Conveying Background While Avoiding Info-Dumps

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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
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19 comments to Conveying Background While Avoiding Info-Dumps

  • Susan James

    Thanks David! This is so timely. I’ve just rewritten my opening chapter and its as if you looked into my brain to see what its wrestling with right now. Do you think Twitter or LiveJournal friending creates mind links? (grin)

  • This is always an interesting topic. I think I probably tend toward the minimalist pov when giving out information. Give out just enough for things to make sense, and let other things come out in action/conversation. My suspense/thriller novel involves vampires, though not in the typical, gothic-vampire sense, and the bad one has the ability to move between the living world and the world of the dead, which is a kind of a ‘waiting place’ for souls who aren’t ready to move on, having unfinished business or unresolved issues remaining in the living world. This Deadworld is not really explained until the end, though it is referenced several times throughout the book. My main reader commented several times about wanting more information about it, but I decided in the end that I liked the vagueness. I also take a good chunk of the story for the information about just how my vampires function to come out. Readers obviously want to know it, but do they need to? It’s a pretty fine line between frustrating the reader and tantalizing them to keep reading and find out.

    It’s a bit different when it comes to my fantasy story, where you have a world different than our own. Even more so because much of my book one suspense driven, and info stuff can put a serious brake on the pacing of things. The first part of the story is build up however, and I tried to make sure things like an understanding of how magic worked were in place before the crap hit the fan and things took off. Still, even with a great deal more information to try and get out there revolving around setting, magic, etc. I still try to adhere to the less is more philosphy. I believe readers are very good at filling in the blanks, even if this mean they aren’t getting exactly what you had in mind. If it makes sense, and provides enough for the reader to vividly imagine your world and characters, that’s all that is needed. There’s certainly a lot more info in my head about the world I made than will ever get out on the page, so it is always going to be a richer environment as a writer to work in, but the readers are very good at expanding on bits of information given. I’m fine if it’s not exactly what I had in mind, because my goal is to give them interesting characters in an interesting environment and provide a compelling story. It doesn’t take an encyclopedia of information to do that. It takes less than most people think or so I believe anyway.

  • Glad you found the comment helpful, Susan. Maybe those cyber-friendings do have a psychic component! I sense a short story idea….

    Jim, I think you’re right to tend toward a less-is-more approach, but as you say the line between frustrating readers and enticing them is pretty fine. If your main reader wants more, yoiu might want to consider beefing up the background a bit. The last thing you want to do is drive readers away from the book. What’s vague and open to you might be murky and obscure to the reader, and that you don’t want. I’m sure you’ll that balance though!

  • I usually don’t wrestle with this in my writing too much, slowly unfolding things throughout the prose. The latest thing I’m writing does have a little bit of the info dump feel in it, but it’s a sort of rough, which will be fixed later and it’s in the first few pages and probably the only real place I’ll need to worry about it. It’s a sci-fi, which I haven’t written a lot of. Mostly Space Opera, but based slightly in fact, like the mention of the Hadron Collider and using Rail Guns and Plasma weapons on the Earth vessel, things that we’re on the verge of now that might be commonplace in their time.

  • Daniel, if I was writing about that stuff I’d need someone else to write info-dumps for me, just so I could understand my own story…. As you say, letting it unfold slowly is probably the best approach, be it fantasy or sf.

  • Tom

    As you know, David, there is no single right way to do anything.

    I’m sorry, I just wanted to use that old much maligned classic just once. It felt good. Now I can go forth and write, without that constant, nagging need to do a “as you know, Bob” in my story.

    Thanks. That helped.

  • QUOTE: I’d need someone else to write info-dumps for me, just so I could understand my own story….
    Heh! I know just enough to fake it. Comes from that Jack-of-All-Trades quality I’ve got going. And I usually end up looking things up that I can’t figure out or have already read up on, so I guess in a way that is like someone else writing an info dump for me. 😉

  • I think instead of Info-Dumps a writer should use Info-Drips. A writer needs to plan ahead what he/she wants to relate to the readers. Then release the info in slow steady batches until the reader receives all of what you want to tell.

