1. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    How to deal with long information dumps

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by hippocampus, Feb 10, 2012.

    I have a great deal of background information I need to dump on my readers. It's not character background info, but rather information that is integral to the main plot and theme.

    Personally, while I believe the information I'm sharing is very interesting (and hope my readers will too since it's critical to the story), I also know that it can become tedious to read a large chunk of exposition all at one time (although Ayn Rand managed that quite well I think!).

    Rather than droning on through narration, I'm attempting to deliver the information through dialogue.

    It's not an "idiot lecture" per se... I did try to include questions, answers and some minor "action" thrown in (like they move to this room, or drink a soda). And the character that is hearing the information does actually need to know it. It's not like one guy is saying, "I'm going to use my cellular phone now... that's a phone that works via radio waves, yada yada yada."

    Still, my dump takes up about 2200 words!

    Is it silly to expect that I can keep anyone's attention for that long? The information isn't something I can easily split up into other chapters. Once the characters find out that this information is important, they need to know the whole story in order to move forward in the plot. Wikipedia gives the example of The Da Vinci Code as a story which is concerned with the unearthing of a secret past - thus it includes some lengthy exposition sequences, complete with theorizing about the implications of the information.

    Is it sufficient to just break it up the way I have?
     
  2. Show
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    I can't really advice without seeing it written out. I am sure it can be done. The key is always to make it interesting. If it's interesting, then you should be okay. Integrating it into dialogue can be a good idea if it feels natural and necessary to the story.
     
  3. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    If it's really integral to your story, then it's not an infodump unless you treat it as one. It's been many years since I read the Da Vinci Code, but if I remember correctly, Brown did not lay out all his information at once - he served up only as much as he needed to at each part of the story. He created a sense of filling in missing pieces of a puzzle.

    Dialogue is a useful way to do it, but you should make certain you do not create multiple pages of continuous dialogue. In one project I was working on, I had a character who had a detailed history (which I had already written out but knew I was not going to include in the novel). In order to move the story forward, he had to let two people know his past (which also allowed me to let the reader know). At the end of a chapter, the two confront him and ask him very pointed questions. That's how I end the chapter. The following chapter is narrative of what he told them. It's incomplete, as a conversation would be. Each of the two has questions which they pose throughout the story as it progresses, and so the important details are filled in for the reader as it becomes important to do so. I think it works.

    If you want to PM me with what, specifically, you're struggling with, I'll be happy to give you any suggestions that I can.
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Dump the dump. And re-examine your assumption that the reader "needs" all that information.

    Let the bare minimum of that information turn up later in the story, in tiny portions. Resist the urge to tell a back story. Stick to the story.
     
  5. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    Wow! What interesting and varied responses. :p

    @Ed & Cog - Ok. So I don't know how much of this info I can put off until later, but I'll consider that as a possibility. In the meantime, I'll write it all out in one big dialogue/info chunk and worry about potentially chopping it up later. Maybe as I write more of the story, I'll figure out what can be moved where - if anything.

    @Show - I understand wanting to see it! However, this is my first try at a novel and I'm only a few thousand words in so far. I think I'll see how it plays out before sharing too much. I don't want to get too pulled away from my original concept just yet. :cool:

    Thanks all!
     
  6. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree. (it reads well too, like dum-de-dum :D) I'll add if you really think it's essential, is it possible to split it up and insert small pieces of information here and there throughout the story without it being so obvious? 2200 K is practically a chapter and if it's not interesting enough and the reader doesn't see, atm, why it's there (since as you described it there is little actually happening between the characters) he might skip it or even put the book down. I'd say write the story without it first and decide later if it's necessary. You could even have someone reading the finished piece without the dump and hear what their reactions are, like if they understood this and that as it was written, by the context.
     
