1. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Contemplating Infodumps

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by EdFromNY, Dec 22, 2010.

    I am quickly coming to the conclusion that "infodump" may be the next overused buzzword. I understand the concept that it is generally unwise to dump a lot of information on the reader in a manner that is unconnected with a character in the story and not immediately relevant to the story, but in recent days I have come to the conclusion that some on this forum simply find it too easy to dismiss purported infodumps as undesirable.

    If memory serves, Leo Tolstoy included numerous "infodumps" in War and Peace. James Michener made the entire first chapter of Hawaii a lesson in geology that would certainly be considered an "infodump". Tom Clancy's Sum of All Fears contained several "infodumps" on how nuclear fission works. Herman Melville gave us several passages in Moby Dick that clearly would have enraged the "infodump" police.

    If pressed, I'm sure that Tolstoy would have argued that the historical facts presented in his "infodumps" were vital for the reader to understand the world in which his characters operated. Michener would have argued that what we know about Hawaii as a place flows from its formation from volcanic activity. Clancy would tell you that you need to know the basics of how a nuclear device works in order to see that there was a real reason why his didn't, and that it wasn't just a literary convenience. And Melville no doubt would have argued that you can't really understand the story of his whalers without knowing what whaling is, or for that matter, life at sea in general.

    I don't know. It just seems to me that it's becoming too easy to dismiss a kind of writing that needs to be done in order to put a story in perspective, even if it takes time and even if the reader doesn't catch the reason for it immediately.
     
  2. Taylee91
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    Taylee91 Carpe Diem Contributor

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    I'm probably too rash at times. Information is very important. Therefore, I should not dismiss infodumps so easily :)
     
  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    People here, and I suppose writing students in general, have heard that infodumps are undesirable. But, not having much experience, they don't apply judgment to each specific case, and scream "INFODUMP!" if someone includes six words of by-the-way information.

    The reader's tolerance for infodumpage varies, depending on a wide variety of factors. How important is the info to the understanding of this particular part of the story? How interesting is the information? How engaging is the writer's voice in delivering the information? All of these are important. Some writers have wonderful voices and I'd happily read pages of infodump by them just because their prose is intoxicating. (I include writers like Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Joseph Conrad among these.)

    Infodumps aren't always the most horrible things on earth. Sometimes they're necessary. It's up to the writer to make them as interesting as possible, and to keep the flow of narrative going while providing the info to the reader. It's all part of the craft.

    I tend to ignore critiques that complain of one sentence of infodump, just like I ignore critiques that complain that the first sentence of a story doesn't have a great hook just because it doesn't contain an explosion or a gunshot or graphic sex.
     
  4. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    I don't mind the sort of situation you describe. What I don't care for, however, is when a writer attempts to hide the information within the narrative. Especially within a dialog.

    If you're going to do it, it seems to me that it should more be in the form of an essay within a broader work. I seem to remember (dredging the murky depths of memory) that James Fennimore Cooper did that in his Leather Stocking books. He prefaced some chapters (I think) with a short paragraph, in a different font/size describing the boarder politics of that moment.

    I could have skipped over if I had been so inclined. As it was, I read the material and was able to segregate it in my mind.

    -Frank
     
  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, Frank, I've seen posts here that suggest that getting background information out through dialogue is the preferred way to do it. I would think that, unless handled with great care, that would be rather forced. Although it seems to me that you could use dialogue to hint at the information and then follow with an explanatory paragraph or two. Or three. Maybe four.
     
  6. Edward G
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    Edward G Banned

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    I tend to agree with Ed on this one. Many times, background information is quite necessary to understand a story.

    I see nothing wrong with the narrator of a first person piece taking time to explain information to the reader, even a hundred pages worth, if necessary (and I emphasize, necessary). Nor do I see anything wrong with third person perspective scenes that involve a lecture in a classroom, for instance.

    What I have a problem with is this:

    "My god, you have large shoes. I suppose that's because of your genetic edowment from birth that should have failed, but didn't."

    "Why yes, little Timmy, I do have big shoes, and big feet, too. Do you know what that implies about me?"

    "That you graduated from Hill Academy at an early age."

    "Well, I did graduate at an early age, but no, in this case, big feet imply--well, here, let's step into my office and I'll show you."

    That's the kind of info dumping I can't stand. :mad:
     
  7. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Doesn't take much to tweak it though:
    'Woah - those shoes are huge?'

