Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - How to Avoid "He Said, '-info-dump-'"- Aiganshen_Queen
The scenery whirred past outside the carriage window for a few hours in silence, as the two humans sitting inside waited each other out. They stared at each other; it was a contest of wills. Who would wait longer? Who would talk first?
At last, Jonathon cleared his throat. Breaking the silence, he said, “I know you’re not pleased with this latest mission, Claire. But as you know, negotiations with the Darkshade Orcs fell through last year, and, due to the famine in our nation, a war would be disastrous! Surely you remember studying during our three years at the National Academy, the last time something like this happened, two hundred years ago, our nation was plunged into a Dark Age that we’re still just barely bouncing back from! The king died, and no one knows what happened to his heirs; the nation’s power structure still hasn’t recovered!”
Claire sighed. “I know this is important,” she replied, “but couldn’t you have assigned it to anyone else? As you remember, my last mission fell through, and I’m not feeling very good about attempting another right now! War with the Darkshade Orcs on our northern borders would destroy our nation! You’re putting me under too much pressure, Jon!”
Let’s stop and analyze this conversation, ’K?
Claire and Jon are traveling in a carriage to the northern border, where Claire, one of their nation’s leading diplomats, is set to handle some delicate diplomatic relations with the Darkshade Orcs. Claire doesn’t have much self-confidence; therefore, you’re trying to show how reluctant she is in taking this assignment. You’re also trying to explain why it’s so important that war be avoided, as well as explain the history of the nation to the reader so that they won’t be surprised when the long-lost heir to the throne comes gallivanting in during Act III. Finally, you’re trying to set up Jon and Claire’s relationship as a long-lasting one, so that when they fall in love near the end, the reader isn’t so shocked. You’re also trying to do this in as few words as possible, so that you can get on to … you know, what’s that stuff called? When things actually happens.
Oh, right. You’re hurrying, because you want to make it to the plot.
Unfortunately, while this may seem like a vaguely good idea – have one nice, long carriage ride where they lengthily discourse on the current state of the nation, their nation’s history, the culture and customs of the Darkshade Orcs, their shared history, and everything else under the sun(s) of your nice little planet (the geography of which, coincidentally, is also going to be explained later during this carriage ride) – it actually ends up being one giant, ugly info-dump.
As yourself this question: In real life, would you ever have a conversation like this?
All right, ignoring the fact that you’re probably never going to be sent on a diplomatic relations mission to a bunch of orcs.
Really? Would you and an old friend really have a long, in-depth conversation about things that a) you’ve both presumably been briefed about already, b) you both already know, and c) you see every day (i.e. the planet’s geography)?
While it’s amazingly convenient to have Jon and Clair go on and on for ten or twenty pages and set up the back-story in one easy carriage ride, it just doesn’t work. It’s what’s called “the Dreaded Dialogue Info-Dump”.
Hallmarks of the dreaded info-dump include situations when your characters impart to each other information that they both clearly already know, when your characters are simply serving as tools through which to inform the reader of something they should know by telling each other about it, or the terrible “as you know”. The last one, in particular, is a nearly sure sign that you have an info-dump on your hands; it means that one of your characters is telling another something that they both already know, thereby rendering it a pointless conversation, merely held for the readers behalf. Variation include “As you remember …”, “I know you/you’re …”, and “You already know this, of course, but …”
The difference between normal dialogue and info-dumping is that, well, normal dialogue is something that actually happens all the time. When you shout to your brother to get off the computer because it’s your turn to use it, you’re not doing it for the benefit of the audience. You’re doing it because you want that computer; it’s a way to achieve your own goals. Info-dumps are purely for the benefit of the audience and generally don’t help the character at all.
All right, so. You know info-dumps are bad, but how else are you going to explain to the reader what’s going on?
Well, first of all, the way most things actually happen: as they come by. Roll with the punches; let your characters see some diseased crops or starving people or something, and then have one of them comment on the famine. Or have one of the orcs nastily comment that they can’t afford to let the negotiations fall through, and that Claire has to agree to whatever they say. Or something. Heck, have Claire pray to a god for a peaceful end to the conflict! Get the information out – but do it in a realistic way.
If you can’t just let things happen – the reader absolutely has to know something in advance, so that you can jump them with a plot twist later – then there are a few strategies you can employ.
For starters, you can make your main character some type of beginner. Now, we’re going to go over to Star Wars here (because clearly, nothing is complete without a Star Wars reference); in fact, this example is actually going to include Obi-Wan (because Obi-Wan pwns the galaxy). When Luke first learns of his Jedi heritage and galactic history, yes, there are about ten or twenty minutes devoted to Obi-Wan explaining what’s going on (most of the beginning of Episode IV). But this is because Obi-Wan actually has a legitimate reason for explaining everything to Luke. Luke and Obi aren’t sitting around in Obi’s hut on Tatooine going, “As you know, Luke, the Jedi were the peacekeepers of the galaxy before the Empire took over!” No, because the real history has been hidden, Obi actually has to explain everything to Luke, because otherwise, he’ll go out believing the Empire’s propaganda. So, the information Obi gives to Luke also provides a sense of disillusionment with the Empire, as well as giving a condensed version of galactic history. Granted, there are a few moments when things get sticky. However, this strategy generally works out for the best. Don’t overplay it, though – when you get to the point where the reader half-expects someone to explain to your main character what exactly water is, unless there’s an excellent reason for it, you’re going overboard.
To continue our happy little Star Wars example into another point: you don’t have to reveal everything. Until the release of the Prequel Trilogy, fans had no idea exactly how Anakin Skywalker turned into Darth Vader, or who Obi-Wan’s Master was, or how Luke ended up on Tatooine. And that was fine, because people didn’t need to know. Dedicated fans began speculating and wondering, but the casual viewer went home satisfied with what they had seen, the main mysteries of the galaxy far, far away explained to them. Your reader doesn’t need to know the exact concentration of CO2 in the sample of gas Frank just took on Venus, or how many miles it is from North Kilissien to Ciannet Town. There are some things that actually aren’t important; don’t make your characters waste breath and page space explaining every small detail to each other and info-dumping like mad.
One last way to exposit information without info-dumping it is to begin with a prologue-type thing. Now, I’ve heard lately that this is a big no-no and very cliché and stuff, but if you really need to get some history out there that bad, you can’t beat a good prologue. For instance, at the beginning of most computer games, you get a cut scene or two to explain what’s going on. Take Kingdom Hearts. Near the beginning, you have a scene where Donald and Goofy find a note from the King, telling them about the approaching darkness, the stars fading, and other likewise important things. This sets up the action later in the game swiftly and easily.
Finally, some guidelines to info-dumping. If you just have to do it, less is best – get a few crucial facts out there, and then stop! The shorter the sentences are, the less chance some annoyed reader will go, “Ooh! That’s an info-dump! Tsk, tsk!” while reading. If it’s fast and short – just a sentence or two to explain something quickly – then that makes it fly by faster. Take the Artemis Fowl series. Foalie and Holly’s banter is generally a quick way of explaining what’s happened since the last time we saw our favorite centaur and LEPrecon officer, but because it’s so quick, people barely notice it.
Another thing this last Artemis Fowl example shows us is that the more natural it sounds, the less likely it is that people get annoyed by it and see it for what it is. Foalie and Holly’s light-hearted teasing and jibing is enjoyable to read and funny; readers enjoy it for the humor value and miss the info-dumping.
Oh, and of course, ignore everything I said if you’re doing a satire or making fun of info-dumping or something. Obviously, what I’m saying has no import to you in those circumstances.
So, when you’re writing the next Great *insert nationality here* Novel, let Jon and Claire pray a bit. Have them notice things and comment on them. Go quickly and only show the relevant information. You’ll be surprised by the realism you’ll gain!