Information vs Infodumps

No two authors are alike, and no author is alike over time. This is excellent, as the audience isn’t a monolithic block either, and wants different things, too. And… then there’s infodumps.

All stories require a certain amount of information to be conveyed, and context for the story. In stage plays, there was once a convention to open the story with two characters, often the maid and butler, gossiping and giving us the backstory. Which led to the “Maid and Butler” dialogue, also called “As you know, Bob.” (Link is to TV tropes.)

There’s also the prologue, wherein the information is presented as “So far in this series…” or “This story is set on a world with the following pronunciations, tribes, history, or deadly dangers not known on earth…” (Very popular in the 80’s)

Times and tastes change, and now the general standard is to work this information into the story instead of presenting it in a chunk of front. Otherwise know as, you can’t get the people to learn about the story unless they care about the characters.

Working in, though, has a range between Heinleining and Infodump. On the one end, Heinlein was famous for working the worldbuilding into small details and conversation. How do you know you’re on a space station in the future? Well, “the door dilated” instead of the door opening. On the other end is putting the information into huge chunks between dialogue or action. This can be done very well, though if you get known for it, you too may end up parodied by your fans, like “How David Weber Orders A Pizza.”

Most authors are usually somewhere inbetween. I personally don’t like infodumps; they make my eyes glaze over. Jim Curtis, over there leaning against the back wall, is laughing his head off because I beta-read for him… and he’s well-used to seeing anything over a line or two marked on the side of his draft as “infodump; skimmed this”, or “got bored here.” Fortunately, he 1.) doesn’t take it personally, and 2.) knows that most readers are not like me!

(And if you want a neat little story about dealing with an alien invasion while you’re trying to set up a contraband still, check out Rimworld: Stranded. He’s getting close to releasing the follow-up novel, so you won’t have to wait long for more great stories in that galaxy!)

When I put out my first story, I almost went with no infodumps at all. (There are a few worked in, because beta readers got confused.) And it shows: there are two running themes in the reviews. Some readers say that they liked how there were no infodumps, and that you got to have the world unfold as you read… and the other readers say that they got confused on a couple points, and would have had a better time if that info had been dumped in up front!

Clearly, this means you want to sneak information in earlier and better than I did. Where do you tend to end up on the imparting information scale? How do you prefer to do impart yours: dialogue, exposition, scene building, prologue, or bits of narrative summary?

80 Comments

Filed under FYNBOSSPRESS, WRITING: CRAFT

80 responses to “Information vs Infodumps

  1. Before you ask where or how to infodump you need to ask why. Is there a reason that the reader needs to know these things? Is it a good reason?

    I go with the “This guy walks into the a bar” principle. What’s the guy’s name? Doesn’t matter. Where’s the bar? Doesn’t matter. What matters is that the bartender is a gorilla or whatever.

    Obviously a 60,000 novel requires a little more information than a three minute joke. Even so, I find a lot of books (and particularly SF/F books) where the story stops dead at random intervals to give me a lesson in the history or politics or ecology of a setting that I don’t need and don’t want.

    Right now I’m writing a story about a group of Roman soldiers on an exhibition to the British Isles on which they encounter some hostile dark elves. I don’t explain that they are Romans or where they are because that isn’t what I want the reader to be thinking about. I want the reader to be worried about the brave captain and his men getting eaten the next time the sun goes down.

    • You’ve got the advantage that you can quickly signal “Roman soldiers” with some names and terms, and any reader with a reasonable amount of familiarity with the Roman Empire will fill in the rest.

      It’s much more difficult when you’re dealing with alternate history, or something like some stories I just pulled off the back burner to take another look at (a world where people from the modern day escaped an extinction-level event by fleeing through a worldgate to a world with magic that works sorta-kinda along the lines of D&D, ie, with a divide between magic users and priests). There you’ve got the consideration of making sure that readers don’t fill in the wrong details and jump to the wrong conclusions about how your world works. Especially if there have been some really strange development in the fictional society since the point of departure from Primary World history, it’s essential to make sure that it’s clear what’s going on, that artistic choices don’t look like mistakes, and you don’t cause (legitimate) offense through poor in-clueing.

