The unspoken (and unwritten) word

Hi. I’m filling in for Sarah, who’s eloped for a weekend away from people with her husband (who clearly, it seems, doesn’t qualify as people). In order to let her sleep late this Sunday, I’m writing this in her stead. If it helps, just think of me without the beard, somewhat thinner, and wearing a dress. (Don’t tell my wife!)

In working on my latest book, I’ve been struck once again by how much we unconsciously bring to the table as writers. Due to our own background, experiences and ‘formation’ (for want of a better word), we make certain assumptions about things that are unspoken and instinctive. When we write, those assumptions carry over into our world-building, characters, dialog, etc. – but the trouble is, someone who doesn’t come from the same environment that spawned us won’t necessarily realize the assumptions are there. Will the book work when parts of it (sometimes large parts) aren’t elaborated, leaving the reader to guess what inspired or prompted certain actions or dialog or developments?

I think there are several ways of looking at it. The first is that readers come to books with their own background, experiences and ‘formation’, and will supply what the author doesn’t provide by instinctively ‘filling in the gaps’ from their own world view. This may produce comprehension that’s rather different from what was intended, but there will be at least some degree of understanding.

(Of course, this can backfire… I remember in high school studying Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Having [by then] a well-developed sense of the ribald, thanks to a father who’d served in the Royal Air Force through the war and wasn’t afraid to tell his son about it, I could identify the sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout the play [see Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra in her barge for some of the most thinly veiled pornography in Elizabethan England]. However, our English teacher [an older and very proper lady] would have been utterly scandalized at the thought that her beloved Shakespeare could have meant anything of the kind. In this case, her authority meant that her world view took precedence, whether or not Shakespeare would have agreed – and whether I liked it or not.)

Another approach is for us, as writers, to recognize that some things have been left unsaid, and deliberately choose to keep them that way. Instead of explaining why certain views are held or espoused, or certain actions are necessary, we simply lay them out as given facts and don’t try to persuade or convince the reader of why we think they’re important. If the reader accepts them, all well and good; if not, they can supply their own perspective within which to interpret them. I don’t like this approach, but that’s me. Other authors use it all the time, and it seems to work for them.

Then there’s the ‘infodump’ approach; putting everything in so that the reader can see exactly why certain things are important, what gave rise to them, and what the characters propose to do with, to or about them. David Weber is perhaps the principal proponent of this approach in modern SF.   Personally, I find it a turn-off; I’d rather not have all that ‘backstory’. However, as Weber’s extraordinary and ongoing popularity demonstrates, that’s not a universal opinion by any means. I’ve been accused of ‘infodump’ myself, which I find worrying. I’m working hard to minimize it and build world-view and scene-setting into actions and events rather than paragraphs of description. I’ve still got a long way to go, I’m afraid, before I get it completely right.

How do you handle this conundrum? Let us know in Comments. Are there approaches I haven’t outlined above that work better than those I have? I think we’ll all benefit from sharing our joint and several perspectives.

44 Comments

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44 responses to “The unspoken (and unwritten) word

  1. “Another approach is for us, as writers, to recognize that some things have been left unsaid, and deliberately choose to keep them that way. Instead of explaining why certain views are held or espoused, or certain actions are necessary, we simply lay them out as given facts and don’t try to persuade or convince the reader of why we think they’re important. If the reader accepts them, all well and good; if not, they can supply their own perspective within which to interpret them.”

    That is exactly how I write. I think it’s more realistic, because in the real world events don’t come with neat little labels outlining why things happen. I put a lot of time and effort into working out the details behind the scenes, but I see that work as being like the wheels and gears inside the animatronic figures in an amusement park ride. They have to be there, but they detract from the enjoyment of the ride when they are visible to the audience.

    If I do my job right my readers are left with a sense that there are reasons behind the things that happen, and that my world operates under definite and inviolate rules without me having to stop my story and list those rules.

    You don’t have to know how an internal combustion engine works to enjoy a car chase in a movie.

  2. Laura M

    A mistake I made early on arose out of my desire to avoid the info-dump, and I didn’t recognize it until I saw it in someone else’s work. I well knew the perils of the infodump and the scorn in which it was held despite its utility, and I was never going to do it. I knew all about how the door dilated. Unfortunately, I went overboard. I not only slipped in world building in an off-hand reference here and there, but I made some action and events too elliptical, sort of referred to as having already happened when they should have been described. So, ‘ware.