    I say this because I hate when writers like Robert Jordan (God rest his soul) comes up out of the blue with changes to the world. Like from book 1, we know about Callandor the Sword that is Not a Sword. It is supposed to be wielded by the Dragon. Then about book 6, we learn that Callandor can only be used safely if it is buffered by two female channlers and that the Aes Sedai knew this all along but never bothered to tell anyone. This causes severe WTF moments. Personally, I wish there was some sort of foreshadowing or hinting about this because it seems like the writer is making up the story as he went along if not.

    So there are extremes in both ends of the spectrum. As writers we need to know not only what to reveal, but when to reveal it. This is where I think a good Beta reader could help.

  • That’s why we’re here, Tom, to help you through those moments when cliches and bad writing habits encroach upon your creative psyche and demand outlet. Glad to be of service….

    Right, Daniel! I guess we all need info-dumps now and then, don’t we?

    Info-Drips! I like that, Mark! There are times as a writer when I wish I could change some of my own rules — maybe Jordan encountered just such a moment with the sword. But you have to be careful with those types of issues, and almost always I resist the urge to change my rules, choosing instead to write around whatever the problem is. Because those WTF moments are incredibly frustrating for readers. And yes, a good reader or editor can help with all of this stuff.

  • David,
    I am a big proponent of the tomato sauce method of info dispersal. Chop small, mix well, cook slow. (Or info drip! I like that too!) But in Bloodring, my editor actually *wanted* all the world history in the first 50 pages. It blew me away!

    The only way I could get it all in was to have it be the anniversary of the *day the world changed* and show it on TV. Looking back, I still don’t like it. It still feels like a cheap way to do it. But hey – the editor wanted what she wanted and it was my job to make her happy. It goes back to the comment we make here so often: *there’s no single right way* to write a book.

  • I actually thought that the anniversary thing worked well, Faith, and you still managed to bring in other important bits of info more gradually. But your comment does raise a good point. We have to write for ourselves and find our voice. But at times we also have to tailor that voice to the needs or demands or tastes of the market, our editors, or our agents. Like everything else, it’s a balancing act.

  • This is something I’ll be working on very soon as I’m real close to finally finishing my back story and will be returning to my WIP.

    I have quite a lot of information that is important to the overall story. In my first incarnation of my WIP I realized I was about 50 pages in and had yet to make any mention of the most critical divisive issue that exists in the world I created.

    In the second incarnation I’ve managed to make references to this right away with out any infodumps explaining exactly what I’m talking about.

    I know this is going to be a trial and error process for me. I expect it will take a bit of redrafting to get right.

  • Info-drips… *makes a quick note in personal writers guide*

    Good post, David. This is something I struggle with all the time. I think it’s one of the hardest things about writing well. Just enough information at the right time.

    I also think that crediting your readers with the intelligence to fill in some blanks for themselves is a valuable thing to keep in mind.

  • CE, it is a trial and error process. Sometimes you do too much, other times not nearly enough. I still struggle with finding that perfect middle ground. But you’ll get it, and as others have pointed out, readers of your manuscript will be able to help you with this, particularly if you alert them to your concern about the issue before they begin reading.

    Alan, yeah, info-drips is a great term. Thanks again to Mark for that one. Thanks for the comments, my friend. Trusting one’s readers is one of the greatest and hardest things for a writer to learn, not only on background info, but in all aspects of storytelling. Perhaps fodder for a future post….

  • David,
    Great topic. Unfortunately, the ‘enough to hook, but not too much’ method can also be overdone. Too little information can cause confusion which is perhaps more dangerous than boredom. It is truly a fine line to walk, and unfortunately I’m not a circus performer.

    NGD

  • Dave, as with so much else in writing, this comes down to trial and error, and to getting helpful, honest feedback from your beta readers. Given the choice, I would rather give my readers slightly too much information than too little, for just the reason you mention: confusing readers is a sure way to turn them off to a book or a series. If a reader finds himself going “I don’t get it” too many times, s/he is going to toss the book aside. As you say, better to bore them a little. But finding that fine line can take years of practice. As I mentioned in my post, I haven’t always been very good at it, and I still mess up. Thanks for the comment.

  • I do info drips. It’s one of the few things I did rather well from the beginning. Maybe because As You Know Bob dialogues and those prologues that are worldbuilding essays camouflaged as Very Ancient Chronicle always annoyed me. 😉

  • Yeah, Gabriele, those annoyed me, too. And though I’ve learned lots about doing info-drips, I did start off pretty good at them for much the same reason.

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