      • Terry Sanders

        This. I read the David Weber thing and laughed; but if Arthur Conan Doyle had written that, he’d’ve had to leave in a noticeable amount of the background. Jules Verne did.

        (Of course, a Victorian-era audience had more tolerance for that kind of thing, too.)

  2. I use the sink-or-swim approach: either the reader learns what they need to on the fly, or they’re not my audience. (Tho I tend to write too lean, so sometimes even my folks complain. *sigh*)

    • Funnily enough one of my Beta readers complains I need to be more fulsome too. My Alpha reader would have me writing with footnotes and appendices too.

      • I just had someone flag a problem with really deep background in one story: they’re getting a sense of sorta-Regency with magic, but are confused by the setting. It’s set in the same universe as some of my other stories, and I’m going to have to figure out how to slip some of the necessary background about the worldgate.

        At least it’s written in third person. If I try to rewrite the stories in a notebook I just pulled back out, I need to figure out how to inclue that the legitimate government is the lineal descendant of a criminal organization, and has carried over a number of terms and some mindset elements. Except the POV character is a native for whom it’s just the way it is, who feels no more need to stop the story and explain than a character in a contemporary mainstream fiction would need to explain about how the US government works.

        • The first time I read Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean, I didn’t notice that it was specifically set in the 1970s until I was nearing the end. The problem? A ghost story was told with the ghost supposedly being of someone of “the class of ’99,” which was my year, so my brain automatically set the story in “near-modern, possibly a bit ahead,” time. And the fashion choices were just seen as retro love, which was common.

          The fact that it was 1899 was obvious to the characters,and probably the author… but not to someone much younger. Oops.

          • That can be a problem with stories that were originally written to feel like they’re “happening as you read them.” I’m not sure how to avoid that problem, although I know that there are certain things in my files that would require a lot of rewriting if I were ever to take them back out for indie. They were written in the 80’s and 90’s, but presented as “general contemporary setting” rather than a specific date. The ones that are in school settings would be the hardest, because I automatically default to the schools that I grew up with, and in the decades since I graduated, things have changed beyond recognition.

            • I have a story that has a college computer lab. Unfortunately, it’s integral, as is the concept of not everyone having a cell phone. It’s also fantasy. I’m not really sure how to change the indicators to get people to read it as “similar to late 1990s”, especially since it’s first-person POV.

              Pity. I *like* that story.

              • Hard to be specific, not knowing the plot of the story, but consider having on of your main characters somewhat early on complain about something which signals the time frame. The complaint can mean a tiny bit of interesting conflict/characterization, while the subject of the complaint can indicate the date. So in a college computer lab, perhaps someone complains about Bill Clinton (which everyone will know) in reference to the Clipper Chip (which some will know what that is), thus placing the story firmly in the mid-90s.

                • Yeah, the problem is that this is a world with elves in it, so it’s hard for me to assume the rest of the world is exactly the same as ours. 🙂

                  • Yeah, as Draven suggests, if the political process to date things is out, then being clear about something technological which hits the time period. Harder to find something everyone (not just people who lived it, or who know technology) would know, though.

                    I mean, I would pick up on the zip disk or CD burning thing, but likely none of my teenage kids would. Maybe the number of TV channels going from 13 to hundreds of cable channels recently being mentioned, or some society-wide technological change like that?

                • Draven

                  Zip disks. burning a CD taking an hour. only one machine in the lab *having* a CD-burner because they are expensive. a non- windows machine for video or web design or desktop publishing. (even the mention of DTP will date it to the 90s, really)

        • SheSellsSeashells

          Seems to me that you could do a fair amount of hinting as to the nature of the government by having your POV character deal with the local equivalent of a parking ticket or other bureaucratic hassle. Just a thought.

        • mrsizer

          > would need to explain about how the US government works.

          You might want to rethink that analogy; apparently even Senators are clueless.

  3. paladin3001

    Thinking about this. Wondering how to get all the research I am needing trimmed down to info packets needed for the story. I think the concept of immersion is good and possibly a little tricky. Have an idea for infodump that can be an “object” lesson.

