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  1. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Senior Member

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    Description vs Infodump - how do you tell when it's crossed the line?

    Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by Dr.Meow, Apr 20, 2017 at 11:20 PM.

    This is primarily a fantasy situation, but I'd also appreciate a general response as well. I'm trying to make sure where the line is between infodump and plain, simple description. When building an entire world, complete with unique races and creatures, as well as magic, how the magic works and so forth. Clearly there has to be some point that you tell the reader what something is, and you can "show" it while you do so, but it does need to be explained.

    Also, is there an acceptable amount of infodump that's allowed? If so, when or how is this appropriate to do? One of my recent descriptions involves a character where I'm showing what they look like, but also introducing a new race simultaneously. Is that an acceptable situation?

    If there is anything else anyone has to add to this topic, I would be grateful to here about it. Thanks to this forum, I have improved my writing greatly and am now in the middle of the third chapter in my novel, with almost fifteen thousand words in total, whereas previously I was stuck at the beginning of the first chapter with about five hundred words or less. All information here is very helpful and will be appreciated at the highest levels.
     
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  2. OJB

    OJB Active Member

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    Hello Dr. Meow,

    In English, there is something called appositive phrases. They are meant to add information about a noun. Here is a basic example of me using one in a sentence to show action and give a little bit of info.

    "A fireball, a spell that consumes some of the caster's flesh, flung across the room and immolated the thief into ash."

    I wish you the best of luck.

    -OJB
     
  3. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Senior Member

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    Thanks, @OJB , that helps for a few things actually.
     
  4. izzybot

    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I think fantasy audiences will accept a certain amount of infodumping. Whether that actually means you should do it ...? Up to you. I still prefer not to, myself. But this is something I've been mulling over too, so I'm going to kind of think out loud.

    My wip isn't high fantasy, and while there is a magic system, I tried really hard not to go into intensive detail in-text - mostly because I know I get really bogged down in worldbuilding and it detracts from actually writing. But I did hammer out some rules that were just for me to reference. I think the idea is that if I present a magic system that functions consistently, I don't actually need to tell the reader all the rules - they'll be able to infer it. And when the rules do need to be made %100 clear, you only need to make them clear about that specific issue, not go into depth about the entire system.

    A key point in my plot is that people can't mix the two main branches of magic without there being dire consequences, and that was mostly inferred by having A magic users being uncomfortable around the presence of B magic type, presenting them as oil and water or opposing poles. Eventually I outlined it further in a brief historical story that helped build up the setting (and characters!) and fully illustrated the potential ramifications. Maybe that was still infodumpy. I'm not sure.

    I also tried to focus on how magic feels rather than how it works - showing characters being run down after a taxing episode and having them deliberate over whether they still had it in them to pull something off rather than being like "But that's a level four spell, I don't have the mana for that!". I want it to feel like an organic part of the setting. This might be fairly me-specific, but I have anxiety and a lot of the time I thought of magic the same way I think of my own 'energy levels' when it comes to dealing with social situations / pressure - it's an inherent thing that I manage, not a system someone developed that's separate and just taped onto me. It can be something that different people experience and deal with differently, and trying to codify it is always going to lose some personal nuance. But, that's just how my specific brand of magic worked out - my methods might not really apply to you there.

    When it comes to describing a fantasy (or alien) race, I'd follow much the same rules as I do when it come to humans: less is more, keep it simple, etc. My wip doesn't have fantasy creatures, but when I'm doing sci-fi I still don't like to wax poetic about what my aliens look like. At the end of the day people are going to picture whatever they picture, so if I just say "gray skin and bull horns" and that sticks, I'm happy. I stick to key features, the ways it's distinct and different from a human. To me description is pushing it when it completely stops the narrative, and I think sometimes that can work out - but probably not when introducing a new character?

    Also, congrats on your 15k!
     
  5. VTitus

    VTitus New Member

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    I found myself facing the same sort of problem and resolved it by really looking over my work and trying to identify whether I was "showing or telling." Granted this resulted in me completely restarting my work and I'm currently on my 7th draft, but it really makes a big difference.

