Infodumps and How to Use Them

The sequel to Doomwalker has been mostly written for awhile now, but it needs heavy edits. I hit the first big info dump last night, having prepped myself with one of these.

Infodumps have a bad rep. “Show don’t tell” is a good rule, but it’s got limits. Use it for characterization or- and this is important- plot. Sometimes, though, you need to just lay out the background of what’s going on. Subtle little nods to the situation going on aren’t going to cut it.

In the particular case of Paladin Book 2, the infodump is Ancient History with Current Consequences. I have now rewritten it twice and more are forthcoming, I’m sure. Infodumps are hard for me to write.

I consider it necessary, however. The best way I can explain why infodumps matter is with movies. Books do it, too, but Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings are movies most everyone knows, so.

The famous opening crawl of Star Wars establishes (in the original trilogy) where the story is occuring, who is who, and gives you an idea of why people are doing things. Then you’re off to the races! In the cases of the time skips, they let you know what people have been doing in a general sense. You know enough background to make sense of the plot, now you can get to the action and characters without confusion.

Galadriel’s narration in Lord of the Rings serves the same purpose as my recent infodump: it gives you the who, how, and why of the story of the Ring and provides context for things you see later. It’s Ancient History with Current Consequences. It makes it much easier to understand why Gandalf is concerned and then entirely freaked out by the Ring. Not having that context would have damaged his characterization and turned those dramatic moments into comic ones.

In video-based media, we give infodumps more of a break. They’re shortcuts in a medium that doesn’t offer as much mercy as many directors think. In books, there’s more leeway and room for subtlety. More ability to show rather than tell.

Or so we think. The opening narration of The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t in the books as such, but the Council of Elrond is to the umpteenth degree and that is Tolkien’s infodump. As much grief as people give that part-and it goes on for a long long time- it is necessary for everyone to understand the import of the Quest.

As a writer, you need to consider infodumps as a way of communicating necessary info. Some people have a tendency towards them, some are like me and don’t like writing them.

In either case, a good set of questions to ask if you need an infodump:

  • Is there another way to communicate this in a more subtle way?
  • Do we really need to know this for the plot?
  • Will not knowing this bother the audience that much?
  • Is this boring?

Mini infodumps are always an option: “They passed a clock shop marked the Talbain crest. House Talbain always liked to tinker with things.” A sentence or few that give some flavor or context but aren’t mind-numbing or long.

Conversations can work, too. For instance:

“What’s going on?”

He looked at the gathered men and women. “Oh.” He shrugged. “Bread dole line. The office should open soon. Happens every morning.”

“Bread dole?” More and more people were joining the line as they spoke. They weren’t rich people, that crowd, and you could see from their hungry eyes just how much they relied on that bread. “Doesn’t Rome get most of its grain from Egypt?”

“Who we’re at war with, yes. Now you understand the full weight of the political dilemma at hand.” He waved at the ever-growing line. “You think that lot will take it well if their bread dole stops?”

Incidentally, this bit is based on historical fact and the bread dole was a driver of many Roman military and political actions, including stopping Marc Antony from controlling Egypt. You see how I explained a political situation in a conversation? A very organic way of dumping info on a reader. Excellent opportunity for characterization, too, as conversations always are.

There’s no reason to run away from infodumps. They’re necessary, on occasion, though always consider converting them from multi-paragraph monologue (or monologue-esque) form to something more digestible. You may (as I just did) have to stick with the former, but it’s just another tool in your storytelling kit, one of many that may or may not work for the context at hand.

Published by kathrynzurmehly

I am, among many other things, an Army vet and a freelance writer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: