The InfoDump Scene, part 2.

Faith HunterFaith Hunter
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Morning everyone!
It is 12-12-12.
How cool is that!

I was asked a question by Nathan Elberg last time I posted about InfoDumps. He asked: >>But what if the info we’re dumping is part of back-story, previous events that need to be known, but don’t warrant a chapter of history? I’ve had trouble with that. Do we do it as memory flashbacks interrupting action? Someone telling a story? How do we introduce the behavior and deeds of characters who were dead before the novel began (protagonist’s father and grandfather)?<<

It was a great question, and it warrants a full and complete answer. Unfortunately, I can’t give one in one day’s posting because it involves a lot of examples. So I am going to start with a very difficult info-dumpish-scene from the first novel in my own Rogue Mage series, BloodRing. Rogue Mage is an alternate reality post-apocalyptic series, sorta like X-Men meets the Left Behind series, but without the religion. The book was purchased at auction by ROC (not my current editor) and I knew the rewrite would be hard. But I had no idea how hard.

First off, the book was 40,000 words too long. And then the editor wanted world-building before we got into the action of the actual story. That meant adding to the text. Of an already-too-long-book.

There were specific world-building questions the editor wanted answered in the first 50 pages. Yes. In the first 50 pages. Yes it would take away from the action and slow the book down. And yes, I did what my editor asked. She bought the book. I wanted to work with her. Rewriting to the editor’s specs is a part of the business if you want a long career. I did and I still do.

Here is a partial list of the editor’s requirements:

  1. How does the world work in the physical sense? Transportation, trade, currency, government, military, technology, climate, communications, species relations, (others).
  2. What happens if humans discover the Main Character?
  3. What do seraphs look like? Do they have wings? Fly?
  4. What happens when the seraphs get near mages? Humans?
  5. Why did they kill humans?
  6. What is the history of the world in the last 105 years since the End of the World.
  7. Establish relationships between the 4 main characters.
  8. And other stuff…

Ummm, yeah… That was a lot to cover in 50 pages without infodumping. A LOT of info! Plus cutting 40,000 words. I talked about how I did that word-cutting in a past post, but it’s been so long I can’t find it. If you want to know how, I’ll address that another time, but it involved taking out 20,000 words and putting them in to book two, then revising for tightness of prose (14,000 words) then negotiation with the editor for page count instead of word count. But I still had to world build.

By page 35 of the rewrites, after writing an entire new first chapter, I was ready to address the End of the World. MAJOR info-dump. So I cheated. Yep. I did. But it worked. And it worked well enough that the scene also addressed a good measure of the editor’s other world-building questions. I let the characters turn on SNN (Seraph News Network, though that never appeared in the text anywhere) and watch the end of the world. It addressed technology, what seraphs looked like, and a host (koff koff) of other stuff. Below is the infodump scene.

Of course that raises the question would I do it the same way now? I have no idea. But here it is. And because this is so long, we’ll pick up here next time.

Faith
www.faithhunter.net

The picture cleared and he tuned it to SNN.  Three digital video feeds ran simultaneously, two stacked rectangles on the left with the events of the day, and a long narrow one on the right of a reporter dressed in purple robes made fashionable by the seraph Uriel last year in his appearance at the White House.  Three text messages raced across the bottom of the screen.  Everything in threes. 

The television blinked and brightened.  With the first instant of video feed, I was reminded of the holiday.  This was the hundred fifth anniversary of the start of the Last War, and the eighty-seventh anniversary of the last great battle.

 “This date marks the commemoration of both the first and the final battles, the date when all mankind celebrates the end of the world, the announcement read”  I snorted.  Only humans could celebrate the death of six billion people.  “Here, the modern world first saw the Death-Seraph Azrael as he lifted his sword over the city of Paris at the start of the first of the three great plagues—” 

Rupert muted the sound and placed a hand on my shoulder.  On the screen, the ancient handheld video camera captured the first ray of scintillating light, the bursting prism of power as a Seraph of Death appeared in a cloud of fire, alighting on the very tip of the Eiffel Tower, golden wings outspread, sword held aloft.  Azrael, the harbinger of the end of the world. 

Well, sort of.  Things hadn’t quite worked out like the great prophets had expected. 

In the famous video, the shot tilted as the camera fell and bounced, landed, still running, but resting on the former photographer’s body, the seraph framed as he lifted his sword.  The photographer’s hand appeared at the bottom of the field of view, twitching, changing color to ruby red, then bleeding as capillaries swelled and burst.  The twitching stopped.  The seraph turned and faced the camera, as if he knew it still recorded him.  I didn’t have to turn the sound up to remember the famous words as Azrael cursed the city in the name of the Most High.  Only one thousand people in the whole of the city of Paris survived the first plague.  One thousand.