    'Yeah well better than being Timmy the Titch. I have always had big feet. Kinda cool huh you know what they say about big feet?'

    'What?'

    'They say it is a sign of great intelligence.'

    'Next you'll be telling me you graduated early?'

    'Well actually I did I should have graduated Hill Academy in 93. They graduated me in 90.'

    'There is something else big feet imply - shall we go to my office - kinda need privacy to show you, we can get the measuring tape out.'

    OK not best but took me 3 minutes to rearrange to give similar information. Now they are off for something fun in the office :)

    I don't object to good interesting infodumps. However it can be done in dialogue. I have a Wikkipedia character which I made verbose his job is to provide information to the others when they need it.
     
  8. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Tough love time:

    A) unless you thought this was a literature forum, or are planning on building a time machine so you can publish in the past, it's probably not best to cite examples from literature on a forum that I assume is made up primarily of people in the here-and-now writing contemporary fiction. (apologies if there are a few of you trying to replicate out-dated literature styles).

    B) Infodump can almost always be remedied by writers simply writing better and delivering information in a more clever way. Defending, supporting or writing infodump is just lazy 99% of the time.

    It has nothing to do with the term or even its misuse, or 'writing students', and everything to do with the quality of writing. The problem is that people will defend infodump or justify it in their writing, which leads to infodump in their stories (or even just momentary slips that aren't 'dumps' even).

    But here's the problem. How many other aspiring writers are out there ferreting out every last moment that breaks the bond between reader and character? How many other writers are doing their best to simply write more cleverly than make excuses or justify lazy writing?

    These are the people that we're potentially competing against for publication spots and finding agents and getting book deals. Are you sure you're ready to go with a 'it's not that bad' when your very livelihood or future as a writer may be on the line?

    A defense can be made for just about every instance of poor writing. The great writers don't bother making excuses and find ways to simply write better. And I'm not saying you have to be a great writer to make it in the business, as there are plenty of contemporary writers who just aren't very good and still best sellers. The point is that when trying to break into any industry, do you want to hope you'll get lucky despite your flaws or control the one thing we actually have power over, which is the quality of our writing.

    I don't even think the people who make it despite sub-par writing even justify their decisions to use things like infodump, because they probably aren't even aware. Basically, by even questioning whether infodump is acceptable or not, basically gives you the answer that it's not, or it wouldn't need defended and justified.

    Instead of defending poor writing, just write better... that's probably what your competition is doing.
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't like infodumps that look like this:

    "Oh, Bill, what are we going to do?"

    "I don't know, Joni. I mean, you're a graduate from Harvard Law and an Olympic figure skater."

    "And you're an astronaut with a Ph.D in astrophysics. But that doesn't answer the question."

    "Well, as you know, you worked your way out of the slums of North Jersey and supported your sick mother as an exotic dancer."

    "And as you know, you ran away from home at the age of eleven and begged on streetcorners until that talent agent cast you in that Emmy-winning TV show."

    "And it was only last year that, together, we discovered that Senator Gundberg was scheming to bring NASA to its knees."

    "And it was only my close friendship with the Vice President's wife that got us the high-level access we needed to put a stop to his nefarious plans."

    "Yes, yes, but Joni, what are we going to do?"

    Etc.

    You can't put all your info in dialogue. At some point, you have to bite the damn bullet and spell it out. Just try to do it as painlessly as possible.
     
  10. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Popsicledeath, you seem to be laboring under the impression that every instance of an author communicating necessary information to the reader is an "infodump" and is automatically a bad thing. Not only is this not true, it is not helpful.

    Especially when your solution to the problem is "simply write better." Don't you think that's what we're all trying to do, all the time?

    Sometimes the reader needs to know something in order to understand the story, and it's the author's job to impart that info to the reader. That is not bad writing. It's necessary writing, and for the reader, it's necessaryreading. The alternative is confusing the reader, and that would be bad writing.
     
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    What is wrong with writing good fiction? I don't find Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens etc remotely outdated - they are good fiction and deserve their place next to more 'contemporary work.' I don't know about other people on the forum but no I am not aiming for contemporary - I am aiming for a good story told to the best of my ability. I know whilst the language in my work is modern - I have borrowed amazing storytelling methods from many different eras.