    • I did that too, and for SF/F it can be fatal. Then I re-read my Heinlein. He infodumps A LOT he just makes it palatable/in character in his books. Then I wrote Darkship Thieves. Which, as you know, Bob, works.
      Thank you Peter for doing this, and of course Dan isn’t human. Anyone who’s read Kate’s ConVent series knows that 😉

  3. Sometimes you need to infodump. But if you can break it up into small chunks, with distracting actions it can be a lot more readable. I’ve got one as a college lecture, that I’m now going back and trying to break up with the students passing notes, whispering, noticing the pretty girls, getting glared at by the Professor, and getting threatening gestures from some bullies. We’ll see if it’s enough.

    As to the writer’s background leaking in, I have to be aware of some holes in my background and make sure they aren’t offensive. Mainly, that I was not raised in any sort of religious fashion, and it just doesn’t occur to me to add churches to my worldbuilding. And the standard stock Bad Guys? Well, I’ve a lot of experience with large companies, and just have trouble making them a faceless negative influence. Churches? I didn’t even notice when I did it. Even when deliberately trying to be more balanced about it, I still get the occassional review about my anti-Christian attitude. So even when you’re aware of the problem and work at it, it’ll still be there. All you can do is try to not be (accidentally) offensive.

  4. Draven

    Sometimes i wonder how much the infodump is for the reader, and how much the writer uses it so something is written into the story.

    • Luke

      This annoys me. Give me what the story requires, and don’t interrupt the flow further. If you want to supply more, put the infodump in an appendix. If we liked the story, we’ll still read it, and mine it for hints about where the rest of the series is going.

    • snelson134

      You have to put the guns on the wall somehow….

      • Laura M

        Very true. That might be characterized as setting the scene. Of course, if you put 83 pictures, shutters, a stuffed bear, and a magic mirror on the wall, you might start losing people, especially if you described each picture.

        Perhaps it’s an infodump if it’s dull, and setting the scene if it’s useful. 🙂

  5. mobiuswolf

    That dress doesn’t do a thing for your figure!

    As a reader, I find the info-dump irritating and tend to skim, especially when it’s repeated and expanded through every book of a series.
    Writing, I certainly veer the other way.

    I’m trying to think of an example of too little information and failing.

    Wouldn’t this depend on genre, to some extent? No need to fill in much info about zombies at this point, no?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      I suspect most “too little information” (in SF) rightly doesn’t get published and/or gets the author onto the “don’t purchase again” list.

      On the other hand, IMO part of David Weber’s problem is that many readers demand more infodumps. IE his fans “tell him what he should have done” because he didn’t provide them with an infodump on “why what they want” isn’t possible in his world. [Smile]

      Oh, I do find some of David Weber’s infodumps too heavy. [Smile]

      • mobiuswolf

        “I suspect most “too little information” (in SF) rightly doesn’t get published and/or gets the author onto the “don’t purchase again” list. ”

        Darn! An example would be helpful.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          The problem is that I can’t think of an example of “too little information” in terms of a story that I’ve read. [Wink]

          Seriously, to me “too little information” especially in SF/Fantasy often results in “I didn’t understand what was happening in the story” rejection.

          Also, the magician/psychic just does something without explanation including no comments about “what he can’t do” which makes the reader think the story will be boring because the hero will just “magically” solve every problem the writer throws at the hero.

          Then you have the “gadgets” that just do anything the plot demands or at least that’s how the reader sees the “gadgets”.

          In SF and Fantasy, the writer has characters doing “impossible things” so the writer needs to “get across” the idea of “how they do that” which IMO must include “what can’t they do”.

          If my main character is incredibly strong, incredibly tough, with senses that allow him to track down anybody he’s looking for, I have to give the reader some info concerning his limits so that the reader gets the idea that my main character might fail in his task.

          One incredibly tough character that hasn’t been used in a completed story had this line that goes “an arrow in my eye would really ruin my day”.

          If I ever use him in a completed story, I think using that line would tell the reader that he may be hard to kill but could be killed.

          Sure I don’t have to give the reader his complete back story, but I would need to “give” the reader enough info about him for the reader to know that he could fail and/or could be beaten.

        • OSC, in one of his writing books, talks about submitting a sci-fi story and getting it bounced back, with a note saying “decent story but we don’t do fantasy.” It seems in his world building he’d forgotten to mention that the reason the people and trees were telepathic is because they’d been genetically engineered as part of a colony experiment. Oops. Too little infodump = rejection.

      • “I suspect most “too little information” (in SF) rightly doesn’t get published and/or gets the author onto the “don’t purchase again” list.”
        Thank you, Paul. I was going to say this. My 13 years of writing and getting rejected were MOSTLY due to this.

      • Angus Trim

        I think when we’re dealing with something like info-dumps, we’re dealing with the subjective. Some people like them, some don’t.

        For me, it depends on how its done. If it’s done as part of the story, and fits in, then I don’t mind it. It might make the story make more sense. If its done in a way that jars my senses, I might toss the book into the trash can.