    • Heh. I had my college students writing reports. Mind you, nothing in depth went into the books, but the subjects of the reports give some history. I actually got a review that _liked_ the method.

  4. Rachel

    Terry Pratchett did this really well. In Nation, there’s a fight scene between a pirate and a native islander where the bullets enter the water, slow down, and actually bounce off the submerged islander hero. Our hero knows nothing about guns and relative densities, so you get a nice whoa! How can this be happening! Without the fight slowing down or the tension dropping at all. (To be fair, Pratchett did put in an afterword explaining the science. But it would have worked even without that.)

    • Nation is an interesting book. It’s not precisely comedy, though it has those elements, and Pratchett’s dislike of religion shows through slightly more than usual (which is to say, not a whole lot.) Of course, the entire time I was watching Moana, various elements of Nation kept going through my head. (For those who have only seen one or neither, there’s no plot convergence, just setting elements that are alike because they’re both in Pacific island territories.)

  5. snelson134

    Genre matters too: a “hard” science fiction series like Honor Harrington or Hammer’s Slammers needs far more in the way of infodump than a fantasy set in standard medieval setting. Same thing goes for alternate history, especially today where readers may have never encountered actual history.

    • Or even if it’s not their brand of history.

      • Yup. I used personal mental asides and family discussions to provide the alternate back-history to the alternate history, for people who aren’t familiar with Eastern European history. Otherwise it would have been a lecture, and jamming one of those in… Nope, the protagonist would never have listened, anyway.

  6. I ended up writing a 90 page sequence that drove the plot home…then had everyone complaining I’ve now neglected Europe. 🙂

  7. Heh now, I changed it just for you… LOL It is a tough question, as the others have noted. There is no way to please everybody, so I kinda try to write to the 50th percentile readership, e.g. ‘some’ info woven into the story. Starting a new series in military SF, there has to be ‘some’ info parceled out, like it or not… Bottom line, I don’t ‘have’ a good answer…

  8. I try to not “dump” the information, just sneak it in in an occasional internal or external dialog. Mind you I _TRY. That doesn’t mean I actually succeed.

    Beta readers are good for telling you “too much” or “too little.”

    Poking fun at Dorothy . . . I was halfway through _Scaling the Rim_ before I picked up on the Rus being genetically engineered humans, and not aliens. And I still wonder about “the war.” Between whom? Where? What was the outcome?

    And if you haven’t read this excellent story . . . https://www.amazon.com/Scaling-Rim-Dorothy-Grant-ebook/dp/B06VT6VTYM/

    • Dorothy Grant

      Yep, see? Jim didn’t get it either at first, when he beta read. I thought I had enough explanation worked in the final draft, but obviously not!

      *pokes fun at self*

      As for the war, that’s a tale of humans fighting over a shrinking pie, instead of expanding and growing, because sometimes, when you’ve got a strain of bad ideology infecting groups, humans gonna human…

      I should write that. Except that Alma Boykin has been telling me about what the landscape does when ice ages end, and suddenly my characters who’ve been sulking about, and refusing do anything, are Really Motivated to get out of the crater before their iceball’s equivalent of glacial lake Missoula lets loose…

      And they want to make airships. I did not intend this to become a steampunk world! But if you don’t have time to build roads…

      • With those winds? How about hot air balloons, with just enough engine, propeller and steering to almost go where they want. Then they can do emergency partial deflating to get on the ground and sheltered fast . . . and still get back into the air after the storm. If they have fuel for the hot air. Easier or harder than carrying helium around?

        :: snort :: Sorry, now I’m picturing the bicycle dirigible from _The Great Race_.

        And don’t forget the sailing sleds.