The screen changed, displaying the customary three shots of SNN.  In the largest, I saw the mushroom clouds of the few nuclear explosions, the first detonating in what had been the Koreas and in China, followed by the three on the west coast of the United States, eight in Russia, two in the former Holy Lands, and ten on the continent of Africa. 

In the stacked footage on the left of the screen were the twin seraphs, Mordad and Murdad, swords raised over Jerusalem and Mecca respectively.  The center screen mutated to the arrival of Metatron over Washington D.C.  Metatron, raven-feathered, the Seraph of Death.  Not one person in the most powerful city on the face of the planet had survived the first plague, all dead in less than twenty-four hours, though the president and his cabinet had escaped into a missile silo somewhere and survived.  Then shots of the Kremlin, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, Singapore, Bombay, Frankfurt, Geneva, and on and on as hundreds of thousands, as millions, died in the streets, all on the first day of the first plague.

The second plague followed wars, pestilence, death, all displayed on the three screens, fast-tracking the end of the world as it once was.  Not once did the Most High appear.  As always, the announcer would be careful not to voice the fact that God the Victorious had never been caught on film.  The only time a reporter had commented on the fact, she had fallen dead on the set, suffering a massive pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest.  All quite natural, or so they’d said.  No news analyst since had been brave enough to test the theory.

Each of the three screens depicted storms, as the earth’s climate underwent terrible change from mild global warming to ice age in months, the result of nuclear bombs, volcanoes, and earthquakes, just as scientists had long predicted.  Not that there were many scientists around to gloat.  Nine in ten had died, in proportion to the rest of humanity, the wrath of the Most High, God the Victorious, sparing no one in any socio-economic, intellectual, or religious group.

The screen shifted, showing rioting in the streets as fanatics from every major religion claimed the end of the world and the ascendancy of their own belief system.  The seraphs reappeared, this time not glowing and beautiful, but dark, faces carved with anger.  The third great plague had punished the rioters doing violence of the name of the Most High.  Rioters dropped where they stood.  Then the plague moved on to the rest of the human population, striking mostly rural areas.  In this plague, called the Plague of Punishment, no children under the age of six had perished.

To appease the seraphic host, governments appointed elders authorized to prohibit religious violence, to mete out punishment, to organize different believers in each locale, and force them to cooperate.  Many elders also had secular, political aspirations and ran for public office on county councils, in state legislatures, even for president.  For a hundred years there had been little separation of church and state.  Elders were cop, preacher, referee, judge, and hangman.

As SNN chronicled the end of the world, the three screens showed the arrival of the Angel of Darkness in a cloud of hornets, locusts, hail, and fire.  Devil-spawn poured up from the ground and devoured dead and dying humans in a scene so grisly, I always closed my eyes against the sight of blood, brimstone, and tearing teeth.  Cold chills raced up my arms.  Nausea rose.  My hands were tingling, breath too fast.  My nostrils flared, scent-searching.  My heart raced.  I longed for my blades, needing the comforting warmth of the bloodstone hilt in my hand as my blood raged. 

Dragons, later identified as Major Powers, directed battles against seraphs, their  centipede or spider or snake bodies, with human hands and serpent heads, crushing entire towns.  The stuff of nightmares.  Because the seraphs turned against this new evil with swords raised and voices booming, many humans fought with them against the common enemy. 

As the war progressed, the icecaps grew, Darkness became more bold, and bands of seraphs and humans took the war underground, where the Powers lived and bred.  Finally, in the last great battle, seraphs, mages, and humans fought side-by-side against the Darkness, driving evil into the deeps, though announcers seldom mention neomage contributions.

I looked away from the death of the old world and the violent, bloody birth of the new.  The world that followed the end of the Last War had become a world of peace, of political and religious accord, at least on the surface.  But mage priestesses had prophesied that war would come again soon; it wasn’t over.  Not that humans listened.

The announcer appeared in the center screen, mouth moving.  The footage of the One-0-five was done.  The top screen went dark and a murky scene emerged, a jerky digital feed, distorted.  A man was walking fast down a dark alley, a knapsack slung over his shoulder.  The figure was lit for a moment in the edge of a security light, a peaceful aftermath to historic videos, yet, my heart thudded, stuttered once, and started again.  I put a hand to my chest against the pain.  It was Lucas, shadowed by a growth of beard, his deep-set eyes only dark holes until he lifted his head to reveal his face.  My gut tightened.  He was still beautiful.  Far too beautiful.

We have a report that Lucas was attacked in an alley and dragged off, Bartholomew had said.  Not a report.  A Security camera video.

On the screen, boxes and a woodpile stood to one side, scooters and a tangle of bicycles half-seen at the extremity of the circle of illumination.  A shadow slithered in the dark, disjointed and stiff.  A second shadow flitted, resolving into the shape of a man moving forward fast.  A third shadow joined the rush and the two collided with Lucas.  He went down to a knee and one hand.