        David Weber’s style has changed so much over the last fifteen years or so, that its like he’s a different writer today. I thought “Path of the Fury” was the best book I’d read in two or three years at the time I first read it. And I really liked the first of the “Honor” series.

        Today his books feel bloated to me. Where his earlier works had a lot of action and things going on per word count, today you can leaf through several pages of {for me} rather boring “filler” to get to the meat of the story again.

        Again, this is subjective. A lot of folks really admire the direction he’s gone.

        For me, he was “must buy” fifteen years ago. Today he’s on my “won’t buy again” list. I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority on the latter.

        • You might be, but it’s an increasing minority. I adore Apocalypse Troll, but I haven’t bought an HH book in years that wasn’t part of a Webscriptions Bundle I wanted for something else.

        • Laura M

          Maybe we need to look at the difference between an info dump and world-building. Is it just a matter of execution? A really vivid rendition of the latter gets praised, but paragraph after paragraph of description or explaining does not.

          • Dan Lane

            Okay, now I have to ask a stupid question (I know, I know there are no… but there are inquisitive idiots!).

            Is “infodump” only bad when it stalls the pace? Things like hand-to-hand combat do well with a quick pace. Usually after the action you take a breather and the pace slows a bit. Keep the pace fast for too long and the reader will tire of it, slow for too long and he will go to sleep. Either one could turn the story into an impromptu missile weapon against a thoroughly undeserving wall.

            I may be conflating two similar issues here. Maybe a wiser head can clarify. I’d like to hear, err, read the answer to the execution question, too.

            • “Dump” implies a pile of information handed to the reader all at once. It _can_ be done entertainingly, but most of us would be better off if we spred it around the flowerbeds and used it to highlight the shrubbery of more active scenes.

              Mind you, when we’re writing many of us (glances at mirror) write out all the worldbuilding and characters’ backgrounds in one big pile. But like a dumptruck load of, um, _mulch_ . Yes, it’s mulch I’m talking about not organic fertilizer. It’s delightful to have it on hand while planting the posies, but the landscaping won’t be done until it’s off the driveway and in it’s proper place.

  6. fontofworlds

    So backstory and setting are just tawdry tinsel? Gonna go all Bertolt Brecht, and set up a bare stage? At that point, who needs genre? Why write description at all? Who needs new worlds when you have a perfectly good old one sitting right here?

    And this the direction of modern SF?

    No thanks.

    • Luke

      It’s fiction. It’s all “just” tawdry tinsel. All of it gossamer.
      But gossamer and tinsel are aesthetically pleasing, and can symbolize something more real than reality.

  7. I’ll read the infodumps…the first time. On later readings, it’s skim skim skim, since I no longer need the background to get on with the story.
    But I prefer a more noir film style. You don’t light for things to be seen, you light for what you want to remain obscured, light for the shadows. Make me fill in the blanks in my head…even if they wind up not being what you had in yours.

  8. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I like big stories. Sometimes I enjoy reading huge messes which challenge and reward a good memory and a strong analytical ability.

    One time I figured some stuff out, and attempted to write a short. I forgot clarity, tried to put too many puzzles into it, and attempted to be cute about refusing to outright name some of the central concepts.

    I screwed up, badly.

    Know your audience, know what you need to communicate to have a story, know how much you plan to work with, and size things to match.

    • Laura M

      “Sometimes I enjoy reading huge messes which challenge and reward a good memory and a strong analytical ability.”

      Have you ever read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles? They are awesome and do reward, but, boy, do you have to pay attention.

  9. Know your audience, know what you need to communicate to have a story, know how much you plan to work with, and size things to match.

    Reply: Thanks. that was just what I needed.

    Sue

  10. robfornow

    When I first started to write, I mentioned to a friend who had written one book that I found the action sequence fast and easy but was having trouble with the ‘filler.’ He chuckled and replied. “The filler is the story.”

    Thereafter, I began to think of the filler as to how it comprises the story. It flows much easier now and an infodump would get into the way unless it was part of the story. So, can the infodump be part of the story or is it ‘filler,’ if so, get out the axe.

    • mobiuswolf

      “So, can the infodump be part of the story or is it ‘filler,’ if so, get out the axe.”

      That much is clear, at least. I guess there’s a vast grey area in the middle.

  11. I’ve used: the staff briefing, the character in the library, character trying to remember something so other character goes and looks thing up, project chief droning on, and on, and on as other characters yawn and think “come on, we know all this stuff already, get to our bit already!” And newbie moves to town/joins regiment and has to be brought up to speed.