        • Dorothy Grant

          Essentially, a dirigible is a hot air balloon modified to have just enough powered steering to go where it wants. I’m contemplating several hard limitations:
          1. The Rus are on the bottom of a very deep 160-mi-wide crater. (There’s one on Mars; it’s a feasible size.) This limits their access to mineable resources, including distilled petroleum to run a burner setup easily. Thus, steam power engines, and it’ll have to be hydrogen instead of helium, because it’d just be too darned deus ex machine to have easily available aluminum and helium lying around. (Iron and nickel, well, could be with whatever the meteor was.)
          2. They’re resource-poor, as they’re breakaways from Federasky’s control. So I’m going to have to do a lot of “Can we build this with wood instead? Yes, we can!” Which also limits cloth production. And rubber, because… tropical plant, non-tropical environment. (See also: lightweight silk)
          3. Anything they put up, they have a reasonable expectation that Central is going to try to shoot down. So they’re going to invest in everything fleeing at once, and most of it getting away. Which means no, ahem, floating a trial balloon. So they’ll need a scouting party on foot, getting a location to flee to.

          Darn my engineering training: I have to make all the science hard! Especially the geology, and the flying, the meteorology, and the ecology, because I’ve studied them, and it wouldn’t be right to handwave! …At least nobody has yet left a one-star complaining about the infodumping and overattention-to-detail of cold-weather camping and climbing a glacier…

          • Ooh! Geology geekiness!

            I actually put in a few clues to a major plot point in the sequel-to-be-written (toddlers make writing hard) in the initial book, and they’re all geological. It helps when you can borrow known geology to make your points.

          • Ah, and don’t forget about isostatic rebound. As the ice melts and water moves, reducing the weight on the land, you are going to have earthquakes as the land rises somewhat. Probably not big ones. Probably.

          • Any more high tech machinery still working? Things stored? High tech fabric from, say the last parachutes from dropping supplies from the colony ship? Any genetically engineered animals around? Speaking of which, are they going to try to move livestock? I think you’re allowed one “unlikely thing.” Hmm, distilled alcohol for burners?

            This, BTW, is what happens when you write a good story in a really interesting world.

            • TRX

              The lowest-tech method would be charcoal and hot air.

              The early Zeppelins used cow intestines to make leather gas bags. Way simpler than cloth, for which you’d have to invent an build an entire textile industry to get enough cloth within a reasonable time.

              • Terry Sanders

                IF you have that many cows.

                IIRC, the leather you’re describing was goldbeaters’ skins, and they used them because they would retain hydrogen better than any *woven* fabric available at the time.

          • Wouldn’t Central be having their own problems? It read to me like they would be in the lowest part of the crater so would be dealing with flooding earlier, plus I could see lots of internal strife as leadership’s story started visibly falling apart. Also the Rus seem too technically advanced to go really steam-punk, even if they are resource poor. Loved “Scaling the Rim” btw.

            • Glad you loved it!

              Yep, Central is going to be having their own problems. As I have about ten thousand words into a story of a hapless Rus’s attempt to steal a copy of the subtropical/tropical seed bank, only to find out that if he really wants to succeed, he’d better steal at least one of the master gardeners, too. And that hydroponics are a stinky, messy, mucky bitch to work with.

              That’s waiting on additional research, because I need more time to sit and chat with people who’ve worked in more advanced greenhouses than I have, especially when it comes to dealing with tropical plants.

              (Look. There has to be coffee. Saving the coffee bushes is almost as important as saving the people! And chocolate, and cardamom, and tea, and cinnamon, and pepper, and all those lovely things people take for granted with our spice trade being globalized.)

              But one function of socialized governments I have experienced first-hand is that they really don’t give a damn if the world is ending, people are dying in the streets, etc… control is always far more important. Venezuela is running out of food and gas, but do you see them saying “Oh, maybe socialism is a bad idea?” So Central’s problems are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

              As for steampunk… on reflection, this is a fundamental worldview difference from living where there are no roads. In most of the world, current roads are improvements on prior cattle trails, goat trails, and “I want to go trade with those people over there / conquer them / tax my conquered people” sort of tracks that have existed for thousands of years. In the US, they’re the “We’re headed thataway, and this is the trading link for supplies and good to pass back and forth” and web springing from same, but still, pretty permanent features of most people’s lives. So it doesn’t sink in just how time, resource, and labor-intensive establishing a road where none exists really is.

