Tuesday, April 27, 2010

World-Building 201: How to eliminate the info-dump

Now you've got your setting, your thinking about the appropriate mood and tone to bring it to life, the details that make it ring true, all the ways to build the world your characters will take action within. How do you do it? How do you take the whole depth of a created world, or the rich history of a city, a small town -- a character, for that matter -- and pass everything on to your reader so they know it as well as you do?

This, in my opinion, is the greatest skill one can learn from world-building. One can't go hurling an entire fantasy world, its cultures, histories, and beliefs at a reader alongside the background, temperaments, and goals of half a dozen characters all at once. This very problem can be blamed, in part, for fantasy's reputation for the dreaded long-winded prologue spewing out Everything You Need to Know before you actually care about it. At the same time though, the need to learn so much creates in both fantasy writers and readers a fine sense of the subtle cues and hints one can find in the text. There's a joy to developing a world-building skillset, to finding puzzle pieces and putting them together to build the whole. It's a skill that transfers to absolutely every genre of fiction.

Burying and Scattering
If you've got something you need to explain, especially if it's lengthy, start early and plant many seeds. Drop remarks, narrative asides, hints of history or context, into the narrative action. Embed them in what's going on rather than stop to mention them, and while the reader won't even notice them, they'll remember them. Or rather, they'll notice them and know they're being told something, but they're also being told something when you say "Alice snatched the kitchen knife and thrust it into the empty space between them." That is important information, relevant to the scene and necessary for the story. If you say Alice snatched her favourite kitchen knife, or that she thrust it up as she'd seen him do numerous times before, that's a remark that will stand out and stick with the reader. That's something worth knowing. If you decide to expound at length on Alice's history of being on the other end of such knives, hoping to add resonance to this scene, it will in fact do the opposite. To see the hint and wonder carries so much more power -- and tension. Now you've given us something else we want to know and we'll keep looking for hints, and keep reading, to find it. Scatter enough of these seeds around, and within a few chapters we'll know everything you do, or enough to fill in the blanks according to our own tastes, and look, we never even got lectured at!

Character context
How you plant your world-building seeds may be the difference between lecture and hiding in plain sight. Remember, even in a third person narrative, your characters already know things. In a contemporary setting, you wouldn't describe Alice getting into the car, putting the key in the ignition, and then pause to explain how a car works. We know it, and more importantly she knows it. Or, more accurately, we probably don't know the fine details of how, but we know it does, and we accept it as fact and don't think about it. The same is true of things we don't know, if the character still believes them. If you're introducing a new concept, culture, vampire healing factor, or just something you didn't know but the character did and now you've done tons of research on it, think about it from the character's point of view. Dashing alpha cops don't think about what's going on inside a pistol when they fire it, they just aim and shoot.

If Alice's fantasy counterpart goes to hire a scribe, she won't pause to think "We need scribes because not everyone can read and write on their own." She might, however, think the scribes in this part of town are growing mighty fat because they're the only ones who can read and write. One throws information at you, the other slips it in amid other narrative. Actually, that example does two jobs in one by slipping in info about scribes and also that the uneducated class live in a different part of town than those who can read. Both are world-building info, but together, they don't feel like info, because they come from the character's own voice and views.

If you really need to get a chunk of vital information across, either about your world, your characters, or both, you can always dramatize it. Make it a scene, make it a character changing moment, and it will have value. Alice can watch the vampires at their rituals rather than telling us about them, or perhaps she can perform a little scientific analysis on their tissue and discover for herself how they heal so rapidly. Likewise, Alice could have a spitting and snarling fight with her old flame about the way he used to treat her and why she'd be compelled to pull a kitchen knife on him now. Again, remember to hang on to character context. Alice and her former flame won't stop to explain details, they'll make references to events they already know exist. Likewise characters in a fantasy novel won't talk about famous events, cultural lore, or religious tales as something that needs explaining. You can reference Romeo and Juliet, I can reference Cyreon and Amaris, and through the context of a conversation (a couple, love, potential loss) we'll both know the meaning. If it's an unknown reference, you just might want to drop another line or two in elsewhere to flesh out the context if a reader might be curious.