    Have just written two prayers for my story - that I love - they are more inspired by Shakespeare's and Plato's than any more contemporary methods. I have a character inspired by Morgan Le Fey/Lady Macbeth etc I have a Malaprop which is fun to write - used a verbose character etc
     
  12. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    You're right, sometimes the readers need to know a lot of things. I would argue they need to know every word of a story (and all the subtext as well). You're also right that it's the writers job to impart that information. Dumping it into a scene via a block of text, or even a single sentence of interjection as the writer trying to pass along information outside the context of a scene can almost always be considered bad writing, though, as someone else (who's probably also looking to break into the industry) is able to do it in a more clever, more natural, more contextual way.

    There's a huge difference between conveying the truth of a moment through the experiences of a character, and interjecting as the author to impart 'oh, by the way' information.

    Any excuse like 'well, sometimes you just have to outright tell a reader something' is bad writing. How do I know? Because there are bookshelves full of writers who managed to be more clever than that.
     
  13. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Unless you're a time traveler or planning on sealing your works in a time capsule (or don't want to be published, I suppose), you are by definition a contemporary fiction writer.

    There's nothing wrong with reading classics. I recommend it. But there is something wrong with writing classics if you're a contemporary fiction writer. Figuring out what the classics do right is useful, but copying the language or style is usually a recipe for disaster.

    There are a ton of classics that stop the story to address the reader directly (Charlotte Temple being my favorite, it's epic facepalm-worthy when Rowson does it), but using it to defend a decision to directly address the reader in a manuscript you were planning to send to agents would be a huge mistake, plain and simple.

    I mean, Babe Ruth was one of the best ball players ever, right? So all modern baseball players should probably drink and smoke and overeat and not work out, since he did it and was obviously hugely successful. Errr, nope, times have changed (sadly).
     
  14. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    There are plenty of contemporary novels that also address the reader directly, make lengthy digressions and what some may consider infodumps, and do plenty of other things that "classic" novels do. Fact is, writing hasn't changed as much as you seem to think it has. Yeah, the language has changed, but the structures, the devices, the literary and styistic techniques, they're still more or less the same. Should you write like people spoke in the nineteenth century? No. But should you adapt the techniques of successful nineteenth century writers for your contemporary fiction? Hell yes.
     
  15. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    The citing of anomalies is about the weakest argument ever.

    I mean, Joyce Carol Oates had a story called Landfill published in the New Yorker that was one long paragraph with margins that gradually narrowed, but that doesn't mean anyone trying to be taken seriously should try to get their foot in the door with such a gimmick.

    But, but, but, Joyce Carol Oates did it! Yeah, and when that's the name on your book cover, you can do it too.
     
  16. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    How do you propose people get their name on the cover if they don't write it? If no-one took any chances in their writing we would never have anything innovative or interesting.

    Also means that when done well you can find someone to publish it. Beauty of infodumps is they are one of the easiest part of the manuscript to get rid of when editing.
     
  17. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Give me a break. I'm not saying people should stop writing, but I get sick of aspiring writers pretending their bad writing is some kind of style or voice. No, sometime shoddy writing that needs defended and justified is just bad writing, period.

    You want to take a chance on writing with techniques that are very clearly heavily frowned upon in today's fiction market, then go ahead, less competition for the rest of us.

    But why would you want to get rid of something like infodumps that can be so easily justified if we only look at anomalies or texts that are generations old?
     
  18. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Whither the fine line on Infodumps? Is backstory an infodump? If you're writing a story set in a fantastical or unfamiliar setting do you need to dump? If you're writing about a character with a specialised knowledge do you need to dump information about that area across the page?

    Sometimes you need to dump.
     
  19. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I do frequently if it works in my story I am not going to leave it out just because other writers frown on it (big one is my choice of present tense and to write it as thought processes). I take chances with my manuscript all the time - some work which is great and exciting when I do. Right now I have a couple of interests in my manuscript that may come to nothing but for 10 months of writing aren't bad. One is exactly what I would like so fingers are firmly crossed right now.


    My point is always try it - if it doesn't work beauty of modern word processing there is a delete key on the keyboard. Of all the things I have had to take out of my manuscripts by far the easiest is an infodump. However I do have two in my books - I tend to have them as bedtime stories and account for two paragraphs in my story. I highly doubt having read my first three chapters and loved them enough to see the rest, liked the synopsis and the rest of my story a publisher or agent will turn down a manuscript for something that takes two seconds to delete if it really is that much of a problem.
     
  20. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    No, you don't sometimes need to dump.

    Back story exists whether you write a block of uninspired text or not. Back story is the history of your character and what makes them who they are. The mistake is thinking the facts matter, when what matters is the 'who they are' part, which can almost always be imparted by seeing them in action, in the present, not by explaining back story.

