Cleaning Up Infodumps

 

I was at a job fair this last week. It was sort of a waste of my time, but not really. By that I mean there were maybe six prospective employers I matched with, out of some two hundred. But I did have some lovely conversations with people, including the Army Corps of Engineers ladies, who were actually pitching me on joining them, since I’d originally thought they wouldn’t need me (I’m not an engineer, can’t hack the math). We wound up talking environmental clean-up, decommissioning military bases, and superfund sites. One of my professors had been involved in the chemistry of a superfund site and the testing, and another professor had spent half a lecture period talking to us about how a microscopic parasite changed the nature of garbage disposals and dumps in Ohio forever.

Why am I talking about toxic waste, and dumps, on a writing blog? Well, I’ll get to that. First, though, let me tell you the Rumpke story, because as fiction plots go, it has potential. Way back when, before Cincinnati was much of a city, the Rumpke family (as my professor explained) provided a valuable service. They got paid twice: once to haul off perishable garbage from restaurants and stores, and again for the pork they got from feeding that garbage to their pigs. This business was lucrative enough they wound up buying a hilltop far from town, planning to move their hog farm away from the edges of the city and the complaining neighbors, when tragedy struck.

In telling a story, you have to give your reader enough information to keep them in the story. The danger lies in giving them too much information, thereby drowning the plotline, diffusing the tension that will compel them to keep reading, and leading to them setting the book down, or even more fatally on the kindle, closing the file and promptly losing it in the disorganized chaos Amazon seems to think Kindle readers prefer. As a writer, you need to avoid that fate at all costs. Which may mean making some unpleasant choices in digging out your info dumps and cleaning them up, which is what the Rumpke’s were forced to do when Trichinella hit the stage. Pork – especially garbage-fed pork – was suddenly suspect; no one wanted to eat a pig that might harbor the encysted parasites that could lead to illness and death, and the Rumpke family had this empty mountain they had just bought… So they sold the pigs off at a loss, and shifted the focus of their business to hauling garbage away from the burgeoning city. They turned the hill into the first landfill, and a dump saved the family business.

Here, we saw the central characters (names lost to history… I’m sure they’re out there somewhere, but I’m not looking them up right now) adapt to what could have been the killing blow to their little family business, and come out on the other side with an even bigger, better plan. This is what we are often trying to write into our fiction, convincingly. We want to write a battle, and have our hero win it. The problem is, if we drop info dumps into the story, we slow our hero down as he wades through the swamp of description.

I know we’ve all had books we’ve skipped through page after page, trying to find where the hero wandered off to, leaving us lost in the dump. I personally can think of a glaring example of a series I eventually gave up on – not just because of the pages of detailed military weapon minutiae, but the rather condescending alt-hist info dumps that explained what he was doing on an elementary-schooler’s level. When I’m skipping over half the book, past those two elements, it becomes a waste of my time, and certainly not a fun read.

When I’m writing, I try to look first and foremost at my pacing. Not every book needs to progress at break-neck speed. Some shouldn’t. Working in exposition carefully, in a lull between action, works much better than throwing it in the middle of a fight scene. Even here, keep it sparing. Trust the intelligence of your readers, and don’t spoon-feed them every last implied detail. Let them use their imaginations – this is, after all, why they are readers and not film geeks.

And if you go back over your book and discover that you’ve littered up the landscape with dumps, consider how best to clean them up. You can sometimes break them up, leaving small, easily digested lumps of data through the story that will gradually reveal the information you want to convey to the reader. This can be a great way to keep them reading, as they try to suss out what is going on. But don’t suspend them in the grey, either, with no feeling of what is around them, what the characters are thinking or feeling, what the characters are doing and why. No description is probably as bad as too much of it.