              But in Alaska, there are huge parts of the state where building a road, much less maintaining one, is unthinkably expensive for so little benefit, even if there are people on both ends. By the time we really started linking all the villages, we had air transportation as a viable alternative… and as a result, much of Alaska and Northern Canada is linked by boat and plane, much as large parts of the developing world have skipped landlines and gone straight to cellular. (Up there, we skipped landlines and went to satellite, now with cellular additions.)

              If you’re not intending to come back, and you want to move mass amounts now instead of in fifteen to twenty years when the highway is completed, an airlift only seems right and natural. And once you have developed air technology, roads may become a luxury or dedicated tonnage purpose, not unlike railroads…

              It just seems really steampunk.

          • Terry Sanders

            You might want to check out The Flying Kettle Project. A group of British working on balloons that use steam for the lifting gas. Looks like they ran out of money or something, but the research and theory notes are still there.

            You might especially want to check out the early papers, where the fellow was playing with zeppelins. One big thing is, you can use the gasbag as a condenser for the engine, while the engine exhaust becomes your lifting gas.

            If I ever try steampunk, I plan to make that a founding invention…

            • Oooh, thank you for the link!

              The one coincidence I think I can get away with is having data files describing how-to… because moving data between stars is cheap compared to good. Now, turning data into reality… there’s where the fun begins. But if they start knowing it’s possible and how, then that’s a completely different ballgame from having to start from scratch.

              • Terry Sanders

                Glad to be of service.

                You might also look at ‹a href=”http://www.personalblimp.com”›Sky Yachts‹/a›. Another possibly defunct group, they licked the floppy-gasbag problem with hot-air blimps with a collapsible rigid “hull” based on umbrella tech.

                The interesting thing is their use of the frame to mount the engine at the rear of the gasbag. On a swivel. They use it to steer. Coupled with hot-air’s fine control they have something that, in light winds, is like a helicopter without the downdraft. They talk about descending into the top of a tree and picking leaves.

                The Flying Kettle people talk about something similar, on a bigger scale (steam turbines and vane motors are light–it’s the boilers and condensers that are heavy). And see? Somebody’s done it!

                Also, a look at the Italian semi-rigids might be profitable. I always saw them as a superior design that never got a real break. But that’s just me…

      • “are Really Motivated to get out of the crater before their iceball’s equivalent of glacial lake Missoula lets loose…”

        Yeah, you really don’t want to be there when the equivalent of the Channeled Scablands and such are being formed.

        • And they need those satellites to map a route that doesn’t go over high mountains. not sure they can design well enough for very thin air. Plus the lower they fly, the more likely they can land and not crash in the event of a serious loss of lift.

        • The Grand Canyon was formed over millennia. The Gorge had its rough carving in a very short period of time—we’re talking initial force of about a week per flood (there were repeated fillings and drainings of Glacial Lake Missoula, since ice dams re-form), plus however long it took to drain off.

          If you’ve ever had a chance to drive up the Columbia River Gorge, or even cross it on I-90, just imagine the force of water needed to take that down the several hundred feet all at once. That’s the sort of event you’d want to watch from satellite orbit.

  9. Christopher M. Chupik

    Watched the movie Midnight Special recently. The writer-director doesn’t give you anything upfront: you have to watch it all the way through to realize what’s going on. Not easy, but I think they pulled it off.

  10. I don’t worry about infodumps too much when I’m in the first draft, usually if I drop one, it’s because I’m on a roll on something else and I want to make sure I get the information down, but I’m concentrating on some other story aspect. So I just flag them, and move on with the thing I’m concerned about.
    Then I come back later and edit it. Either the next day, or later when I’m doing the first re-write. This gives me the options of figuring out if I want to put some of that infodump data into earlier scenes to break it up, or add a new scene, or cut it out completely, or maybe just leave it there.
    The advantage (for me at least) of flagging it for later is that I can keep my creative flow going and it gives me opportunities to not only increase word count by turning it into story, but it lets me add subplot, or play other games.
    But there are times when you just have to have them.
    The biggest thing I’ve learned, from another writer, is that never explain anything fully until you absolutely have to. Otherwise you might write yourself into a corner that is very difficult to extract yourself from.