    One technique I have used when describing a character's attributes is to sometimes allow the description to come from the point of view of another character. So for example you could write, "X observed the ___ of Y"

    You can incorporate the description into the narrative such as, "X brushed aside their blonde hair...".

    As far as events that need to be explained or magic, again it can be useful to do so through the characters or in some cases through dialogue after the fact.
    If magic in your writing was not uncommon then perhaps a justification wouldn't be necessary since it's commonplace.

    I would often review a scene that was giving me trouble and really try to look at it from an outside point of view. The reader can usually envision what you're writing with just the right amount of detail. You can usually trim down description and focus on rather integrating it into the story. Halting the narrative to describe the environment or a character can break the flow and can even come across as boring if it isn't integrated well enough. If you read it back to yourself and feel like it might be too much of an info dump it probably is.

    If you were to describe a made up city it would break the flow of the story to simply dedicate half a page to describing it's shape and layout or how the market looked and whether there was a keep or palace inside. But if you were to integrate it along the character's journey you can get the entire point across without necessarily info dumping. "X marveled at the two ivory towers marking entrance to the city." As the story progresses you can still get most of your info dumping in, it just might be camouflaged better.

    At least that's some of the ways I approached the issue when it stifled me. Hope it helps.
     
  6. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Senior Member

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    @izzybot That makes a lot of sense, I think I've done some of that, as well as maybe gone overboard a bit too.

    @VTitus Great suggestion, I haven't read it to myself, might help the rough parts in question.
     
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  7. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Senior Member

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    Have to ask, but what would you consider a complete stop to narrative? In one case I have description in one paragraph, then the next one picks up with story again with description still being shown in some ways. Would that be too much?
     
  8. izzybot

    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    It's kind of a "know it when I see it" thing, honestly - because I think it's dependent on the flow, as well. Like, obviously stopping a fight scene to put in 200w of description would be a problem, but going from a more relaxed narrative into 200w of description could be fine. Or breaking into a conversation for a paragraph of description would be jarring, but using a paragraph of description to lead into a conversation could make sense.

    Sometimes you might want to take a moment to describe something, and that's cool - you just need to make sure that nothing else should be happening in that moment.

    I'm a very visual person and I think about it in terms of cinematography: you want a lingering shot, not a freeze frame.
     
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  9. X Equestris

    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    The way I see it, the distinction is in whether the description is obtrusive or not. Length is part of that. Relevance is another part. Would the character be thinking of this topic at this moment in the story? If so, would they think about if for that long? Some things, like physical descriptions of people, can be woven throughout the narrative rather than just told. That's almost a necessity if you're trying to describe a POV character in close third person limited or first person point of view, unless you can have another POV character describe them.

    I think it depends on how long that paragraph is, and the context surrounding it. A paragraph of exposition might make a fight scene grind to a halt, but do nothing to harm the pacing of a less urgent scene. Circling back to the above, it should also be relevant to what's happening in the narrative. Don't bring up the intricacies of the setting's politics if nothing related to politics is happening in this scene.

    The worst cases of info-dumping tend to see failure on both those fronts. I recall someone reviewing a fantasy book, and they mentioned a scene where a girl is mourning over her dead parents' bodies, and then the narrative dives into paragraphs of explanation about language.

    A few resources on this topic I've come across:

    https://curiosityquills.com/limyaael/avoiding-infodumps/

     
  10. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Dr.Meow A murder mystery is essentially a novel-length exposition sequence, so clearly length is not an issue ;) As long as the characters care about - and are responding to - the information in some way, the information will feel like a part of the story.
     
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  11. Apollypopping

    Apollypopping Contributing Member

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    I use dialogue to take some of the weight off my info dumping. Not like, "no Bob, remember I told you the sun is blue here?" Just vague mentions of things that the reader can infer. To me, it's easier to take on as important and not info-dumpy if someone is saying it.
     
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  12. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    In theory, yes. In practice, I feel the desire for examples. Because I feel that maybe we need to knock down example after example after example of things that the writer thinks absolutely must be infodumped, finding a way to avoid the infodump. And that only after that exercise will we find the things that really really need to be infodumped.
     