Going back to the Rumpke story a bit, I didn’t bother to go look up their names. It’s not relevant to the story I was telling, the reason I was telling it. I could – and just might, because I’m perennially inquisitive – see if there is a bio or history out there with all the details. But research is not necessary for amassing details you must dump into the story. Sometimes it’s really tempting. When I was researching for the Pixie books, and reading massive amounts of mythology, I kept finding stories I wanted to write into my story… except that the pacing in those books was fast, and having these myths in would slow it down and lose the reading momentum. So I set them aside, for another time, another story, and wrote on. As tempting as it is to show off your intensive research, resist the urge to create a dumpsite in your book.

 

35 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: CRAFT

35 responses to “Cleaning Up Infodumps

  1. That’s exactly where I am in “Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts”, my current WIP. For reasons known only to my muse, I have set this story in a universe that has ten separate fantasy worlds–the human world which is like 1970s America but with technology based on magic and nine different realms of Nightmare.

    I have been doing an enormous amount of world-building, constructing the different races of oneiroi, the physical laws of the different realms, the interaction of the different realms not only with the human world but with each other, what amounts to three separate magic systems (intuitive, engineering, and as a natural ability) thre hundred years of human history in the Midworld (not to mention the pre-history of the human race prior to their migration to the Midworld) and so on and so forth.

    At this point my various “notes” files, which contain both notes I’ve written to myself and also sections that I have cut out of the manuscript because they are too much exposition and not enough action, probably has as much verbiage as the manuscript itself.

  2. I subscribe to the concept of just-in-time backstory: it gets slipped in when relevant to what’s going on, or just before, or further before but with a bit of a big deal made so the reader remembers it. No info dumps. Or have a VERY good reason for one character to tell some of it to another. VERY. Talking heads are the pits.

    • Yes they are, although sometimes you can get away with a small amount, especially if it fits into the story (reluctant confession, that sort of thing).

      • Yes. You just can’t dump it and expect to keep me as a reader – subtlety, please!

        Other readers are far more patient, and the technique is done both badly and well in SF. At least make your info dump interesting (or an appendix).

    • When you’re world-famous you can do like Tolkien’s estate did with “The Silmarillion,” and turn your infodump into a book.

      • Some of the fans were happy they had that. There are all kinds of audiences.

        I love the way you say, ‘When you’re world-famous.’ But I’m no Tolkien – even the deep research usually comes to an end when I write the couple of lines of dialogue that I had to do the research FOR. My research is like the huge mound of exhausted soil that is left after the uranium is mined out – you don’t want to be digging through it!

        So many words. I’m pretty ruthless with my discards.

  3. Uncle Lar

    Cedar, I have a dual BSE in systems and industrial engineering and an MSE in operations research, and trust me that in 25 years with NASA I rarely if ever was called on to do higher mathematics. Sure, you need to understand basic concepts, but the gruntwork has either been performed and incorporated into reference tables or coded into a software package. The key is in having an analytical mind.
    On that hog thing, a while back I watched a documentary, may have been one of Mike Rowe’s Dirt Job shows, on a company in Las Vegas that collected all the food trash from the vast assortment of buffets and restaurants, removed the inedible waste, and delivered the rest to hog farms outside the city. Apparently they’ve figured out how to deal with the whole trichinosis issue. In fact I seem to recall mention of that problem being vanishingly rare these days, though pork tartare is probably still a really bad idea.

    • The way they dealt with that and other potential infections was cooking all food waste down into a boiling slop before feeding to the hogs. A side effect of the cooking it into a slurry is that the inevitable lost utensils drop to the bottom of the cooking vessel, whereupon they are cleaned & returned to the appropriate supplier.

      (That was one of the fascinating episodes to me!)

    • We used to collect garbage to feed a pig or two — you are supposed to not feed meat scraps to the pigs (though we did, and I suspect most people do), and the food scraps are supposed to be cooked before feeding. We didn’t, big pig farms that get inspected very likely do. But we weren’t eating our pork raw, either.

      I’ve eaten bear; you are much more likely to get trichinosis from bear meat nowadays than from farm-grown pork. (Wild hogs, on the other hand….)

    • One of the reasons we love our immersion circulator is that you can do a safe “rare” cook by holding it at that temp for long enough to kill anything off.