    • Excellent point! The “person who needs to be informed” (child, foreigner, time traveler, etc.) often gets used as a way to slide that information in. As long as they are obviously someone who really needs to know this, it works pretty well. Can also be used as a way to introduce/build characters, too. Make sure the reader is hooked beforehand, or has a cliffhanger of some kind to make sure they keep reading.

    • Draven

      sounds like the only one you’ve missed this far is the Basic Training infodump.

  12. Something I’m doing in the Dr. Mauser book is “As you know Bob,” “No, I don’t know.” Because the guy telling Bob (or rather Paul in this case) has already “Been soaking in it” when he’s explaining the whole world of good and evil organizations and Mad scientists etc, there are huge holes in the infodump conversation and areas that need more explanation, and Paul has to ask for it when it occurs to him to ask. Some threads get dropped in favor of other ones and have to be picked up later.

    In Kiwi, there are some things I deliberately left out. I never described Alex. Since the character is a reprehensible bigot, I didn’t want to, for example, say he was white because I didn’t want to employ that kind of stereotype (“Oh, well of course he is!” some SJW might say) but on the other hand, specifically calling him out as something else, to explicitly go counter to the stereotype would also jerk the reader away from the point of the story in one of those “Oh, look at the author being cute here.”. I wanted him to be an asshole but that wasn’t the point of the story. The point was the subtle psychic struggle going on. (Which might have been too subtle, perhaps.)

    I would expect that people might assume he was white, bringing their own baggage to the story, but if they brought it, I didn’t need to call it out, nor did I need to fight it.

  13. Angus Trim

    There are different ways of getting a world shown to a readership, or telling a backstory.

    David Drake might set aside a bit before each chapter, and tell something that would help the world building. He also at least once did it in an “Author’s Note”.

    If some of it is done in a conversation, it quite often slides in without it being noticed, but the reader now has a bit of understanding of what’s going on.

    I seem to find it easy to take even if it’s an “info-dump” if it’s right after an action scene. Then my attention won’t go wandering and maybe set the book down and do something else.

    Others sneak the world building or backstory into a tale a little at a time. That works too.

    I think there’s more than one way to do this. There’s a couple of things that help this along, is the story itself interesting to the reader? Does the information come through at a time and place that it fits in, or is it obtrusive?

    The whole thing has to work. The backstory/ world building is a part of it, but is the story moving along the way the reader feels it should?

    • Laura M

      Yes, one recent example of backstory bringing the book immediately to life was Sabrina Chase’s first Sequoyah book. It started with a fine action scene, but when I learned the MC’s back story I was hooked.

  14. Holly

    I run into trouble when I don’t put in enough because I know how the world works.
    “But why is he doing this?” “Why does she assume that?”
    Um, well, um, okay, not obvious, but I always thought it was up until someone else points it out.

  15. One of the problems I see with many infodumps is that they wreck the POV. I mean, here we are, happily ensconced in the first person POV or perhaps trailing alongside in a third person tight POV, and suddenly there’s a chunk of omniscient text, describing the world from the POV of the gods? To me, that break in POV seems like a major drawback to the typical infodump.

  16. I’ve started to post something about this twice now, but I’m having trouble articulating the idea. Basically, I think there’s an intersection between the idea that there are particular reading protocols for science fiction or speculative fiction and the question of how you tell the reader that this world is not quite the same world as their ordinary, everyday world. Over in the world of mysteries, they work hard to present clues, hints, and all kinds of foreshadowing, including red herrings and other distractions, before they get around to revealing just who did it. Similarly, I think in speculative fiction we often need to provide teasers, clues, and other hints to build up interest on the part of our reader in just what is going on, how is this world — setting, animals, history, magical system, physics, whatever — different from the everyday world.

    That’s actually part of the fun for the science-fiction reader, trying to understand the puzzle of why these people strap themselves down when they sit down to eat, or what is that odd looming shadow that follows the main character to school, or whatever. How can a door dilate? And what does it mean that doors dilate in this world? We like to be puzzled! We like to have hints and clues, mysteries, that we can work at while we read, and we expect that eventually there will be enough information that we can make a workable guess, or sometimes even a revelation.

    In fact, I suspect that’s the real problem with info dumps — they came too soon. If there had been enough hints and puzzles beforehand, we might very well be really pleased to have a clear revelation, an explanation, to check that we got it right. After all, on the quiz show, we really want them to tell us the right answer after we have worried for a while about which one it is. And right or wrong, we enjoy puzzling over it, and then finding out what the right answer is.

    So, reading protocols, mysteries or puzzle solving, and the question of how to show the reader what is special about this world — your world building. Mix it all together, and I think you end up with a process of revealing the differences, rather than a single indigestible lump of information.

  17. Jon

    From an avid reader’s point of view, this has been a fascinating discussion, by the way.