Backing Up the Info Dump Truck by Jim Ryan
Today’s special guest is Jim Ryan, a caffeine-loving podcaster and writer who can be found at his official website Jim – Yes, THAT Jim and via Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. (Yes, MySpace is still around. It’s hard to believe, I know.) Also, please feel free to check out Jim’s two podcasts, The Great Debate and The Everyworld News Podcast.
Now, onto Jim’s thoughts on providing readers with too much information at once. (Yes, the old saying is true. Sometimes less is more.)
I have a confession to make. I’m addicted to world-building.
Whenever I write something that takes place in a fictional world, I like to spell out details about that world to the Nth degree. My material leans in the direction of science fiction and fantasy, so more often than not I find myself creating races and societies and – depending on the setting – sorting out rules for how magic works or how advanced technology works.
Why bother with all that? Because my OCD-riddled brain likes to sort out every last piece of information and put it in its proper place.
The problem is that once I’ve got the details written up, I often feel a compulsion to share them with my readers. From what I understand this can be a malady that strikes many writers. It’s only natural, of course. After working for hours on the complete history of every major spacefaring race in a given galaxy, the desire to share the pride I have in such a massive creation is a perfectly normal one.
Normal, but sadly, not helpful.
I may feel as though providing pages and pages of information on the mating habits of the rock people of Quar is the right and just thing to do, but deep down I know that producing a story the approximate length of the Great Wall of China might not be the best strategy. Not if I want to retain any of my readers, anyway.
So, how do I avoid including info-dumps in my fiction?
I’ve tried having clueless minor characters standing by to ask, “What’s going on?” so the clever protagonist can tell them. But that only really seems to work for me up to a point, after which it can start getting ridiculous. Sometimes there’s a fine line between having a main character who’s a genius and having one who’s basically a tape recorder.
(For those of you who may be a bit younger, we used to have these things called “tape recorders.” Google them some time if you’d like to get an insight into how the ancient folk of the late 20th century lived.)
What I’ve found works better is to seed the information in appropriate passages a bit at a time – just hinting at the greater depth of background instead of throwing it all out there. I try only to include the bits of information that are relevant to the story. So, for example, instead of getting into the specifics of how the Quarren race reproduces, I can instead have the Quarren ambassador mention that he’s recently carved out a son.
The key here is letting the readers fill in the missing bits with their imagination. I haven’t explained HOW the ambassador had a son, but I’ve 1) communicated what I need to (that the ambassador has a family, which helps explain his motivations) and 2) hopefully made the reader curious about the Quarren race. The readers can’t help but try to picture what I’m talking about, but because the picture is incomplete there’s now a mystery to which they’ll want to learn the answer.
Stringing folks along by revealing only tiny bits of the world you’ve created can be a bit cruel, perhaps, but ultimately they’ll love you for it. Because a world that looks like it’s got a lot of potential is way cooler than one that’s finished.
So consider hoarding all of those excruciating details and letting them out a bit at a time. That way, when they ask for more, you’ll have a ready supply.
If you’d like to guest blog on my site, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.