divergence or a useless, never-ending infodump to me, then I may very well put the book down prematurely. Readers need to be rewarded, even if only in a minor way…preferably sooner rather than later. (And I imagine this would be especially important with mysteries; I say “imagine” because I don’t read them, heh.)

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      • Anthony Lee Collins July 7, 2011 at 7:32 PM #

        Your point about rewarding the reader is very true. Which is what Larsson doesn’t do (or at least doesn’t do consistently). Interestingly, the other two books in the series aren’t mysteries at all; they’re thrillers. Apparently he found that worked better for him.

        Of course, if you’re really sure of what you’re doing, you can play with the reader’s understanding of what exactly is the “main story.” Hitchcock did that (more than once, but the one that really caught me was in Family Plot, as I talked about on my blog:
        http://u-town.com/collins/?p=541

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  5. Tyhitia July 7, 2011 at 4:10 PM #

    I consider info-dumping to be when an author just drones on and on without any breaks. At least add some quick dialogue. Or, break it up–even if you don’t, at least make it pertinent to what’s going on.

    All novels, short stories, et cetera, need a little showing and telling. There’s no way around it.

    Glad I found your blog. I like it. 😉

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    • Tiyana July 7, 2011 at 5:36 PM #

      Hi, Tyhitia, and welcome to the club! Heheh.

      Yeah, dialogue can certainly help with infodumps, though I have to wonder if it isn’t possible to drone on with dialogue, as well. Unless you’re reading a really good play…

      Like you say, ultimately you need both showing and telling in a story. (It just seems like “telling” gets more of a bad rep!) I guess the trick is having variety and balancing the two in both dialogue and narration, when it comes down to it, huh? (Easier said than done!)

      Oh, and I’m glad you like the blog! It’s always nice to connect with other bloggers and readers. 🙂

      Like

  6. J. P. Cabit July 11, 2011 at 1:01 PM #

    I tend to wramble when writing. (Or should I say ramble when riting…you see what I mean?) I want to convey a sense of intimacy in my stories, perhaps this trickles into my narrative…?

    I guess more than half of an 8&1/2 by 11 page of 12 pt font? Would be my limit? (If I had one, lol)

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  7. Tiyana July 12, 2011 at 10:40 AM #

    lol

    JP! How I’ve missed your orangey presence…haha.

    Yeah, I think intimacy, at least in the third person POV, would be especially hard to pull off without addressing the reader through slightly longer descriptions. That’s the one place the author can most directly talk to the reader as opposed to via characters, whom are experienced through the observation of their actions–thoughts, too, but there is an opportunity for intimacy as well. (At least, being allowed to see a character’s thoughts feels more intimate to me than just watching them do their thing.)

    Hmm…did that make any sense? lol

    Anyways, I’m glad you pointed that out, JP, because I think third person POV stories that use trimmer descriptions tend to feel less intimate or chummy than stories that are heavier in description. Though, maybe that’s just me. (And I think it depends on your characters, their world and the type of story you want to tell, as well. Sometimes you may want a more intimate reading experience, depending on what’s being told, and other times you may want the experience to feel less warm and cozy. Though, this could potentially vary from scene to scene within one story, as well.)

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    • Anthony Lee Collins July 12, 2011 at 11:51 AM #

      Tiyana,

      I also think it’s an important factor that not all third person POVs are the same. I’m starting to rewrite my WIP and my second draft will still be in third person, but a third person that basically shows one person’s experience, as opposed to an omniscient narrator (as the first draft had). I think it’s going to have a huge impact on the intimacy you mention (plus getting rid of a lot of the infodumps), but still in third person POV.

      Like

      • Tiyana July 12, 2011 at 9:54 PM #

        That’s true. So you’re currently using third person limited, then?

        I’m using that perspective now in my WIP, though I wonder how strictly I stick to the “limited” part. Mostly I write through the eyes of the POV character in each scene, but sometimes as the narrator I like to throw in a brief comment with info that the viewpoint character couldn’t possibly be cognizant of (and I’ll often write it on a new line, too, just to make a point, then start the next paragraph to move on). I don’t do this often, just enough to show the reader at times that my protagonist can be oblivious to certain things when properly distracted–things that may become important later on. (Just one way of revealing character, and plot, as I see it.)

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        • Anthony Lee Collins July 13, 2011 at 6:27 AM #

          I’m in the process of figuring out how much (if any) I want to step out of my main character’s experience. As little as possible, but I don’t yet know how little or how much that will be.

          I did that in one scene where I (third person) mentioned what the character thought would happen for the next few days, said he was wrong, and said that there was one person who could have told him he was wrong, but she had her reasons for keeping quiet. Thereby informing the attentive reader that there is one character in the story who can see the future.

          Also, even with first person you can step out of the time for a moment, to a future POV looking back. That can be useful to inform the reader of certain things.

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    • J. P. Cabit August 13, 2011 at 1:35 PM #

      Tiyana, forgive me for being so unforgivably late to answer your comment lol 😀 I don’t know how I missed this…I’ve been busy.

      I like how you point out that “being allowed to see a character’s thoughts feels more intimate to me than just watching them do their thing.” Ha ha, so true! That’s the kind of intimacy I want in my story! I tried the whole awesomely-epic-sci-fi-fantasy approach to stories…not my cup of tea. When I write a book, I’d rather the reader feel like they’re talking to a friend, not being lectured by a professor.

      I’m infodumping right now, as I write, using the journaling technique, broken up by short narratives. We’ll see how that goes. Hopefully not too infodumpy 🙂

      Orangely yours
      JP

      Like

      • Tiyana August 13, 2011 at 7:48 PM #

        Haha, no worries. I’m just glad to have folks comment–period!

        Well, that’s the thing about the “awesomely-epic-sci-fi-fantasy” quality: I want that just as much as I sometimes want a rich, introspective character experience. I don’t really see why the two can’t be combined.

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