    • Margaret Ball

      A writer after my own heart! I frequently find while starting the first draft that I “know” things about the characters/world that weren’t in the outline. So I get the information down as it comes to me. Second draft is quite soon enough to ask about each paragraph, “Does the reader need to know this right now? Ever?”

      I must say that it’s much easier to write this way now than it was in the dark ages BC (Before Computers).

      • When I used to be writing term papers, I would pull all the quotes I might use and type them into the documents, footnoting as I went. (Word processors are neat.) Then I’d write the paper, using quotations as appropriate, and then would delete the rest when I was finished.

        I do something similar with fiction—my (one and only) book was full of songs I was citing (folk songs for the most part), so I’d copy the whole things into the document and quote as needed. I still have a version somewhere with a few pages of lyrics at the end.

        P.S. Still love No Earthly Sunne, speaking of music.

  11. I do what I call “infoscatter” as much as possible: I try to work in situational or worldbuilding details whenever possible, in small doses. It’s in dialog, it’s in a character’s thought processes as he/she tries to determine which course of action to take, it’s (very occasionally) in a scene in which a leader gives a briefing to his/her team that explains what’s coming up and why, including background details. (That’s how I explained the seriously nonobvious orbital dynamics of skyhooks in The Cunning Blood.) The trick is to slip detail into the yarn in small ways as much as possible, such that the detail-telling becomes part of the yarn. Lectures tend to throw readers out of the story.

    I’m an ideas guy, and my core audience (whom I hear from constantly) are ideas guys and keep asking for more. Delivering more without dynamiting the pace is important. People who complain about infodumps are probably complaining about slow pacing and a lack of interesting characters to scatter details around as they think, act, and grow. I can’t please everybody (and I lean toward my core audience) but I try to meet everybody in the middle.

    • Carrington Dixon

      I’m an ideas guy, and my core audience (whom I hear from constantly) are ideas guys and keep asking for more.

      It seems that I am part of that core. Bear in mind that I liked the intro chapter of Downbelow Station and the appendices to LOTR. If the info is interesting, the infofump can be as well.

    • In my historicals, I try and build necessary information into the story, and conversation – but I have fun in the Luna City books by stepping aside from the characters and having one or two pages of “info-dump” in the guise of a news story, a blog post, or an informational essay on a matter having to do with the plot. It’s more fun that way – taking on the “voice” and style by channeling a particular publication or website.

  12. I was beta reading JM Ney-Grimm’s WIP, and I was very impressed by the utter reality of the world she created. I told her I thought it was because she writes so purty (and she does write real purty), but she said it was because she embedded the details in character opinion or reaction. When she said that, I realized it was true. My takeaway from that was that when the detail is multi-tasking it’s easier to absorb.

    As readers, we like to feel we’re standing inside a rich, fully-realized world, but we don’t want to feel like we’re working for it.

    The David Weber pastiche, btw, was very well done.

  13. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I have got to try that maid and butler dialogue thing out.

  14. Ah, so you wanna talk about digging latrines! Let’s go.

    Infodump: Author here. I’m going to interject myself into the story and tell you how to dig a latrine and why it’s important.

    Not an infodump: Character here. Can you believe this? I have to go dig a latrine. Here’s what I think about the whole thing. Here’s how I go about it. Here’s the reason I’m stuck with this shitty detail.

    Reader: Whaaaa! I don’t want to learn about digging latrines.
    Character: You’re not the target audience. Bye!
    Author: I went to all the trouble of doing it right and showing you through my character. You’re so not my target audience. Bye!

    • TRX

      Reader: skips over a couple of uninteresting paragraphs.

      • Reader then whines that he didn’t understand something. Blames author. 🙂

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Worse.

          Reader A dislikes infodumps

          Reader B (reading same book) is annoyed when the author doesn’t give bigger infodumps.

          👿 😈 👿 😈 👿 😈 👿 😈

          • All kidding aside, the point I was trying to make is that it’s not an info dump if it’s coming from the character for a good, plot-related reason. It should be seamless and not stand out to the reader.