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  13. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Senior Member

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    That's an interesting way to look at it. If the description is something that would concern the character at the moment, then that keeps it relevant.
    Another for relevance, I'm seeing a trend here. Haha

    The context issue you've mentioned is something I have done well to avoid, and I rightly agree. I did interrupt a scene at one point, but it was not an intense action scene, and doing so seemed to enhance it, though I may have burdened it as well with things that did not need so much detail.

    Appreciate the resources, I'll check those out for sure!

    @Simpson17866 Good point, and this goes back to the relevance mentioned before as well. I suppose length is not damaging if done properly.

    @Apollypopping I agree, having some done in dialogue helps a lot and keeps it more organic. There's also the danger you mentioned about the dialogue itself being an infodump, so definitely a balance there...

    @ChickenFreak In other words, narrowing it down to the essentials. Process of elimination. Gotcha... I get the feeling I need to do that in a couple places actually...
     
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  14. X Equestris

    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, length isn't a problem if you find a way to make it interesting. Voice is a good way, but not the only way, to do that. However, there are some things even a compelling narrative voice struggles to make compelling, and that's where you almost have to dribble information.
     
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  15. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Active Member

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    Info-dumps and description are not necessarily the same problem. Inappropriate, ill-timed, or excessive description is one thing, but an info-dump can be any explanation or information, long or short, that is telegraphed directly to the reader instead of being blended into the context of the characters and story. It's tough to define exactly. Kind of like porn--you know it when you see it.

    ETA: I think I have a better way of tackling this but my brain is giving me fits tonight. Maybe I'll come up with something better later.
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2017 at 3:05 AM
  16. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Dragons, Knights, and Nurses oh my! Contributor

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    If you can't avoid it make it interesting. Though I had no idea Fantasy had this problem.
    Perhaps I have spent too much time on the Dark Side with Sci-fi, where things kinda have
    to make sense for things to work plausibly.
     
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  17. Lew

    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

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    I ran into another form of info-dump in E&D, from the only agent who requested a manuscript, then rejected it for "expositional dialogue." I actually appreciated her critique, because you usually don't get reasons from them. She did not identify the chapter, and I had to look up the term: people talking about something both know and would never really talk about, but are talking about it for the reader's benefit. And that nailed into one of my earliest, 20 year old chapters, when I was still trying to get my head around the story... a legion commander and one of his senior officers, sitting around talking about how Rome had come to be a great power, how important citizenship, etc etc (yawn). And my wife had always hated it, but it was the agent that got me to rewrite it. She didn't take resubmittals, I got no more nibbles but I self-published and so far had a good launch.

    The key to info dumping is to always visualize what your characters are seeing. If you were seeing the same thing with them, what would you find interesting? One other chapter that got rewritten per above was the trip through Alexandria. Of course we could have a verbal history lesson here, but they are riding by a beach and bay (The western Eunostis Bay, for those who care) with a lot of small to big pleasure sailboats there, the refuge of the wealthy. And what does the centurion notice? Why, the girls in the two piece bathing suits playing or lounging on the sandy beach! And yes I have seen a mosaic from that era with girls in what looks like a 1950s two piece, playing what looks like beach volleyball.
     
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  18. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Pretty much :)

    John Scalzi's Old Man's War is the gold standard of SFF exposition:

    In chapter 2, the narrator Perry is riding a space elevator to the recruitment station for the Colonial Defense Forces. He overhears another potential recruit complaining that India gets to send actual settlers to other planets, but that Americans can only go as soldiers to die protecting the Indians as meat-shields.

    "No, it doesn't seem particularly fair," the woman [Jesse] said back. "But I suppose they wouldn't see it as fair that we wiped New Delhi and Mumbai of the face of the planet, either."

    "That's exactly my point!" Leon exclaimed. "We nuked the dot heads! We won that war! Winning should count for something."​

    After Leon storms off, a former high school science teacher named Harry notices Perry and Jesse admiring the view and marveling that the space elevator stays in the air. Harry then explains a number of scientific reasons why the elevator shouldn't work, and why the Colonial Union shouldn't have been able to afford it even if it did, and yet it's worked perfectly for over a century. Harry guesses that the CU have been studying alien technology and that the space elevator is a warning to Earth governments: Until your scientists figure out how we did this, you're not good enough to pick a fight with us. We make the rules, stay out of our way.