The big thing to look out for with dramatizing information is the verbal infodump: As you know, Bob. The proverbial Bob, it seems, knows enough about everything, but people keep feeling the need to remind him. Although Bob already knows it, they'll explain to him how a shotgun works, or how bone priests work their magic, or where the Vega planet orbits within the solar system and how long ago it was discovered. I fell into a similar trap a while back, working on a scene ostensibly about a job offer, but also helping to shed more light on a significant amount of information readers need to be armed with soon after. The first draft of the scene wandered horribly off the mark as one character dispensed information left, right, and centre, regardless of whether my protag knew it or cared. It's one thing to write a long-winded character who talks without caring whether someone wants to know. It's another when it's obvious Mr Long-Wind is talking to the reader. After a bit of fighting I realized the problem: I was focusing on the info, and not the scene. The purpose of the scene was negotiating the job. All I needed to give was info relevant to the job. If it's not enough, in the end, I'll have an entire draft to go scatter more hints through, and I bet I won't even need them.

The Iceberg Effect
By now you might be thinking, "But I put so much time and effort into building these characters, this world, how can I possibly show it all to my readers this way?" It's simple -- you can't. And really, you shouldn't want to. If the reader knows everything you do, suddenly they'll see the boundaries of your world and the extent of your character. As I discussed in World-Building 101, the key is to make the world feel alive, as though it will just keep going after you close the book, and those characters will go on with their lives. I think this is also why some HEA endings fall flat, when it feels like not just the story, but their existence as people, ends at that last page. You want to bury your seeds throughout the book, drop hints in narrative, shed light in scenes and dialogue, but let the fine details rest with you. You'll talk about it knowing there's more, and the characters will convey the same feeling, so your readers will be left with the feeling they've only scratched the surface.

Think of it like an iceberg. If we see the whole mass, it's big, and that's about it. If we see the tip floating above the water, and that hint of how much more might be lurking beneath, it becomes ominous, unsettling. It's the same reason good horror movies don't show all of the monster (including the zipper running up its back). As soon as you show it all, you've got nothing left. The loss of mystery takes away some of the magic, the alchemy of taking text and ideas and turning them into living, aching, intangible beings. More than that, only showing your readers hints of the world you've built, the parts that poke through the soil, allows them to connect the pieces together. The same as spelling out every detail of a character's appearance can alienate a reader from identifying with them, laying down every nuance of a world, or a backstory, removes the reader's chance to interpret for themselves. Show us what we absolutely need to know, and let us draw the pattern of things according to our own preferences. We'll become invested in the story for it.

Next time, I'll share some examples of seeding your world-building into the narrative, since showing always surpasses telling. For this week, I'd like to hear your world-building (or character building) quandaries. What's a tough challenge you overcame without infodumping? What about information you just don't believe there's another way to dispense? Share your problems and let's find some solutions!


Missed the earlier posts?
~The Rules of Magic
~World-Building 101


Celia Yeary said...

JANA--I'll need to return and read this more thoroughly. It's very early here, and my brain doesn't absorb much until I've had more coffee. I like the planting the seed idea--good hint. And Inotice you have earlier posts--Back later--Celia

Liz Fichera said...

Loved your "Everything You Need to know before you actually care about it" line. That is so true.

Another pet peeve is when stories do an info dump of a character's characteristics. I prefer to read (and write) them in small bits throughout a story and weave them in. I don't need to know about all of Character X's vitals on the first page because I don't care about him/her yet.

Another informative post. I'm enjoying this series. Thanks!

Jennie Marsland said...

What an amazing post! I'll have to go back and read the others. There's a whole lot of food for thought here, and you're right - it applies to all genres.

connie said...

Hi Jana

I am about to move all three articles to a permanent file. There is a lot of info here but definitely not an info dump
Have you thought about putting it together and writing a non-fiction on the subject? You explain everything so clearly
thanks for a terrific blog

Anita Mae Draper said...

Okay, I know I've been in my cave for a week, but I'm confused here... Hayley, this is your post, right? Or did I miss something?

And I'm glad I read this first because I came to my computer this morning to write my Thurs post and the topic was going to be on backstory and foreshadowing. Hmmm... I'll have to wait for your next post first.

Excellent post, btw. Good job!


Karyn Good said...

Excellent post, Hayley. So much to consider when creating a world (in any genre) that shows the reader rather then hurls things at them. I love the concrete advice of allowing the reader to infer certain things and to 'fill in the blanks according to their tastes'. I think that's very important.

Your post made me think - thank you - about my new wip. For example: why is Seth drawn to Aspen Lake? Why escape to a small town? What is it about this 'world' that calls to him, a 22 yr old single man? And the bigger question: Once there, why stay? besides the obvious reason of falling in love with the heroine (which isn't a good enough reason in my opinion). What customs and rituals of small town living resonate with him, a city boy? And how to show it to the reader?