      • TRX

        Those seem to be way more common in Britain and the far east than in the USA; I first saw them used to maintaining temperature in chemical tanks. Later, I thought an immersion heater might be useful, and found they’re easily available from the Usual Sources.

        Apparently they were common in the USA up through the 1960s, but I’d never in my life encountered one before…

        • We only found out about them because of that aspirational station Food Network. My husband picked one up on a deal and has made fabulous tri tip since. (We have yet to break in the InstaPot.)

    • TRX

      I loathed math in school. I went to schools that assigned masses of it as make-work and as punishment, which forever tainted the whole subject, and I got suspended from school for asking for a practical example of what factoring a trinomial was good for. (more than forty years later, I still have no idea…)

      Some decades later I mentioned this to an employer who had a Ph.D in mathematics. He said, “Oh, you don’t want math. You want OR!”

      “Operations Research” appears to be the secret code for “math that’s actually useful for something.”

      • Uncle Lar

        OR is all about practical application of math techniques to actual real problems. Things like queueing theory, critical path analysis, logistics, and delivery systems. Lovely stuff that.

    • I managed to pass calculus. Just.

      I actually see the beauty in math, I’m just slow at it, and I test horribly – so I can get 100% on my homework, and fail every exam. My personal sense of… something, has been slightly dented by my encounters with math, though, and i keep thinking I may tackle it again on my own time and figure out why I can’t retain the concepts for more than a nanosecond. Why, yes, I do miss school already and I am a little sick in the head.

      It is rare these days, but back then it was poorly understood, and the need to cook the slop (as mentioned elsewhere in comments) was cost-prohibitive to the Rumpke business plan. Now, we take it in stride.

  4. I’m working on a story where the characters are shipwrecked and spend considerable time on a lifeboat, so I did a bunch of research on lifeboats — come to find out, modern lifeboats don’t much resemble what I was originally thinking of, so I had to go back and re-write a good chunk of the story. But, yes, no infodumps!

    • My second novel deals extensively with a project to remodel a riverboat, and I had to do a lot of rewriting because it turns out that what I imagined about how riverboats are constructed was a lot different than the truth.

  5. Christopher M. Chupik

    I find that when I’m writing something that requires some backstory, I often do a bit of story, drop some info, advance the story a bit, drop a little more. I figure by the middle of a short story, you should have all the info you need in place.

  6. Once upon a time, it was world war 2, and my father was an army medical officer. After a period on Bora Bora, he volunteered to be transferred to the invasion of the Solomons, was shelled by a Japanese battleship, had his base camp overrun by the Japanese, had an encounter with a Marine Lieutenant General that left the General extremely unhappy, and was eventually shipped back to Georgia. He volunteered to be transferred to the Mediterranean, but was turned down, so he ended up as Medical officer for a POW camp full of German submariners. Christmas approached. The German officers approached the camp functionaries and proposed to make Weihnachtswurst, Christmas pork sausage. All materials and equipment were on hand. The camp people were happy to agree.

    Alas, in Europe pigs are fed exclusively on boiled mash. Trichina are totally unknown, at least in Germany. In period, Georgia was not one of the more advanced parts of the USA. It has since changed. The pigs were loaded with trichina.

    Dad spent a largely sleepless week dealing with a camp full of deathly ill German sailors. The international Red Cross dutifully did a full report. The Germans were seriously concerned that prisoners were being mistreated. In the end, they agreed that there had been an unfortunate misunderstanding, that we had done everything that we could to deal with the matter. and a letter personally signed by Admiral Doenitz went back to the American authorities and eventually the camp, thanking Dad and a list of others for their efforts.

    That was an infodump, the point of which was that pork tartare was safe in Europe, even seventy years ago.

    • It was an infodump, but it was also an interesting story in itself.