Arms reared back and slammed down, feet kicked viciously.  Lucas fell, covering his head, shielding his face.  Blows punched on the hazy screen, the silence adding to the horror as my mind waited for the sound of impacts, grunts, the echo of screams.  There was only silence.  The violence depicted in the One-O-five video was far more bloody, but this was personal, intimate.  Chills raced up the back of my neck.  Lucas’ face was covered in blood.  I gripped my wrists, wishing I’d worn blades, feeling naked, vulnerable.

The body on the ground was dragged away leaving the ruptured knapsack pushed to the side, its contents scattered.  A smear marked the path the assailants took as they pulled him out of the camera’s view.  Blood.  Lucas’ blood.

Coffee was forgotten.  Chills whispered down my arms, lifting the fine hairs.  Horror danced along in the icy wake.  Rupert raised the level of sound as the announcer spoke. 

“This vicious attack is similar to those shown on television in Pre Apocalyptic times, a

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22 comments to The InfoDump Scene, part 2.

  • Ken

    If it works, the name gets changed from cheating to cleverness :)

    It’s kinda like cookies. If no one sees you eating them…they have no calories

  • Interesting. To some extent it’s an infodump with a show not tell feel, but it also reads like a ‘raise the stakes’ scene. If the world is part of the story and the readers are curious about how the world works, things like news reports and advertisements and even footnotes can be interesting and readable.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Vorkosigan Saga books lately, and they are chock full of worldbuilding information, but you never have to be sat down and given a lecture. The history of the world imbues the world, and because there are so many different worlds, you can always get an off-worlder’s perspective on things.

    That’s one of my favorite ways to give and receive information. If someone is perceiving things and noticing things, and wants to know and find out – but also has the need to know and find out – it can be great. But honestly, there are so few things that you really need to be TOLD. If it’s important, then it should be salient. There should be moments where the POV character can’t help but being reminded of something – and more than their words, their attitude is what makes it stand out. In linguistics we have this cool concept called ‘accommodation,’ which basically means if someone assumes everyone knows something and talks about it like everyone knows it, the people who don’t know it will pick up on it and just accept it – unless its crazy. In fiction, the reader accepts even the crazy.

    Example:
    “Sorry I’m late, my car broke down this morning.” The speaker has a car – so obvious it’s not even noticable.
    “Sorry I’m late, my elephant went lame this morning.” The speaker has an elephant. If no one else is surprised, then we assume, okay, this world has a lot of elephants. No big. But if we say “Sorry I’m late, the elephants were end to end on main street. Someone went lame in the intersection and we had elephant lock for hours.” Well. I’d read it.

  • Ken, I like cookies! :)

    Cara, that was the way I had originally written the book — no info dumps anywhere, just present the story and the world *becomes* as the story progresses. But the editor wanted it all down from the very beginning since this was a world unlike any others at the time. The very newness of it made it (in her opinion) a necessity. If I ever get to reissue the series, with a new edition of the story, I’ll probably blend a version of the two beginnings — the original with the final — and create a much faster paced story. And hey — ADORE Miles!

  • I remember reading this scene in the book several years back and being deeply impressed with the way you solved your worldbuilding/infodump problem with an infodump that totally worked. It still works. Great example, Faith. Of course working a television news report into my next medieval epic fantasy is going to be tricky, but I think I can do it . . .

  • Faith – I like this example because it *does* work. But really? I wonder about your editor’s pushing so hard for infodumps, especially early in the novel, when they’re so much more likely to turn off readers? (I find that I set aside far more novels for infodumping than for overwhelming me with worldbuilding details I don’t yet understand…)

  • David, thanks. And you can use crystal ball! (ducks and runs)

    Mindy, I was quite surprised. *Hate* infodumps. But I managed to show everything she wanted in the number of pages requested. The first 50 pges were slower than I wanted, but I helped that along with a scene in the first 10 pages that hinted at danger/intrigue/violence and sped things up a bit. I’ll show that next week.

  • Nathan Elberg

    Interesting. Instead of a textual info-dump, you’re depicting an audio-visual info dump via technology. As David pointed out, it’s hard to do a high-tech info-dump in a low tech era. But just as you created SSN to fit your times, a fantasy writer could (theoretically) devise a medium appropriate to his setting.
    Thanks for dealing in depth with this issue.

  • Hey, Look! A News Dragon is coming. I wonder if he’ll recite the History of the World!

  • When I first read this in your book a while ago, I never thought of it as an infodump–I think I read it more as character development because I was paying attention to how the narrator reacted to the events on screen. For me, the worldbuilding just snuck in there without me noticing!

    In fact, I’m trying something similar (though less extensive) in the early stages of my WIP. My main character is spying on others to learn about them and the planet they live on, which I hope will avoid infodump while helping the reader get insight into the MC.

