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.