    • Info Dump Ahead:

      In Georgia at that time, hogs were free ranged. Fencing had come into use, the WWII version shorter to conserve metal, but essentially hogs had the run of the woods. After harvest, it was common to turn hogs and cattle in on the fields to scavenge the gleanings. The exception was the fattening hog lot, which is exactly what it sounds like. My guess is that it not only fattened the hogs to be slaughtered, but allowed them to be “cleaned out” from food they foraged to improve the taste. Slopping was on a small scale, for hogs to be butchered. For larger scale, you fed them as much corn as they’d eat.

      This means that cattle and hogs at the time were exposed to the same disease vectors as game. Confinement operations didn’t really hit until the 1950s and take off in the 1960s, but most hogs in Georgia were essentially free-range until harvest time.

      While slopping the hogs might have been outlawed by the time I came along, it would have been nigh impossible for us to provide enough scraps to fatten them off for market. There were just too many. A friend’s family slopped hogs – which may have been illegal at the time – for their own consumption. The closest we came to slopping was disposing of garden residue, and the wild mustard we pulled out of the fields. For a treat, we’d toss them a citron – they grew wild in the corn fields.

    • Or was the prison camp run on the work farm model, with inmates raising their own food? Can see scraps from the mess carried to the fattening hog lot.

    • Fascinating. We are, as I’ve noted before in literature and personal observation, a very different place from Europe. America is so stinking *big* that we can’t give the same homogeneity that Europeans can. Now, more so than then, with communications improved as they are, but it’s still going to be very different in place A to Place B where all of Germany is going to be pretty much as expected.

  7. I was reading a sample I’d downloaded, and it wasn’t an infodump. It was an infoSuperfund Site. No thanks.

  8. I analogize getting all of the background work I do translated into publishable (hopefully) pages to reducing a sauce. Such as a batch of barbecue sauce I made last night – about four cups of scotch whiskey go into the pot; maybe a quarter of a cup ends up in the final sauce.

    (Note, never do an alcohol based reduction sauce without adequate ventilation. I forgot that rule yesterday. Took me hours to get rid of the headache. I don’t know if that analogizes to fiction writing, too…)

  9. Mary

    Some authors get away with infodumps. The chief problem is that they stop the story. So the two tricks to give the readers a different reason to read through are, in my experience, having a voice so engaging that the readers will just listen to more (Robin McKinley got away starting Beauty with info-dump that way) or getting the readers curious about the topic and seguing into it (Poul Anderson was good at that — I note that he also had an excellent style that could slide in and out of the infodump without jarring the reader.)

    • TRX

      Anderson generally put his infodumps at the starts of chapters with a break before the story resumed, so they were easy to skip.

      I’m one of those people who want to inspect all the gubbins and widgets of the backstory or technical details. Other people simply don’t care; they’re only reading for the story.

      A properly formatted infodump is *just fine* as long as it’s obvious and skippable. Much better than trudging through bloated text trying to show you bits by indirection.

      Robert Cham Gilman stuck a paragraph at the head of each chapter of his Rhada books; with a few words, the headers gave all you needed of the backstory of a galactic empire. And Jack Vance, of course, was the Master of Footnotes.

      • Mary

        In my experience, he usually did it by having the characters ponder something and gliding into omniscient narrator to explain it neatly.

  10. Infodump Paragraph at the start of a chapter…Asimov did this in his Foundation Series,

  11. My current novel has a reading group, mostly not SF. They sort of indicated they would like the novel to open with what they estimated to be a 50 page infodump. The request seemed impractical, though I did work in to Chapter 3