  • Razziecat

    That’s pretty cool, and it totally works. I have a feeling I’m going to need to work more bits of ancient history into my WIP so that readers understand exactly why the MC’s need to stop the Big Bad from coming back.

    And psst! David! Town criers! ;)

  • Nathan, it’s been fun. Infodumps-turned-into-story are not hard to deal with on a writer-technical level, once you add in worldbuilding that allows some method. When you have a lot of info to dump into a story in a short time, that eliminates info-transfer via dialogue (too awkward ond obvious), and that leaves us with needing something else.

    Like Lyn’s News Dragon. Which nearly caused a spit-take here. LOL

  • Sisi, yes, when the character is reacting to *anything* it becomes part of character building and character development. Anytime I have info t dump, I try to work it into the story, action, or into the character’s emotional portrayal.

    Razzie, If I remember your story correctly, from one of our blurb-events, yes. You will need to proove the necessity of your character’s acting when the rest of the world is uninterested in it. Also, with the importance of the character acting to save the world and the people in it, whether they deserve saving or not. Otherwise It smacks of Noah — saving the animals and himself and letting the other humans drown.

  • I have this problem now. I want to get to my story but I have to explain why it’s dystopian, why the world is divided into levels of Poors and Uppers, why the church and the government have a love hate relationship, you know the history. Then I have to get to why the “new church” can revive the old and bring the dead back. All of this has to be explained quickly because their is alot that needs to happen.
    I am so happy that you’re doing these post. It’s at the right time. My story has been halted because I felt like I was pushing to much on my reader too soon. To learn that balence will be priceless. Thank yoooou!

  • quillet

    That was awesome. On the face of it, it seems simple: a news documentary to handle an info-dump. But it’s more than that. Having the sound turned off is a brilliant story choice, because it shows the info as a series of pictures, instead of telling it as a lecture with words, which makes it visually vivld. However, as Sisi pointed out, it’s the narrator’s reactions that make this come alive. We “hear” the story in the MC’s voice, rather than hearing some news-reader’s bland script.

    So…combining info-dump with character development, and also finding a way to make it feel immediate, vivid, and emotionally-connected to the characters, instead of removed and dry… Hmmm…

    @ David: Maybe the MC reacts to a minstrel’s saga about an historic event, or sees a painting/tapestry/monument? Or argues with someone about what ~really~ happened? …Hey, wait, why am I giving away my ideas? *grabs them and runs* ;)

  • Vyton

    Awesome, just like quillet said, the sound being off is a great touch.

  • *glances forlornly at TBR shelf* Dangit. Now I want to switch from my pile of JY novels to the RM ones. ;)

    I like how you had all of this information, Faith. It felt like it was part of the story, not a history lecture. The character cares on some level. That makes me care. … So is that the key? Bringing it home to *matter*, make it relevant to the character, and therefore make the reader care?

  • Hi Wait. In your case you could have the MC (Main Characrer) witness a resurrection. Then briefly mention the past, the present, and move on, leaving details to be worked in.

    Thanks, Quillet. And those are GREAT ideas! Quick, steal em before they vanish, y’all! LOL I wrote early partials of the scene with different media perspectives. Listening to the news anchor wasn’t bad, but wasn’t as effective. Probably because of the dry voice, now that you mention it.

  • Vyton, thank you.

    Yes, Laura. Exactly. If the character reacts, cares, then the info changes from a dump, to part of the story. It becomes part of his/her development and his reactions break up the info in to small partials of info, letting the reader get involved with it rather than yawning through it.

  • TwilightHero

    Great post, Faith. Your scene sucked me in at first. I had to remind myself to study why it worked so well.

    @Laura: Make it relevant to the character, and therefore make the reader care. I’ll remember that one :)

    @quillet: Maybe the MC reacts to a minstrel’s saga about a historic event… I’ve done this :D Or argues with someone about what ~really~ happened… And I think I’ll use this to fix a conversation veering towards as-you-know-bobism… *snatches idea and runs*

  • sagablessed

    I want to say more, but I hope prayers and thoughts are for those in CT.

  • Faith, I agree that your “infodump” scene works great. How did you think of doing it that way? Did you just start writing and that popped out? Did you start it one way, stop and delete, then do this? (if you don’t remember, don’t admit it and just make it up ;))

  • Twilight, that is what this site is for. To steal really good ideas and run with them!

    Saga, me too. I can hardly think.

    Owllady, I had two methods in mind and mused them over for several days before writing (which is my usual method of writing something like this — think first, mull, sleep on it, then write). One idea was letting my character read the newspaper, but that seemed too 1960s and *real* infodumpy. I liked the visual/video idea, but I wanted people to die fast and if everyone was dying, how would the people alive now have pictures? I knew I wanted the Paris scene first. And people take a lot of pics and vids in Paris. So I put that together and the rest flowed well.