Ed’s Casual Friday: In Defense of Infodumping

dumpLadies and Gentlemen, if it pleases the court, allow me to say a few words on behalf of the condemned – the much maligned and detested “Infodump.” Just a few final words before “Dumpy,” as he is known among friends, is marched off to his execution by firing squad.

First, I’d like to repeat the assertion that what we have here may in part be a case of mistaken identity. It was not so long ago that “infodump” was a very specific term, meaning only the particular type of exposition where two or more characters are telling each other stuff that they should already know. It was most common in play- and screenwriting, and actually is pretty much how Anton Chekov starts all his plays, The Cherry Orchard included. Though nobody bats an eye when Lyuba is walking toward the door and Lopakhin tells Dunyasha, who have both known Lyuba their whole lives: “She’s lived abroad for five years…She’s a fine woman. Easy, straightforward.”

More recently, however, “infodump” has come to be virtually synonymous with any exposition, or at least synonymous with any exposition the reader doesn’t enjoy reading. At which point, said reader wails, “This is infodumping! Eww!” Which is fine. Words can change meaning over the years, or else I missed a lot of subtext while Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were having a “gay old time.”

But here’s the thing. Like most writing advice, NEVER INFODUMP is a terrible suggestion if it is taken to extremes, and particularly if “infodump” is understood to mean all exposition and back-story in general. Similarly, “Write what you know” is awful advice, if you take it to mean women can’t write male characters, only killers can write murder mysteries, or that your main character should spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in front of a computer…writing.

In the same way, telling a writer not to use exposition is like telling a surgeon not to use suction before getting in there with a scalpel.  Some amount of exposition is going to be necessary in almost any genre, and some are going to require a rather hefty amount. If you’ve got a murder mystery set in New York, that’s fine. I have an idea of what “New York” is, and saying how much the Dutch paid the Lenape Indians for Manhattan may not add a lot to the story (though it could). But if the adventurers are headed to the magical city of Foosawhoosal, you gotta give me something. Othewise it just looks like you dropped your coffee cup on your keyboard.

And thus: Exposition. Often the shortest route from point A to point B; point A being where the reader is when they open the book, point B being where you as an author want them so they can follow the story. Or else all your lovely characterization and plot twists and slam-bang action sequences are just floating in the ether. So you know what? Dump some info if you need to.

Now, please don’t take that to mean I’m recommending just thumping a block of data down on the page – write it, for crying out loud. Make it as entertaining and interesting as you can manage, but don’t leave out the exposition just because you think it will slow things down. If it’s doing that, then write it better. Yes, badly written exposition sucks. But so do badly written car chases, exploding supertankers, dialogue, and sex scenes.

In closing, before “Dumpy” takes his last, Green Mile of a walk, a personal plea from me, as a reader more than a writer. If I am reading a book, nine times out of ten it is because I’m looking for a deeper experience than I’m likely to get from a half-hour sitcom or a Hollywood blockbuster. There is a place for those things, just as there is a place for all sorts of “light” reads, but that does not mean that only things which the Least Common Denominator might find appealing should be out there. One person’s “infodumping” may be another person’s “world-building,” and if it is done well it can be the thing that lingers on long after the witty one-liners have been forgotten. I like a book with depth and breadth, where I know the author is striving for something more than just a “good read.” And when the author manages to get there, that is the kind of book that I love, now and forever.

Yes, we all want to make money as writers, and any number of people will tell you the best way to do that is to keep everything simple and tell a fast-paced, action-packed story that anybody can like. Even if they are in a semi-vegetative state. Maybe the people telling you that are right. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe, just maybe, you are better off writing a book with some sections that a casual reader might skim, rather than writing a book with nothing of interest to someone who does not just read casually.

Dump some info on me. I’m a grown-up, and I can take it.

———————–

As always in closing, an excerpt from an actual one star review. This one seemed apropos. 😉

“This book is so boring that Marky Mark spends a whole chapter describing how Tom got the other kids to paint a fence for him. That is how dull this book is. THEY PAINT FENCES.”
(from a real one-star review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.)

