One of the trickiest things a writer has to do in any work of fiction is provide background information, be it about a character, a pre-existing circumstance central to the plot, or a detail about worldbuilding. The last thing we want to do in telling our stories is slow down narrative momentum with what is commonly referred to as an “info-dump.” An info-dump is an extended expository section that serves no other purpose than to fill in background information. Sometimes info-dumps come in the form of narrative asides; other times they appear in highly contrived conversations. The classic instance of this is the “As you know, Bob…” approach, where in the guise of normal discussion a character gives an expansive description of a world’s political structure, or the land’s magic system, or some unique, and no doubt highly creative quirk of planetary geology.
The problem we face as authors of speculative fiction is that our stories are often dependent upon arcane points of magic or worldbuilding or alternative history that our readers absolutely HAVE to know. So the question becomes, how do we convey this information without resorting to the dreaded “info-dump,” without slowing our narrative, and without offering it in a manner that comes off as totally contrived?
Let’s begin with a couple of basic points that I like to keep in mind as I’m writing. (As always, please remember the Magical Words Mantra: There’s no single right way to do any of this.) First, as much as I would like to tell my readers everything about my worlds, my characters, my magic systems, etc. it’s neither necessary or advisable to do so. And second, just as I try to pace my action and character development, I also pace myself when it comes to giving out background information. Put another way: I usually try to tell my readers what they absolutely NEED to know at any given moment in a book. If they need rudimentary information about, say, my magic system early on in order to keep up with the narrative, then that’s what I give them. If there are more arcane points that are central to the plot, but that don’t come into play until much later, then I save that information and slip it in elsewhere. Finally, I like to keep in mind my own experience as a reader of speculative fiction. I have found myself frustrated by a lack of understanding when authors are too slow or too obscure in giving out information. But I also like to discover things about a new world as I read. That process of discovery is fun, it’s one of the things I love about our genre. Give away too much too soon, and that sense of discovery is blunted somewhat, at least it is for me.
All of this is not to say that you can’t give out information at all. Sometimes we have to, and just as it’s important to avoid info-dumps, it’s also important to remember that not every paragraph that gives background information should be considered an info-dump. Readers have to understand the world in which they find themselves. They need to know about the characters they encounter and the problems with which these characters grapple. Conversation can be a terrific way to pass on information while furthering plot. But it’s important to keep your characters speaking in natural believable ways. For instance, if you were writing a conversation about our current politics you probably wouldn’t do it like this:“So, Faith, how do you think Barack Obama, our first African American President, is doing?” “Well, David, as you know, he’s only had 100 days in office, and has had to deal with an economic crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a swine flue epidemic, and other crises. Also, because he is African American, and because our nation has had a troubled racial history, he’s come under intense media scrutiny. So I think he’s doing pretty well on the whole, all things considered.”
People just don’t talk that way. They don’t in our world and they shouldn’t in imagined worlds either. Instead, you might take a more subtle approach, give your readers a bit less detail, but still convey the important points, knowing that you can fill in information as the story develops:“So, Faith, how do you think Obama’s doing?” “Not bad considering the load of crap he’s had to deal with. He’s had what? Three months? But with the whole race thing, people are watching so closely. I can’t believe all the media hype this past week.”
That’s how people talk. And though the details are sparing, we’ve still managed to convey a great deal. There are racial issues in this society, there is media scrutiny focused on this “Obama” character, times are tough, and this guy is pretty new to his office. Not a bad starting place, and we’ve done nothing to make the narrative or the conversation seem contrived.
Another way to convey information is through flashbacks or internal monologues as long as these, too, maintain a natural feel and don’t detract from narrative flow. Here’s an example from Rules of Ascension, the first book in my Winds of the Forelands series. The entire series revolves around racial conflict between the Eandi, who are people like us, and the Qirsi, who are sorcerers. This is the first passage in which I mention the Qirsi:Since early morning he’d been restless and uneasy, the way he sometimes felt before a storm. Perhaps it’s only that. Morna knew they needed the water. But he know better. Something was coming, something dark. Kara used to say that he had Qirsi blood in him, that he had the gleaning power, like the Qirsi sorcerers who traveled with Bohdan’s Revel. They always laughed about it, Pytor reminding her that he was much too fat to be Qirsi. Still, they both knew that he was usually right about these things.
Two brief paragraphs, but again we’ve learned a fair amount. The Qirsi are sorcerers. Some or all of them can tell the future. They don’t look like Pytor’s people, at least in the sense that they’re slimmer (actually they’re frail, but that information comes later, building on this). We know that there’s this Revel thing that travels the land. A fair perhaps? We know that Pytor has a woman named Kara in his life, though the way it’s phrased, she might not be alive anymore (she’s not). And who’s this Morna person? A goddess, perhaps, from the way she’s invoked here? I haven’t answered all the questions, and in fact I’ve raised as many as I’ve answered, but sometimes knowing which questions to ask is a good start, and here I’ve at least begun the process of introducing my world and the people in it.
The fact is, I’m not always very good at this, and I could give you plenty of examples of passages that border on info-dumps (for fans of Rules of Ascension, check out pp. 36-37 in the hardcover or pp. 23-24 of the paperback to see how poorly I handled my discussion of the actually rules of ascension). Again, it comes back to the points I raised early on: You don’t have to tell your readers everything, and you don’t have to tell them all they need to know in one passage. Give out information naturally, gradually. For those of you writing the second or third book of a series, this also pertains to the information about past books that you convey to your readers. When you reacquaint readers with characters or plot threads, you don’t have to review all that’s come before. Rather, hit the key points and move on with the new action. Ideally you should aim to make your book accessible to those who might not have read book I or book II, but as with other background information you don’t want to sacrifice the narrative integrity of this book to familiarize readers with the previous volumes.
There is more that we can talk about with respect to this topic, and I’ll be interested in what my fellow MW bloggers have to add. But let’s end this post here and move to our usual discussion. And if I need to say more about it next week, I will.David B. Coe http://magicalwords.net http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.davidbcoe.com