  7. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have a similar dilemma - certain character's backgrounds are relevant to the story, and in the beginning I was trying to dump it in in various ways. But the most relevant question to consider is: Is it important for the reader to know it right away (or soon)?
    If yes, then consider either starting the novel earlier in time and actually take the character(s) through those events, ie. don't make it a background info but a part of the plot.
    If not, you have lots of options. One way of doing it is to write a prologue. But this must be short and very interesting and not provide too much information but entice the reader, give them a flavour, a subliminal message but not tell them which character is it in regards to, so you can use the revelation as a plot device later on.
    Another way is to severely sanction the amount of info you give the reader and then space it out, little snippets here or there, either a person themselves recalls, has a flashback or others mention it, but only a few sentences at the time.
    One of my favourite ways to deal with a lot of info was in Anne Rice's "The Witching Hour" where the info becomes a subplot, excerpts from a book belonging to the secret society, detailing the history of the family and main characters. But this is a pretty major structural decision.
    I considered other methods, diary excerpts, old letters, interviews with other characters etc. Oh, and of course, you always have the next book in the series. I have very detailed and interesting backgrounds to at least 3 of my main characters, so I have decided to only explore one background per book, leave the others for next time.

    I think there are lots of different options, you just need to see what suits your novel.
     
  8. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    All great things to consider! Wow... hadn't even thought of a prologue. Hmmm.

    Well, I think my best bet is to write it the way I have it now just so I get the important dump out of my brain at least. Then I can consider the various ways of splitting it up or removing some of it. Honestly, I don't know how much I can remove altogether without losing a big piece of the puzzle.

    So glad I signed up on this forum! Very helpful...
     
  9. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    As these "events" take place hundreds of thousands of years ago, that might be difficult. However, this idea did make me think of Clive Cussler novels and how he often starts off with a chapter that takes place well before the start of the book. I'm not sure how I'd work this in, but it's certainly an interesting consideration!
     
  10. Show
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    ^^^^Best thing you could do is just that, Write it out! You'll never know what you can do with it unless you see it. Who knows, you might be able to work it out. And if you can't, at least you can be more confident in that decision. A lot of times, "infodumps" are only so because of execution. Any general "no infodumps" are absolutely useless in a story. "Only tell them the bare minimum" is little different. Write it out and work it until it's as good as it can be. If you're being stirred to write it, then write it.
     
  11. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    That's what I'm thinkin'!

    By the way - LOVE your avatar! LOL
     
  12. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    Try this:

    Write the infodump, but for your own benefit, not as part of the story. Write the story without it.

    Then read the story and see if and when the reader will be wondering about important facts. Include these facts at some point in the story after the reader is wondering about them.

    I've just finished re-reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. There's plenty of info about the world he's created, but it never feels to me like a dump. The story even starts out with a bunch of info -- young students are being led around the lab where people are created, and the function of the lab is explained. But it's done in a way that advances the story while enhancing our understanding. He doesn't tell us more that we need to know -- just enough to make us wonder more.
     
  13. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to disagree. A prologue is not a better place to dump it than the actual story is. rather the opposite, you risk boring the reader before he even start to care about your characters.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Too true. That's the kind of prologue that gives prologues a bad name.
     
  15. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have a similar situation, a relatively short story set in really ancient times will become relevant to my plot, a twist of sorts. Maybe can be boiled down to 1000 words or so, reads like a myth as opposed to modern style of writing that follows.
    I am planning to write this as a short prologue which will leave readers with a question, and as they get transported to the first chapter onwards, they will wonder which one is which. Only what they assume is not quite what is, and that will be revealed slowly as the book progresses and other stuff happens.
     
  16. muscle979
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    If it reads like an info dump to the reader trying to hide it among mundane actions [chatting while drinking a soda, whatever] probably isn't going to help. I'd suggest writing all of the information in a side document and then taking a look at it and deciding what the bare minimum is that the main character needs to be able to move forward in the story and be a part of the conflict. It's hard to give much more advice without knowing more about your story.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    One possibility would be to write the infodump all at once, then write the story while assuring yourself that you've preloaded the reader with everything they need to know. Then put the story away until it's gotten a little stale in your mind. Then read the story _without_ the infodump, and see how many times you really, truly would be confused.

    Or you could do a similar thing with a test reader - give them the story starting at the point after the infodump and see what they ask for clarification on.

    I suggest this because I'd bet that you don't really need _all_ of the information that you think you need.