Oops, rattled on there a bit. Thanks for prompting me to think and ask myself questions!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, I'm slightly confused as well ;) Yep, it's my series, my day, etc.

If you have a different approach to backstory and the like, I'd love to hear it. There's no one way to do these things.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Celia, I hope the series will be helpful to you! The rest aren't quite so long, I assure you ;)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Liz, I agree, I can't care that soon about a character and then be expected to hang on to all their details. I'm bad enough in real life at hanging on to people's names unless I see them several times (I think my facial recognition skills need an upgrade or something) so expecting me to take in all of a character in one fat paragraph at the beginning... aint gonna happen! As you say, we need to care first, otherwise it means nothing.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thank you Jennie, I hope you'll find the others as useful. I've tried to keep things relevant to multiple genres and sub-genres, but some things (like magic) just don't pop up everywhere :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Connie, to be perfectly honest, the thought actually crossed my mind while I was writing this last night. Or rather it crossed my mind as "Geez, if I were writing this in a book I've have so much more space... but I'd probably need to be more concise."

Teaching I may shrink from, but I could certainly enjoy running a workshop or expanding all this rambling into something useful like a writing book. I'll wait until I sell my own stuff first though, and then people can clamor for it ;)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, I love those points. That's a great way of approaching the issue, finding what about that setting resonates with him rather than creating arbitrary reasons. Perhaps it's the wilderness, rather than the small town life, that calls to him.

And you've reminded me of an example I want to include in the next post, on the topic of building a setting through the character's voice.

Helena said...

Hayley, I knew this was you (topic and style, etc.) but was beginning to wonder why others didn't. Oh, well.

You definitely have my ear today. Whether it's a fantasy world created by Hayley, or a world created for my story of a woman with a past, whose daughter unwittingly brings that past to light, how the characters and the reader eventually get all the info needed to make sense of the situation is so vitally important. My revision will be an extremely interesting process, because I think I have info-dumps everywhere, sometimes conveying the same info! In one character's thoughts, in a scene with a friend, a re-hash by someone who has just found out some piece of the puzzle, etc. To wrangle all the threads into a skein of organized hints and clues that come about naturally is the assignment I see ahead.

My draft has been done in fits and starts, and that's one reason it's such a tangle, but I look forward to deciding what and how much should go where and when.

Excellent post, and the timing of it is spot on for me.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Helena, I thought of your WIP when I got into dialogue. The scene we critiqued at the last meeting was a great example of character context. Neither of them stopped to explain to the other what had happened, they just kept talking about it, making references that meant something to them ("the castle" rather than naming it) and kept going.

Infodumping is absolutely fine, sometimes necessary in a first draft. I had several massive sections where essentially I'd gotten to the point where I needed to figure something out for myself so I could continue writing about it. Once it's all down, you think "There, now the reader knows" and continue with no more urge to explain. After that, it's just a matter of taking out or rewriting the infodumping, and keeping all those other references. You'll be acting not as though the reader already knows, but as though the characters know (which they do) and so have no reason to explain things. After that, if anything is too vague or under explained, well that's what beta readers are for :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I'd like to take credit for your excellent post, but I cannot tell a lie. It's your day Hayley!

I think the most trouble I had with world building and info dumping was with my novella "Burning Love" because of the "other-world" factor. A couple of my characters are angels who work in the relationship division of Heaven. It was very tempting to dump all the information about them and the rules of Heaven in one massive lump, and I'm pretty sure I did that in the first draft. Eventually, I spread out information to subsequent chapters, included context within dialogue, and generally tried to unlump the info dump.

It's not just fantasy or paranormal where the info dump happens. In a mystery or romantic suspense where a lot has happened in the past, or in a contemporary with a complicated backstory or character, the urge is to lay out everything you think the reader needs to know. But you are perfectly right. The reader is actually more hooked if they aren't told everything, and some details are left to their imaginations.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thanks Jana!

I don't read as much in romance genres, but when I studied those several Harlequins for a gender studies research paper, I noticed the old Presents stories would go like clockwork from the heroine getting off a train, out of a car, or walk up to a door to knock, and then THUNK the next three pages would go explain all the hard things she suffered through to lead up to this point... and then none of that ever got mentioned again because we 'know it' now. Infodumping can definitely become rampant in any genre, and with different means. At least fewer romance novels have overlong prologues ;)