            Now, having said that, some readers can’t abide anything they don’t like or agree with and will call “infodump” or they’ll skip ahead, either because they’re not immersed in the story or because they have a short attention span.

            I’ve had people skip over sex because they’re there for the SF, and vice versa, skip over the SF because they were there for the sex. It’s purely about personal preference. I guess as long as they’re still there at the end of it, I won’t gripe. But just because they call “infodump” doesn’t make it one.

            Is it necessary? Is it through the character, i.e. character voice, not authorial? Does the character have a reason to think about it? React to it? If the answer to these questions is yes, it’s not an info dump, even if it’s not something the reader gets into.

      • This happened to me on a movie last night; it’s an attempt at an animated musical, involving fairies, and love potions, and … I wanted to keep skipping past each single time they burst into song and get the dialogue story parts.

        • A good song should advance the plot or character elements. Evil Rob actually had a breakdown of the elements of a successful song in a musical, and it has to have at least two and possibly all three of them. (Wish I could remember the specific things he said.) The Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical “Once More With Feeling” is an example of one that has those elements.

          Hamilton is actually a very good example of songs doing multiple jobs*, and I have a really good example of a bad musical to compare it to. I was in an elementary school production of a musical called “Dear Abby” (about Abigail Adams) that you’ve never heard of for good reason. It had several songs that closely map to the ones in Hamilton, including one by King George III, but honestly, that thing is boring, and it’s partly because the songs do only one job at a time, when they need to be doing multiple things in order to function. (Like having a song that’s just about the colonies having the inability to have self-governance. Fine, but what are you going to do about it? “We can’t self-govern” is one thought, not a paragraph, and each song should be a chapter.)

          *I know a lot of readers here find Hamilton overrated. I don’t; I’m a music geek and the layered depth of what’s going on in that show is fascinating. And it’s been done a serious disservice by being described as “a hip-hop musical,” since that’s only one of the musical forms at play. Anyway. Even if you don’t like it, it has a lot of things that are good from an analysis standpoint, because it’s very tightly constructed.

        • TRX

          I despise musicals for that very reason.

          • A good musical uses songs to convey information. A mediocre or bad one stops the action to do music. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat does both at the same time, showing how a 30-minute one-act play got stretched beyond its needs. (And please, don’t put a “show-stopping” song at the beginning of a musical. It’s called “show-stopping” for a reason.)

  15. Christopher M. Chupik

    Appendices/glossaries at the end help too, I’ve found from my own reading. Tolkien and Herbert didn’t stop to explain every single reference in their own work, after all.

  16. sabrinachase

    I like to explain things with repair jobs and shopping lists 🙂 All you really need for the reader to understand about a gizmo is a) it isn’t working because it won’t gromulize, and this is how we know and who is agitated about this tells us the important, b) this is how we fix it and what/who is needed to fix (good whack with hammer, space drydock, new gromulizer culture, etc) and c) yay, it gromulizes again! (with description of gromulization)

  17. Let’s see. I’ve done the “military briefing,” the “character has plausible reason to go to archive and we get history through character’s lens,” The “young character in school enduring someone’s class report,” the “internal aside about politics and fools that provides info,” the “weave details into story,” and one (thus far) “Oh H-ll, here’s the background as a separate novel, dang it. Now leave me alone!” Except the characters didn’t and I ended up with three more books in that series.

    • Ah, Military briefings, the original ‘infodump’! You have X minutes to impart as much information to the higher command as possible. You’re never given enough time, and you have no idea what they’re really interested in, so you have to cover all the highlights with enough depth to give a good picture, but not to much that you get bogged down and can’t finish.
      But you better know enough about the topic in case they ask questions and you have no idea what they’ll find interesting.

      The worst thing that ever happened to me was: “Here’s my slides, go brief everyone on this subject.”
      “But I don’t really know anything about it!”
      “Too Bad!”

      Yeah, I looked like an idiot that day.

  18. Albert

    In a fic that I’m using to practice some of the many skills involved in writing, I have a bit of a chapter that goes like this(although I’m probably going to revise it soon):

    “Spells cast by wand were only a part of magic, albeit a very popular part. Wands were special-made, a form of minor enchantment all on their own, designed to channel the structure of spells with relative ease. It could take weeks, or even months, to learn to cast a spell without a wand. But, again, spells were only a part of magic.