    In Chapter 18, a lieutenant gives Perry's group of soldiers a slideshow of two of the alien species that humanity have made contact with. One is a crustacean species that Perry reacts to as something out of a horror movie, the other is a deer-like species that Perry associates with the wisdom of an enlightened nature spirit. The lieutenant then informs the class that the crustaceans are pacifists and the most brilliant mathematicians that humanity has ever seen, while a group of the deer-like creatures had razed a human colony and enslaved the survivors for a meat farm. The lieutenant then lectures the soldiers on how they cannot afford to run in to a situation assuming they know who the good and bad guys are.
     
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  19. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think it helps if you can nail the reason why the 'info' is important. The reason why the reader needs to know this stuff should appear in the same section of the story.

    The reason can be direct—specific information is necessary to the story at that time—or it can simply create atmosphere. However, try to pare it down to the essentials. Resist the urge to describe everything in the scene, just because it's 'there.'

    It also helps if the information can be filtered through your POV character. What is the POV character's reaction to the information you're giving the reader? If it's a memory, why is it important? If it's new information, how does it impact on the POV character?

    Just an oversimplification:

    Jenny had grown up here, in this three-story Victorian mansion on Maple Street. She'd played with her dolls beneath that pruned shrubbery in summer, sat at that window seat peering out at falling snow, waiting for Santa. For her sixteenth birthday, she'd been given her first kiss from Howard, on that long veranda.

    Howard. The Boy Next Door.

    Later, on her twentieth birthday, she had stumbled down those same front steps—in panic, in darkness, dragging a half-closed suitcase—desperate to catch the last train to the east coast and leave this house behind forever.

    So why was she back here now? Ten years later, standing here in front of the old house once again, her primly packed cabin bag resting on the sidewalk beside her? What was I thinking?

    All the blinds were drawn against the morning light, as if the house itself was muttering, 'Don't you dare wake me up. Just go away.'

    This is such a mistake.
    Jenny sighed, picked up her bag, and started back towards the station.

    She'd only gone a few steps when a curtain twitched in an upper story window of the house next door. Jenny stopped. She set her bag down again.
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2017 at 6:47 PM
  20. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    You made me want to read the book! That's the kind of sci-fi I truly enjoy.
     
  21. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Senior Member

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    @X Equestris @Homer Potvin @Cave Troll @Lew @Simpson17866 @jannert

    Thank you all for the responses, this is very helpful, it's great to get multiple opinions like this. I'm looking forward to taking all this information and doing some edits today. This is why I love you guys, I get straight forward information that I can put into use immediately.
     
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  22. xanadu

    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Honestly, I think readers need far less information that writers think they do. Especially when it comes to fantasy, worldbuilding is not story. And I think one of the big problems is that writers feel the need to tell the reader all the details of their world (or the history of a made-up town, or the backstory of a character, etc, in the case of non-fantasy as well) because they've spent so much time and energy creating it.
     
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  23. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Senior Member

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    On some level I agree, a lot of writers do put a lot of time into the world and feel they must tell the reader all about it, certainly a trap I've seen many fall into. At the same time it's also necessary to explain some things, otherwise something might be going on later that the reader gets confused about because the writer did not already talk about this. This is why I'm trying to find a median to it, and I believe by taking in a lot of these comments I think I have come very close to that point. not too much, but not too little either...
     
  24. Dr.Meow

    Dr.Meow Senior Member

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    Just to update everybody, I've gone through and made a bunch of edits already. Removed two or three paragraphs worth of unnecessary stuff, and re-worded others to make it more relevant to the scene. I'm halfway through with the most serious transgressions, and I'll be taking this forward when I write more. Appreciate the help here a lot, and reading my chapter again I saw it with a different light, able to read this as a reader instead of the writer so much.
     
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  25. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But confusion isn't always bad. Try thinking of it as "mystery" and "discovery" rather than confusion. It's fine, it's good, for the reader to experience a period of "Hmmmm?" followed by "Oh!"
     
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