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M. Edward McNally is the author of the Norothian Cycle books: The Sable City, Death of a Kingdom, and The Wind from Miilark, and multiple free short story volumes titled Eddie’s Shorts. He has been writing for twenty of the last thirty years and does not recommend the ten year spell of writer’s block in the middle. Ed is a contributor at Indies Unlimited (IU Bio Page) and tilts at his own windmills over at http://sablecity.wordpress.com/

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Author: M. Edward McNally

Epic fantasy author M. Edward McNally is a North Carolinian of Irish/Mexican extraction. He has a Masters in English Lit from ISU and Russian/East European History from ASU. He grew up mostly in the Midwest along I-35 northbound (KS, IA, MN), and now resides in the scrub brush surrounding Phoenix AZ, where the scorpions and javelinas play. Learn more about Ed at his blog, and his Amazon author page.

33 thoughts on “Ed’s Casual Friday: In Defense of Infodumping”

  1. I'm enjoying your witty writing, Ed. Lots of flavor!

    Authors, show restraint with your backstory exposition, please! Just a sporadic and light sprinkling will do, once your story is already underway. A tall bulldozed wall of it – especially when it dams up the entrance to a tale – makes me toss my curiosity shovel aside and go watch TV. 😉

    Russil
    http://QuirkEbooks.com

    1. Thanks, Russil, though I have to politely disagree with a bit of your comment. I personally have no problem with backstory and exposition, if they are done well, as they can add depth and scope to a story. Trying to avoid them altogether just on principle is a recipe for a shallow story, and while shallow stories are fine, they should not be all there is.

  2. The most egregious info dumping I've seen is in Ernest Cline's READY PLAYER ONE. A huge percentage of that book is nothing but him explaining his setups. Yet he HAS to do this or the action will be unintelligible. And the book is a best seller, it is doing fine.

    If a writer knows how to use words, exposition is restful. It does require readers to show some skill and patience.

  3. Fridays are my favorite day. 🙂

    I agree with what you said here (and I love the way you said it). I especially like the last couple of paragraphs. I hadn't thought of things that way, as a writer, though the reader in me knows just what you mean.

  4. I have seen good and bad dumping. I am writing a fantasy under another name which has a three page dump in the beginning.

    I can't handle BIG dumps, though. I have a very short attention span. Must. Read. Simple. Sentences.

  5. Love your play with words. As for the info (sic) I agree to a point. But I think the secret is balance and respect. We need to respect our audience and find a balance between too little and too much info.

    1. True that, though the "respect" of the audience can take different forms. Trusting readers to be able to follow a complex narrative, vs. not using long words so nobody feels inadequate. 😉

  6. Not only is this an excellent and entertaining post, but you've managed to enlist the help of the literary equivalent of the Innocence Project and singlehandedly saved Dumpy from Ol' Sparky, my friend!

      1. Ha, and next thing you know, he'll want a book deal with movie option, a guest spot on Jersey Shore giving Snooki a foot massage while drinking camel urine, followed by the inevitable and painfully public struggle with substance abuse and soon we'll be cursing your name, McNally!

  7. Loved it! I think we need to do all things in moderation, not stop them completely, whether it's passive verbs, info dump, 'ing' or 'ly' words, exclamation marks. They all have their place and if we avoid them altogether our writing can lose its flow. And sometimes there's just no other way to say "it was". Boring is the one thing to avoid at all costs. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who feels this way.

  8. The problem with these 'rules' is this: if they had been adhered to throughout history, we would never have had some of the most amazing books we now have on our shelves.

    Everything in its place and in moderation – including "infodumping"! And long may us readers take the risks in our reading, in deference to many great risk-taking authors!

    1. I don't know, that's kind of like choosing between a kick in the groin or a poke in the eye. 😉

      I'd humbly submit that any writer who can't write both good exposition and good dialogue might have a ways to go before they're ready to put anything "out there."

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