    After lunch it was clearly time for my next book. I suppose I could start studying instead. I decided to read a history. For some reason, Mum did not entirely approve my reading historicals. I agree that most books on history are pretty pointless. Here are these great men and women and their heroic deeds that you can copy. Here is a record of past ages and their mistakes, leading upward to the present when we do everything right. If you don’t like moral histories, there are historical mysteries. Historical mystery books tend to be completely crazy. Yes, it is hard to understand how the eight different civilizations of ancient Washington, 2000 years ago, could clearly have coexisted along the Columbia River, had advanced science, technology, mathematics, and art, yet failed to notice each other. Even if they weren’t all there at exactly the same time, whichever actually came later might in their historic records occasionally have noted ruins of the past. No such luck. Massachusetts is even more confusing. There are 12 or 15, I tend to forget, different ancient advanced civilizations whose traces may be found near Massachusetts Bay. Most of them left at least some reasonably detailed historical records. Seven left observations on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and Uranus, observations that make no sense. They had the moons in the wrong places. You’d think they couldn’t see the sky. There was a mystery here, one in which most people seem to be remarkably uninterested. The people who are interested in ancient civilizations write totally crazy things. They talk about world civilizations of 50,000 years ago, before Homo sapiens evolved, with a remarkable collection of nonsense as allegedly serious evidence.

    Finally I curled up with a book, a very thick history of the Grand Tradesmasters of All Leviorkianu, many of whom were real characters, to put it mildly. Stanford Smith was by far the most pleasant and sensible of the lot. He had made a vast number of westerns, films whose location is in dispute between Utah and Mongolia, and the esoteric, substantially incomprehensible motion picture Casablanca, which is still said to be one of the greatest films made in the last several thousand years. The history listed all the books that had attempted to interpret a scene at the end of the book, in which the Inspector throws a bottle of water into a trash can. The scene is so brilliant that no one can understand it. Smith was the sort of person you would like as an older friend, if he hadn’t died a couple thousand years ago.

    All good things come to an end. Live Forever and Own All The Money was no exception. I looked up and realized it was well after dark outside. GR, it’s January. Dark happens early. My mocha pot was empty. I’d really gotten lost in the book, especially toward the end when Grand Tradesmasters were alcoholics, child molesters, lunatics, and monetary reformers, concentrating hard enough that I didn’t think about my pain. I still hurt, a lot. I’d dodged the sword. At the end, just as I slit the fellow from end to end, I’d had to take getting gut-punched. Hard. Things were still uncomfortable down there. Before I started reading I’d remembered to pull up a quilt, so I hadn’t gotten cold. My gifts will protect me from cold, but only when I’m calling them.

    For a few moments my memories carried me back to a book I’d read last year, a book on that historical oddity, the not-American Ambassador. One fine day, there had appeared in Vienna a man claiming to be the American Ambassador, which he was not. He had an impressive set of papers, claiming he was the ambassador not for the American Republic but from a “United States of America” founded in 1776, not 0017, and not to the Empire of the Hapsburgs but to a “Republic of Austria”. The parallel universe crackpots had a field day. Telepathic examination, as a start to curing his delusions, found that he had a full set of wrong memories going back to being a little boy, all memories of a world that does not exist. Particularly alarming were his very detailed memories of ‘the first flight to the moon’, a flight carried out within the last few decades using, Goddess spare us, a chemically-fueled rocket. The alarm was that he remembered lots of details of the rocket—it had been a boyhood fixation—and careful engineering analysis of this complete bit of absurdity showed that the rocket would have worked, if it hadn’t blown up first. He refused to believe in personas or gifts, even when someone hovered in front of him. He also claimed that the “United States” was part of the world’s first technical civilization, that there were no ancient steel and concrete ruins, that writing is not older than homo sapiens, and that America was been settled from of all places Britain, in 1600, that being only 30 centuries too late. In short, he was stark raving mad. He also spoke neither Modern English nor Ancient English. His ‘Standard Edited English’ was close to real English, but he would say ‘perhaps’ not ‘mayhaps’, ‘OK’ not ‘GR’, and would split infinitives as the correct way to speak. More peculiarly, part of his mind was not there. He would talk about how his country was governed, and every so often his thoughts would vanish. Moments later he would be talking again, but there would be mysterious gaps in his logic, as though he could think things, but no one else could be aware of them. He was under very close observation when he suddenly disappeared, every atom in his body vanishing at what appeared to be the same moment.

  12. mrsizer

    Aja enters a forest. Skip five pages ahead and hope you’ve missed the description of every plant and what medicinal use it has. Other than that, I liked the Clan of the Cave Bear books.