Saturday, July 3, 2010

Info-dump and world-building

I spent the last three hours weeding through new submissions to M-Brane SF, and I realize that the number one reason that I pass on a story--even over clumsy writing--is probably the way a lot of writers choose to lay in the information about their world, the way that many of them (probably feeling a need to get a lot of details in front of the reader) fall into dropping in a big fat info-dump rather than finding less intrusive ways to insert these details.

In science fiction, it's probably an easy ditch to fall into since, of course, the writer wants to present the awesome new world that her story is set in and make as clear as possible what cool or weird circumstance is driving the story. But what I see happening again and again in submissions are long scenes (sometimes even entire stories) that consist of characters sitting across a desk from each other discussing a situation in way that is entirely contrived to convey a lot of information to the reader but which doesn't ring very true as far as how real people would behave. It's the old "As you know, Bob," problem. As in, "As you know, Bob, ever since the founding of the Terran Douchebaggery, access to android porn has been severely curtailed." And while that may be an important bit of info to get out there, there must be some way to do it without making one's characters sit in an office rehashing information that they themselves certainly must know already.

Another variation on this that I see a lot of is where the story is going along swimmingly and the all of a sudden a giant info-dump shows up in the form of a secondary character revealing to the protagonist what's really been going on all along. I just read one where the writer had managed to set up very evocatively a great setting and had suggested a strange mystery and shown some clues toward its possible meaning, when suddenly about three-quarters of the way into the story..."I'm sorry I couldn't tell you this earlier, Bob, but actually you've been assigned to our new project of breeding half-human/half-android beings. Which you never heard of before, nor had any reason to suspect. But still. Sorry." I read another one like this a couple weeks ago which I enjoyed so much through most of the length of it that it was almost heart-breaking when it all went to hell in this fashion right at the very end. It's almost as disappointing as "It was all a dream."

I'd be interested in hearing what other writers have to say about ways to lay in rich detail in their stories but avoiding the info-dump. Or even ways to use an info-dump effectively so it's not dull or distracting, because it can be done sometimes.

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G. Ashley said...

It's funny, and I agree. But I think things like the info-dump (and/or flashbacks) only work in novel length materials. When I read a flash or a short I'm not expecting any grand explanation for why things are happening. Sometimes ambiguity is just fine. It's what's happening to the characters that matters, anyway. Instead of some clich├ęd conversation at a bar explaining the controversy of android porn, why not just show Bob hiding his stash of android porn. Assuming android porn is what the story is about. Otherwise, just cut it. As a reader, I'm more interested in the present. I want the writer to assume I already know most of what's going on/what's happened to the world. I'm hoping I'm not the minority, I just think brevity makes a story awesome.

Christopher Fletcher said...

There's certainly not time or space in short items to do a lot of detailed exposition, but there are all kinds of other ways to insert that texture into even a very short piece. I think what happens is that a writer will often not want to just set aside a lot of stuff that he or she knows about the world but which the reader doesn't necessarily need to understand the piece. I also see stories sometimes that open with prologues intended to set up the premise of the story's world before actually starting the story. In these cases, it's clear that I am looking at something that is supposed to be a piece of a "epic" novel and which would probably do better at that length.

Jeff Kozzi said...

Chris, I have found this to be a no-win situation for the writer. All advise I ever heard was to avoid the "as-you-know, Bob" and I do avoid it. You've taken some of my pieces and passed on others (you still have one under consideration.) I put in the pertinent details and try to weave them through the story as they become pertinent. Obviously, that approach has worked for you on a story with a lot of background such as "The Veritable Vegetable Victory" in M-Brane 9, but has not worked on some other stories or with other editors. I get conflicting comments from different editors, "not enough background" or "too much" or conflicting questions of how much background vs character. There's a balance that sometimes just seems to require perseverance to find the right editor.
Ashley's suggestion is a very sound one. I think some writers may feel that such an approach is too subtle, and for some editors, they will be right.
I did have a recent suggestion on a longer story that decried a lack of character. I really reworked the story for the main character, only to discover later (and still without a success there) that that particular editor seemingly wanted a pilot of an enemy ship exploding in the story opening. I thought I was opening with a bang. Much of her advice–which ended after the first page–would most definitely violate your anti-info dump tastes. It took me two stories with the editor to realize that her advice was definitely geared to selling her online class.
I feel the writer needs to find an approach he likes , always be open to criticism, but to trust his own judgment.

Anonymous said...

Ursula LeGuin has some helpful ideas and exercises in her how-to, "Steering the Craft," as far as breaking up expository lumps by sprinkling details into the narrative and dialogue. And I agree with Ashley's comment about assuming the reader knows most of what's going on. Zelazny is a good example of this (and sometimes a challenging read in this respect), and then early William Gibson assumes you know way more than you do, forcing you to take his world for granted and move on with the story. But it is true it takes balance and perseverance to figure out how much to put in. I think you're better off leaving a little too much out, because if the story intrigues an editor he/she may ask for more background, whereas if you've got too much fat you run the risk of confusing or boring him/her. My two cents.


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