    “The constellation of reagents that had consistent effects on the elements were part and parcel of the lore of the apothecary. But alternative reagents could be prepared with the same effects using more obscure and occult properties. Likewise, some spells required their own unique reagents, that often involved elaborate preparations involving those selfsame occult properties. And other spells, usually powerful, multi-element, and rare, might require their own unique foci to work, effectively eschewing the need for a wand. Yet others required specific occult properties in the environment, only working at certain times or places, or in areas that had been thoroughly prepared beforehand to match the required properties.

    “And then there were the spells that could not be cast with a quick phrase and a toss of the wand. Some could only be cast as rites and rituals, and others were nothing more than long prayers, sung for hours, to open the way for a mighty spirit to manifest(although such were rarely invoked more than once a century, if that). Some had to be cast over and over again, at specific intervals. And in the hands of true masters of magic, some spells required nothing more than a mind focused by decades of training.

    “And some forms of magic were not spells at all. Lesser magical items like wands and other spell foci, or greater items like the trove of magic said to be held beneath the Academy, or the holy relics held by the rulers of the Blessed Realms. Or potions.

    “Potions combined aspects of reagent preparation, item enchantment, and ritual spellcasting. The various ingredients had to be gathered and prepared in very specific ways, and combined in very specific orders, and equal care had to be taken with the tools used(many of which, in the lab of an established mage, were prepared as foci, similar to wandmaking). A tyro’s efforts resulted in spoiled reagents, wasted effort, and feeble results, but a competent potioneer like herself could count on her efforts to be rewarded.”

    When I posted the chapter that this was a part of, I asked the beta readers what they thought of the infodump. Several responded by asking _what_ infodump? So apparently I managed to camouflage it to _some_ degree.

  19. Among the many difficulties of writing first person, there is one pearl – it makes inserting infodumps so much easier. “Look, people, I really do have to stop here and explain some things, or you won’t understand what happened next.”

    Oh, and thank you, Dorothy – for the link to the ROFL of the day. I need at least one of those every day, it seems.

    • Mary

      In the opening of Beauty, Robin McKinley goes straight for info-dumping, but has the voice that pulls it off.

      • Oh, yes, I’d forgotten about that. (And I was just thinking the other day that I need to re-read that, and her other variant on the story.)

    • Terry Sanders

      I think this is one advantage Victorian-era writers had–their audience had no objection to the narrator turning to look at them and say “By the way, it might help you to know that…”

      They frequently had an omniscient narrator who was a character in his own right, even joking with the reader at times.

  20. TRX

    The problem I keep having is authors who know their story so well that they forget the reader *doesn’t* know. And they go romping off with their characters and conflicts, and I’m sitting there going, “WTF? What’s going on here?” Sometimes there’s enough exposition by the end of the story to figure out what’s going on, if I make it that far. Sometimes I never find out.

    If I’m left having to make up my own backstory, I might as well write my own book.

  21. Draven

    ok, the Weber pizza thing was genius.

    The temptation to write “How John Ringo orders a pizza” is strong….

    or maybe Larry.

    no, definitely John.

  22. Glen L. Weaver

    For setting and technology, have a character read the warning signs and labels which in our times are affixed everywhere. I don’t think this is intrusive, as this is a habit shared by most compulsive reader. Similarly, automated equipment intrudes into life with a huge variety of warning beeps, announcements and flashing warning signs.

  23. The time to explain something is at the point where the readers are begging you to. I think of an infodump as an explanation that comes too soon; readers don’t want to hear that yet. If readers welcome it, then it’s not an infodump–it’s just a well-placed explanation.

    “Ninefox Gambit” would have benefited from an explanation somewhere in chapter 2 that told how the calendrical system enabled exotic technologies. The author’s earlier work The Battle of Candle Arc does an excellent job of this (and is a great read overall), with the result that when people say “I found Ninefox too confusing,” the standard advice is “Read Candle Arc and then start Ninefox over.”