    The orphaned chosen one destined to be king is still an orphan, even without an ill conceived prologue about mean headmasters in an orphanage.

    It's basically insecure writers not trusting the writer is smart enough to 'get' a sense of a character's history, or a writer not clever enough to trust they can get it across.

    If the setting is unfamiliar, then the best way to get familiar with it is to see/experience it through normal, natural character interaction with the setting. Write me a novel just on the history of a people and I'll learn just as much by the way a citizen buys a burrito at a corner store if the writer is clever enough.

    This kind of thinking is what leads to prologues, and the only good prologues I've ever seen were simply Chapter 1 with the wrong name.
     
  21. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Present tense is only risky if you do it poorly, but anything done poorly is a risk. Writing as thought processes, not that I understand what that even means, is only a risk if you do it poorly, but anything done poorly is a risk. Infodump is only a risk if it's done poorly, and by definition is done poorly, so always a risk.


    If you can delete the info dump and it's not a problem, then why is it there? Anything you can delete that has no lasting negative impact on the story isn't worth keeping in the first place. If it's expendable, then expend it already. ;)

    The problem is most infodump is either all information out of context, where you scratch your head and think 'really, because that's not at all what seemed to be occuring' which is a failure of everything that isn't the info dump. Or, the info dump is all redundant stuff we got in the context of the story anyway, so can be deleted. Either way info dump is almost always a warning sign that something, somewhere in the story, simply isn't working.
     
  22. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    You'll have to excuse me, i was being a bit puerile.

    By backstory i meant explicit Backstory that is demonstrated in the plot - aren't flashbacks unconnected to the plot (but used to provide character motivation) a form of infodump? Plenty of stories i can think of will have asides that will go into an aspect of the characters past - this is an infodump even if it doesn't feel like one.

    Sometimes it is essential to understand why a character does something - so when Jimmy Stewart is in the tower and can't ascend to save his love interest from falling from the roof we know this is because of a traumatic incident he underwent before the real plot began (Vertigo - Hitchcock).

    That whole section in Star Wars where they talk about blowing up the death star, that's an infodump - because you need to know that the Death Star has a weakness and how they're going to achieve their character goals for this section of the narrative.

    The question is not really whether you need infodumps - you do in certain circumstances but that how these infodumps are presented (how well they are written), and how relevant they are to the story.

    Is it essential to know how a nuclear bomb works? Only if this sets up something in the story to follow or provides context.

    There's also an element of weighing up whether it is appropriate to show rather than tell. Sometimes it is more effective to come out and say something rather than try and work it slowly into scenes.
     
  23. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    I don't believe in using them because they aren't natural. For instance, I work in psychology and have had to solve many cases, but guess what, I can't because I do not get complete information. In horror movies someone always shows up to explain what a werewolf, etc is, but rarely do I have such a person let me why a person is an addict, has a personality disorder, and so on. In fact, I once sat with a woman who told me the story of her life, and it turned out to be a very complete delusion. I managed to dig up SOME of her real story which was very harsh. My point is that most of life is about getting some info with my questions never getting answered.

    Another good example is the way technology is discussed in SF. I hate when authors say things like, "He sat in the plassteel chair." In real life, I'm sitting in high tech chairs as compared to the 19th century, but I have no idea what the tech is, so I just call it a chair. In fact, I have no idea how tech I use works and unless the character is an engineer of some sort he wouldn't know either.

    Good Dump:

    In the previous post, Star Wars was mentioned. I see nothing wrong with a mission briefing in a military situation. I'd want to know as much as possible about the objective and I would hope some very informed person was going to tell me.
     
  24. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Sure, but Psychology is not a "hard science" in the way that say Chemistry is - it's interpretive. You're the victim of the unreliable witness.

    It's not unreasonable for your nuclear scientist to have a working knowledge of how a nuclear reaction takes place.

    Also remember that you're writing a story. In real life we don't question people's motives for "believability" they simply do things and we take them for granted. But in the world of a story much more attention to detail is needed in order to suspend belief.

    But you are not the character in the story. You are the reader and if you have an omniscient narrator and they are trying to reinforce the difference between what you take for granted as a chair and what a chair would look like on a space station - You, the reader don't have the characters knowledge and it's the writers duty to fill you in with what is most relevant / atmospheric.
     
  25. Pook
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    Surely that is dependant on the personality of the person and what he/she prefers in their reading.
     

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