    You may feel, for example, that it's essential to tell the reader that Clara is Joseph's adopted ward, the daughter of Joseph's sister and a man that Joseph disliked. You may feel that it's important for the reader to know that Clara's father was a famous artist who was well known for a painting called "Cat in Blue" and that Clara takes after her father in her artistic talent, and that Clara has inherited her father's substantial fortune and will take control of it when she comes of age at age 25.

    But if you leave out that infodump, you may find that the reader is just fine watching Clara and Joseph interact, and that they're able to see that Joseph has authority over Clara, and that he has a disapproving air when Clara talks about her art. They may have no question at all about this.

    And when a conversation tells the reader that "Joseph's" house actually belongs to Clara, the puzzlement produced may be a delightful mystery, not a frustrating source of confusion that must immediately be cleared up. And the later mention of "Cat in Blue" may similarly be a pleasing mystery. Readers _like_ to learn background slowly and as it becomes relevant to the plot, and they like to figure out the non-obvious, rather than having explanations spoonfed to them.

    ChickenFreak
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The newer the writer, the greater the compulsion to explain by providing background.

    Don't underestimate the power of a little mystery in whetting the reader's appetite. So keep the background to yourself, and dole it out in the most miserly manner possible. Keep most of it to yourself even after that.

    Giving background diminishes tension. Giving background before the reader even has a need for it leaves your tension sprawling on the floor like a dying jellyfish.
     
  19. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    In my entry for the Sci-Fi Short Story contest, I had exactly this problem. The characters find themselves in a place that has major historical significance. But stopping to explain what happened there over a hundred years ago just didn't work. The pace was completely wrecked. And the history came across as boring.

    I fixed it by figuring out which parts of the story the reader absolutely had to know to understand what was going on, then in the middle of the action I have the know-it-all character muse about it out loud, while the other characters act. I boiled it down to two pieces of dialogue, three short sentences each. Then I hit home the main point of the history lesson by having another character disagree, presenting the final piece of the puzzle.

    I took two pages of history and condensed it into three pieces of dialogue. And it works. The full details of the historical event are never discussed but since they don't actually move the story along, the reader doesn't need to know them. The flavour is there, and the reader gets why the characters are excited. And the historical musing hints at much greater detail and mystery, which is even better than explaining it all.
     
  20. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Can the infodump become a story in itself? I.e, a character sits down and tells a story to another to reveal all the information the reader needs to know.

    That story can then be made interesting using all the usual tricks of storytelling.
     
  21. Show
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    ^^^^An interesting point that pokes some holes in the very idea of an infodump.


    On the topic: Never underestimate a reader's desire to be spoonfed. We live in a spoonfed culture. Does that mean you should spoonfeed? No. I'm just making an observation.

    Just remember that "mystery" and "tension" are good for keeping readers interested. But that doesn't mean they're going to accept never knowing. It is likely wise to scatter your info and not rush into delivery of it. Deliver it in the place that is best suited for your story. Deliver it in the way that is most natural. And I don't think anybody will know what that is for them until they write it.
     
  22. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    how to deal with infodumps is to not have any!
     
  23. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    Amen to that, Mamma!
     
  24. KinkyCousin
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    KinkyCousin Member

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    What if you have some relevant information that takes place hundreds of years ago and is something no character could really sit and explain without it sounding incredibly forced?

    I've just been trying to split it up into short flashbacks that appear throughout the story, it gives the information at the right points to explain things that are happening in the present but it doesn't interrupt things too much (at least I hope not!).
     
  25. Jamez
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    Jamez Member

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    You could make it a parallel story and switch between that and your main story. Mo Hayder uses that in Tokyo (aka The Devil of Nanking): the main story focusses on a character called Grey and is in the present, but certain chapters in the book detail the 1937 invasion of Nanking by the Japanese.

    The beauty of using a parallel story is that it allows you to pace the information in that story to coincide with your main story. I.e. if your reader doesn't need to know about "The Big Event" that occurred long ago until he has read the 10th chapter of the main story, make "The Big Event" occur in the parallel story just before or after the 10th chapter of your main story.
     

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